Reports and Campaigns
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TV review: Suffragettes Forever!
Katrine Williams of Cardiff Socialist Party reviews BBC TV's 'Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power'
This series of three programmes is worth catching on BBC iPlayer. It tries to put the struggle for the vote in the context of the position of women in society and the struggle of women over centuries to assert their rights.
The presenter, Professor Amanda Vickery, clearly sees that this battle continues today. She considers the battle for the vote, as did the working class suffragist movement, not as an end in itself but as a means to an end - to continue the battle for equality and better conditions through the political route as well.
The programme clearly shows the physical repression of women with the use of the scold's bridle (a kind of iron muzzle) and the legal position of married women as the property of their husbands.
The phrase 'rule of thumb' comes from the definition of the width of stick that husbands were once reputedly allowed to beat their wives with. In fact this legal view of women as property meant that rape in marriage only became illegal as recently as 1991!
All these issues were raised when the Socialist Party's predecessor, Militant, initiated the Campaign against Domestic Violence, which, among other things, got every major national trade union to adopt a policy on domestic violence. It is good to see the oppression of women covered in the mainstream media.
The programme has interesting coverage of the role of ordinary women in struggle. From the radical Levellers marching to Cromwell's parliament demanding to be heard, to the women particularly targeted and attacked by troops in the 1819 Peterloo massacre, to the Bryant and May women workers in 1888.
The key role that the women workers at this match factory played in taking strike action and highlighting the appalling and dangerous working conditions and pay is emphasised. This was a victory for collective action and established the right of these women to form a trade union and increase wages.
However, mass involvement of working class women in the suffragist movement and their collective action demanding the vote gets no coverage in the third episode.
All attention is paid to the Women and Social Political Union and the role of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the militant suffragettes.
The horrendous treatment of the suffragettes by the state before World War One is clearly shown. But as soon as the war was declared in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst jingoistically championed the war effort.
The programme does not consider the social background to the vote being given in 1918 on a limited basis to 8.4 million women, and also extended to five million men. This is unsurprising - the BBC would not publicise the fact that when the working class starts moving into struggle it can bring about social change and force concessions from the ruling class. The Russian revolution in 1917 terrified the ruling class worldwide and increased workers' confidence to struggle.
The series ends even more disappointingly, looking at 1980s Tory Prime Minister Thatcher's role and whether that helped advance women's struggle for equality. You may not want to watch the last 15 minutes. They are painful, with coverage of Thatcher and an interview with Kirsty Wark who admits that Thatcher did little to advance things for women but claiming that her reform of the trade unions was not a bad thing!
The programme ends with an example of more recent attitudes. It highlights the furore over the campaign for a woman to appear on the bank note and the fact that Labour MP Stella Creasy was bombarded with rape threats for championing this.
Working class women know first-hand the attitudes existing in society and that we need to keep fighting. This series gives some useful information and background, but no way forward. Women are already involved in the real battles to defend jobs, services and our communities.
We will fight on to get a better future, more than just a woman on a banknote. We have even more to gain from fighting to change this unequal class society and build a socialist world where the 99% have a decent future.
It Doesn't Have to be Like This
Women and the struggle for socialism
by Christine Thomas £5.99 + p&p
Striking a Light
The Bryant and May matchwomen and their history
by Louise Raw £16.99 + p&p
Available from Left Books,
PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD
020 8988 8789
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