A century of Scottish suffrage

Published

10 Oct 09 - Edinburgh Suffrage March for Guardian by Benzo Harris (1)

Jenny Langskog

Writer

It was a day that promised feelings of achievement and empowerment, and when thousands of men, women and children gathered on Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield Links, it certainly delivered on that promise. This celebration, and re-enactment of the march for women’s suffrage that took place in the city in 1909, was organised by the charity, Gude Cause, and saw people from all over Scotland take to the streets of the nation’s capital.

In homage to those who fought to achieve full political equality for women, participants dressed in the colours of the Suffragette Movement: purple, green and white. Elaborate banners and flags fluttered as animated chants and pounding drums made the day colourful, noisy and festive.

Gude Cause is an organisation which was created especially to plan and oversee the march, the name coming from a banner at the original event in 1909 which stated: “A Gude Cause Maks a Strong Arm”. The march was the culmination of a number of previous events, including banner-making classes, a panel discussion and a contribution at the Annual Scottish Women’s Aid Conference.

It was on October 9, 1909 that Scottish women first cut through Edinburgh’s narrow cobbled streets with the goal of heightening and intensifying the campaign for equal voting rights — a fight which was to last another nineteen years. Women over twenty-three were not given the vote in the UK until 1919, and women over twenty-one were not granted suffrage until 1923. It was only in 1928 that women were granted voting rights equal to those of men. Since then — through the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s — women’s activism has continued, with campaigns focusing on changing the law with regards to domestic violence, sexual assault and wage inequalities.

While the majority of those in attendance were women, people of all ages were present at the event, with elderly women revelling in the progress of social circumstances and small children marking the future of feminism. The range of issue groups, too, was broad. Young people campaigning for the voting age to be lowered to sixteen handed out leaflets, while political party members carried banners to show their support.

Despite the presence of many professional politicians, Peace and Justice Resource Centre member Janet Fenton insisted that it was “a day for politics but not party politics,” emphasising unity among women as a group and aiming to minimise any chance for divisions. If any divisions existed, they were not obvious on this day. It was particularly poignant that Falkirk and Labour MSP Cathy Peattie attended the rally not as an MSP but as a performer, singing “Bread and Roses” — a poem adapted by protesters of the Lawrence strike in Massachusetts.

Political optimism did seem to be an important feature of the day. Gwenneth Williamson, 77, main organiser of Queenferry’s Women’s group, described the Scottish Government as “very women-friendly,” but stressed the necessity of parliament to encourage an increase in female politicians.

Indeed, the Scottish Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop’s admission at the post-march rally on Calton Hill that the number of female MSPs has declined from 40% to 33% in the past ten years calls for serious contemplation. An increase in female political participation was stressed as an essential social change that must take place in order to continue the campaign for equality between the sexes.

The low voter turnout at the recent European elections — the lowest in its history — was a source of disappointment at the event. Kate Arnott, 62, of Glasgow Women’s Aid, described it as “highly upsetting for society,” and there is no doubt that such apathy harms the aims of the women’s movement in Europe.

The atmosphere of the day, however, was not to be dampened by political divides or the alarming prevalence of voter apathy. Choirs, a jazz band, several drums performances and uplifting speeches ensured the crowd of 3000-4000 people was kept energised and inspired. Great emphasis was placed on the struggles of our female ancestors. Speaking to those who risked their lives, Fiona Hyslop declared: “We honour your memory,” and hailed the “determination, courage and vision” displayed by both the Suffragists and Suffragettes.

Contemporary feminist activism was celebrated and encouraged, as well. Janet Fenton talked about “women’s ability to envision a better future” and advocated the “abolition of war as a means of resolving conflict.” Current issues such as wage battles and domestic violence were also discussed, as Fenton highlighted the fact that women are “still struggling to get paid for our work.”

Indeed, there still exists a wage gap of approximately 20% between men and women — something which speakers at the event urged everyone to campaign against. The progress of women’s rights in the one hundred celebrated years, however, has been extraordinary, and in practical and intellectual terms, “the world has become better” for women, Fenton said proudly.

The day also brought strong feelings of Scottish sentimentality and nationalism. Fiona Hyslop exclaimed: “What a day for Scotland, past, present and future,” to cheers from crowd participants; singing group Protest to Harmony sang: “The right to vote an’ all that” — a reference to Burns — signalling the emphasis on the achievements of Scottish Suffragettes and Suffragists.

This did not, however, diminish the strong sense of international solidarity for women all over the world: Fenton voiced her admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner imprisoned for leading the struggle for democracy in her country.

This theme of universal female solidarity was felt by not only the speakers but by groups and individuals on the march as well. Oonagh O’Brien, 52 and Suzanne Fustukian, 56, representing Queen Margaret University, expressed compassion for women from less developed countries. They claimed: “Women from some countries struggle to get a decent education,” before highlighting the fact that international students can face serious “immigration problems.”

This harmonious atmosphere was accompanied by a great sense of hope for the future. Patsy Wood, 48, representing the Women’s Environmental Network, expressed her desire for a “much more broad response” for the forthcoming 2010 general election, in comparison to the somewhat disheartening turnout in the recent EU elections.

Despite the generally peaceable nature of the day, the strong rhetoric and powerful language created a fighting spirit. The event was one for remembering the achievements from the past while recognising the obstacles yet to come.

Cathy Peattie’s rendition of “Bread and Roses”, in particular, provoked an air of courage and determination. As she sang the words, “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,” it became clear that the resolve once shown by the Suffragettes a century ago is not yet lost.