Today is the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women in America the right to vote. But this was no passive movement – women fought hard resorting to protests, hunger strikes and even acts of vandalism to secure their vote. They owed a lot of their success to their sisters across the pond, who inspired them through their own passionate battle for suffrage rights. Their efforts would not pay off until 1928, when all women were granted the vote in the United Kingdom (In 1918, it was just extended to women over the age of 30 if they were householders, married to a householder or if they held a university degree).
Last year, I reported on the 100th anniversary of a major women’s suffrage parade in Edinburgh. As we celebrate the wonderful achievements of America’s early feminists today, we should also honor the spirit of 20th century Scottish feminists. Moreover, we all need to realize that the battle for gender equality in Scotland is far from over.
View my story below. It appeared on the Scottish American Society website on Oct 12, 2009.
EDINBURGH – Flora Drummond was a sight to behold on the morning of October 9th, 1909.
Carrying a whip and dressed in a purple and white military uniform, the Scottish suffragette – aptly nicknamed the “General” – led hundreds of women in a march through the city of Edinburgh to demand the right to vote. Thousands of spectators looked on in wonder at the sea of flags, bagpipes and floats; many more stared in astonishment at the sight of Drummond riding her horse astride rather than sidesaddle.
But never the kind to conform to antiquated notions of modesty, Drummond and her sisters of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant suffragette organization, would continue to shock the patriarchal establishment by burning and destroying government property and staging hunger strikes in prison. In this way suffragettes differentiated themselves from women suffragists, who used more peaceful methods to fight for the vote.
Nevertheless, suffragists were invited to participate in the march as well. Both camps’ efforts would pay off in 1928 when British women finally were granted the right to vote on the same terms as men.
Now on the 100th anniversary of the procession, Scottish feminists are paying tribute to these women by holding workshops, theatre performances and forums across the country.
Most recently on October 10th, about 3,000 men and women reenacted the event by marching in Edinburgh with banners and signs reading “Votes for Women” and “Equal Pay.”
Channeling the spirit of Drummond, most of the demonstrators wore purple, green and white scarves, sashes and ribbons – the colors of the WSPU; many also donned Victorian and Edwardian costumes.
But while all had come to celebrate the suffragettes’ achievements, the march also stressed the need for women to keep exercising their political strength.
“An article came out in 2007 just before the [Scottish] parliamentary elections that suggested that women were not turning out to vote and not engaging in the political process,” said procession coordinator Fiona Skillen of Gude Cause, the organization that planned the event and which takes its name from a suffragette slogan. “We wanted to really do something to encourage women to engage in the political process again, celebrate women’s history and mark the centennial of the event.
Gude Cause invited numerous women’s organizations to march; their banners and flags highlighted the contemporary issues affecting Scotland: “The problem of inequality in the workplace, conflict resolution, violence against women, human trafficking….These are issues that I think some people are oblivious to or they think that because of past legislation the problems have been solved, but that is far from the case,” said Skillen.
Indeed, women in Scotland still face a number of economic, social and political hurdles. They suffer a 17-18 percent pay gap from men – a statistic lamented by dozens of young school girls who partook in Saturday’s procession singing “We work all day, we get less pay” to the tune of Snow White’s High Ho.
More shockingly, the rape conviction rate sits at just 3.9 percent – one of the lowest in the world; and one out of two boys and one out of three girls believe there are some situations when it is ok to hit or force sex on a woman, according to the feminist organization Engender.
Lily Greenan of Scottish Women’s Aid, an anti-domestic violence lobbying group, sported a purple sash with the phrase “This is What a Feminist Looks Like.” She hoped the march would inspire change and advocacy: “I think that some of this is a celebration. It’s a way to say ‘hey, we’ve done a hundred years of work and its gone really well,’ but it’s also a way of saying we still do have a really long way to go and women are not fully co-participants in society – certainly not in this society.”
It’s a sympathy shared by Scottish Parliament member (MSP) Fiona Hyslop. She addressed the procession’s concluding rally on Calton Hill, which overlooks the site of a former prison that once held the suffragette Ethel Moorhead.
Hyslop bemoaned the low percentage of female MSPs, which she said has dropped in the last ten years from about 40 to 33 percent today. But while stressing the need for more political participation by women, she acknowledged that the suffragettes would have been proud of modern-day feminists’ accomplishments.
“Ethel was jailed in Calton Jail on the ground now where the Scottish government has its seat and where I now have an office,” said Hyslop to the cheering and singing crowd. “I think Ethel and her sisters would be quite pleased that a hundred years on we have women MPs in a Scottish parliament and we have women ministers in that place that used to be Calton Jail.”
Commemorations of Scotland’s suffragette history will continue through the rest of the year; an exhibition showcasing their struggle is on display in the Museum of Edinburgh until January 9 2010.
View more of my stories at my personal website, www.ChristinaPaschyn.com.
[Photo Credits: All by Christina Paschyn]