Lots of headlines this week about it being one hundred years since women got the vote.
The first thing that has got me riled is that it is not correct. Only a very specific group of women got the vote on 6 February 1918; you had to be over thirty and own property of a value of over five pounds, or had a husband who did. It was another decade before women got the vote on an equal footing to men. In 1918 any woman under the age of thirty who didn’t own property worth five pounds was persona non grata as far voting was concerned. Heck, we don’t want someone who might not agree with us voting. That would be disaster. So we shall allow the rich women who should be old enough or rich enough to know better to vote, or if they don’t know better then their rich husbands can tell them, because women should always do what men tell them.
I cannot help but wonder if British men were feeling a little threatened in 1918. 700,000 of their number had been killed in the First World War. That was just over 11.5% of the six million British men mobilised. I have seen comments along the lines of “that’s not very many”. Perhaps not in comparison to the bloodbath that came just over twenty years later, but 700,000 is a large number however which way you cut it. Everyone must have known someone who died in the war. Perhaps people were feeling pretty vulnerable, and maybe men in particular when they came back to a country that had been run whilst they were away. Hands up who knows who was holding the fort back home during the First World War? Anyone? Anyone at all? Yes, you at the back.
It wasn’t until 2 July 1928 that Royal Assent was given to the Act that gave all women over the age of twenty one the right to vote. My grandmother had not long celebrated her first birthday when that Act was passed. I’m not really that old – my children told me only yesterday evening that it is only the wrinkles and that patch of grey hair at the front that make me look old – I just can’t hear that enough. So someone whose hand I held for the first twelve years of my life was born into a world that did not recognise her, her mother, or her sister as having any formal contribution to make at all. It was not considered that she had a contribution worth making. My grandmother was ten when it was decided that she might be able to be let loose in the ballot box with a pencil when she reached her majority.
It has also been one hundred years since women were allowed to practice law. The first female solicitor admitted to the Roll was Carrie Morrison in 1922. Miss Morrison had earned a first class degree from Cambridge University, but the university refused to award it to her because she did not have a penis. Or testicles. I don’t think that was specifically referred to in the official refusal but as the refusal was because Miss Morrison was a woman, that was what it amounted to however euphemistically it was phrased.
In 1913 the Law Society refused to allow Miss Morrison and three other women to sit the Law Society examinations. Had the Law Society been asked and had they had been minded to be so bloody unreasonable eighty six years later then I could have avoided a lot of stress and expense myself. Times had moved on and I, and all of my female peers were allowed to sit Law Society Finals with, and be judged on the same basis as, the males, which was all Miss Morrison et al wanted. The Court of Appeal upheld the Law Society’s 1913 decision with the judge ruling that (you’ll love this) women were not “persons” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843. Not persons. I bet they were persons for lots of other things, such as, oh I don’t know, bearing the next generation when the population had been literally decimated by war.
In 1919 the Sex Disqualification Act came into force and women were allowed to practice law. Presumably that is because women became persons within the Solicitors Act 1843 at that point. I wonder if becoming a “person” was like when The Doctor regenerates. Obviously being admitted as a solicitor was, and is not instantaneous, so when the law changed it took a very small number of women time to train and then be admitted hence Miss Morrison being admitted in 1922. If in 1922 a solicitor found themselves to be female, under thirty and not owning of property of five pounds or more then no voting for them, young lady. Practice law, yes. Voting, no.
There has also been much discussion about whether the suffragettes should be pardoned. The government has said that it is “complicated”. I’m not sure why it is complicated, but far be it from our elected public servants from explaining anything to us. Bless us, we probably wouldn’t understand anyway.
As we have already established, apart from one or two barely-noticeable wrinkles and a light peppering of grey hair that makes me look distinguished, I am not that old. As it happens I was poised to make my entry into the world a few months after the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 came into force. That was when it became illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their gender. Well it may have been on the statute book, but minds take a little longer to change than legislation.
About fifteen years ago I was introduced to someone at a dinner as an assistant solicitor and whilst sloshing a glass of red wine to and fro he uttered the immortal words “but you’re a girl.” I was one of very few women at said dinner, so I can only assume that he had thought I had been bussed in for his entertainment. He must have been bitterly disappointed when he realised that was not why I or any of the other women were there.
More recently I was told that my career was on hold whilst working part time. A seemingly outrageous and undisputedly, a discriminatory and illegal statement. However, as much as it pains me to say it, it was factually correct. Regardless of how good I was at my job or how much money I brought in there was no prospect of advancement when I was working part-time. Ever. I wonder for how many women this is a day to day reality.
The decision for me to work part-time was one of pure economics for us and I suspect is for many working families. Man of the House out-earned and had an ability to out-earn me by some considerable margin. And we did the same job. Almost precisely the same job. So are we to blame for perpetuating the cycle? Probably. Maybe I should have stood up for my gender by working full time and jumping up and down for more money. But should I have had to? We all need to feed and clothe our children and not at all oddly, we chose the kids.
I have no idea whether the suffragettes would want a posthumous pardon. I am particularly mindful of not falling into the trap of telling women what they should or shouldn’t want, posthumously or otherwise. The world they lived in thought it was an outrage for women to vote, be educated, think. That was and is something to be angry about. I am not sure how a pardon now makes that ludicrous line of thinking all right. Would it stop men in positions of power today from cornering women in hotel rooms because they think it’s their right to assault them? Would it stop men-only dinners where women are brought in with instructions not to wear too many clothes and cosmetic surgery is auctioned to “spice up your wife”? Women being paid less because……er…why are we paid less than men for doing the same job? Is it because we haven’t got a penis? Or testicles? That can’t be right. This is 2018. It’s ninety years since women got the vote, surely it cannot be that men are consistently paid more than women for having a Y chromosome?
Gather round people, we still have much to do.