Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage in the UK

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Tuesday 6th February marks some 100 years since some British women were guaranteed the right to vote. The representation of people act was passed in February 1918 and gave women over the age of 30, and ‘with property’ the opportunity to cast their votes for the first time.

Until 1918 women had far fewer freedoms and rights than men, effectively making them second-class citizens in Britain. At a stroke, 40% of British women were enfranchised.

Despite the lack of breadth, the historic legislation paved the way toward universal suffrage a decade later. By 1928 under the equal franchise act, women in the UK were granted equal voting rights.

The Suffragists were behind the campaign for change. They were a predominantly middle-class group of women, mostly campaigning under traditional, non-violent forms of protest. They collectivised under demonstrations galvanised by a group called the National Federation of Women Workers. This side was peaceful. Though the Suffragettes were a fragmented organisation. A darker, militant side existed who took a more violent approach in bringing about change, executing hunger strikes, and carrying out arson and firebomb attacks to promote their message.

1918 was the catalyst, a wrecking ball that came to jolt society out of its one-sidedness.

Some have called it early forms of terrorism, with the historian Simon Webb writing in an article for Sky News that in the years leading up to the First World War, “Suffragettes conducted a ferocious and prolonged bombing campaign across the whole of the UK; planting improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) in places as varied as Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, the National Gallery, railway stations and many other locations.”

Post 1918 the intellectual (and in some cases violent) revolution rapidly became a political one, as Britain absorbed ideas about gender equality and the purpose of political representation. 1918 was the catalyst, a wrecking ball that came to jolt society out of its one-sidedness. The legislation was passed soon after that allowed women to stand for parliament. Whilst 99 in 100 candidates that stood in the following general election were men, one woman prevailed to take a historic seat in the commons. Nancy Astor, a conservative MP had described herself as an “ardent feminist.”

Things would never be the same again, but the job was far from done. After 100 years, women remain underrepresented in Parliament, making up just 32% of the total 650 members. The UK ranks 39th for representation in Parliament.

More work is to be done in the upper echelons of the advertising industry too. Because for all the talk of diversity, the industry remains a bastion for white male privilege. In recent years, however, there has been some impressive initiatives that have catalysed change. This Girl Can, Real Beauty, Like a Girl; #metoo, #everydaysexism, #shepersisted; WACL, Bloom and SheSays are all doing much to tackle the issues and provide support, mentoring and networks for women in and out of the industry.

At Advertising Week Europe 2018, in London, starting on March 19th we’ve laid on a selection of panels commemorating and throwing light on what happened in 1918. We’ll be looking at both sides of the coin, hearing from leading adland voices to discuss man’s place in our industry and the role of men in the future of advertising.

Women’s activist and granddaughter of cornerstone figure in the Suffragettes, Helen Pankhurst will be in conversation with Lisa Smosmarski, Editor-in-Chief of Shortlist Media. Women’s equality activists frequently tell her “I’m doing what I’m doing because my grandmother fought for the vote and thought your grandmother was amazing.”’

The Pankhurst’s were an enormously influential family whose campaign changed women’s lives all over the world.

Helen Pankhurst will be on stage Tuesday 20th March.

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