The Uncomfortable Truth About 1918


6th February marked 100 years since the Representation of the People Act granted women the right to vote. And as the masses celebrate, I'm left with a distaste in my mouth. The Act's terms were that women over 30 received the vote if they were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. Which in short meant, white and of a higher class. Essentially, privileged.

Now, before I carry on, I honour the fact that this moment in history is pivotal in the battle for equality; and is able to provide us with a moment of retrospection to look at how far we've come in terms of the right to vote in Britain.

However, the uncomfortable truth is that this right wasn't granted to my predecessors. And in fact, the feminist ancestors' that are saluted for their actions weren't in support of my black female right to vote or the working-class women's vote.

While, the suffrage movement and the suffragists, weren't the only people who fought for the right to vote, they're the most notorious campaigners of that time. But what is more interesting is the stance they took on campaigning for the rights of working-class women and the women of colour.

Historian, Katherine Connelly told Refinery 29, "Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst moved away from wanting to include working-class women towards a more elitist ethos. They dismissed working class women as the weakest in society and the least educated, while realising that enlisting middle class women [to perform militant acts] got them more press coverage, made a bigger splash.”

Ok. So, no working-class women because they wouldn't make the front page. As someone who understands the world of marketing and creating a buzz, their reasoning, somewhat understandable. But where were the women of colour?

It's important to note that unlike America the population of black and brown women wasn't as sizeable. However, there was a small black population in the early 20th century, who were mainly centred in London.

There are historical records (a famous photo) of Indian women taking part in the organised processions of the suffragette movement. However, Dr Sumita Mukherjee points out, "it was almost like they were parading these women, to demonstrate the influence they [the suffragettes] wanted to have over empire.”

But what is striking, is the recorded views of some suffragists and suffragettes. With many wanting the vote so that they could have influence over what happened across the British Empire and/or expressing outrage that women of colour in other countries were granted the vote before white women in Britain.

Admittedly none of this surprises me. Based on the social attitudes of the early 19th century, I wouldn't expect much else. People of colour were seen as inferior - this is a known fact, so  to assume that the suffragettes weren't a product of their racist culture would be disingenuous.

But my disdain comes from the fact that we see 1918 as a moment of universal equality for women.

So, while I can accept and praise the fact that (upper-class and educated) women (who were likely to be white just based on those two points) were granted the right to vote, let's all remember this 'right' was a luxury that all didn't have.

As for America, the 19th amendment was adopted on August 18, 1920. But in some Southern states, African American women were unable to freely exercise their right to vote up until the 1960s. We'll just have to wait till 2060 for that one.


Article by: Lauren Nicole Coppin Campbell

Founder and editor of Fashion