An anarchist responds to the guilt-tripping of women which occurs every election time about how suffragettes fought for women’s’ right to vote.
It’s election time again, and anarchist women are once more being lectured on doing our duty to those who died for our vote.
For the record, the suffragettes’ demand was that women should be balloted wherever men were. They weren’t fighting for every woman in perpetuity to be guilt-tripped into supporting any political system that used the ballot box to legitimise itself. They trusted future women to make their own decisions. Sylvia Pankhurst, for one, lived to reject parliamentary democracy as an “out of date machine” and refused to cast a vote or stand for election herself. This election, she’d be angry with every party’s participation in cuts to essential women’s services, not the women who spoil their ballots or stay away.
There was a lot more to the suffragettes than just the vote. They were about women’s solidarity, our ability to work and fight together, to write and speak from our own experience, not just on the vote but on sexual, social and vocational freedoms, like fair pay and reproductive rights. Being denied the vote was an insult to women as intelligent, rational human beings, regardless of how much use the vote itself was. Using the vote was almost beside the point compared to what it would mean for women to have the vote, to not be seen as mere extensions of their husbands.
Getting the vote was a victory largely because of what women achieved through the process of fighting for it. The speeches, publications, smashed windows, battles with police, martial arts training, imprisonments, hunger strikes, resistance to force-feeding and refusal to give in: these did more to raise the status and confidence of women, as public and political people, than the vote itself ever has. Much more than having women MPs or careerists who have cynically used women’s struggles to promote themselves.
Telling us that we have to vote because votes for women were hard won, is condescending, paternalistic shit. Working class men also fought for the right to vote, but are much less criticised if they suggest that there are more effective means of change than the ballot box. For women, voting is turned into an issue of conformity rather than conscience, in direct opposition to who suffragettes were and what they fought for. The suffragettes never intended their campaigning to stop with getting the vote. Many continued fighting when their leaders were co-opted. They weren’t satisfied, and they didn’t intend us to be.
The suffragettes achieved their aims because they were a radical, inspirational and effective direct action movement. They achieved incredible things for themselves and for future generations of women. Yes, they deserve our respect and our gratitude. But more than that, they deserve our study and our effort to comprehend the full enormity and complexity of their struggle. They deserve better than to be reduced to a single-issue sound-bite.
So this polling day, whether you vote or organise or both, consider honouring the suffragettes’ memory by not using them as a stick to beat women with when they treat their vote exactly as the suffragettes did: as their own, to use or not, on their own terms.