Today marks the 100th anniversary of the UK Parliament passing the Representation of the People Act, which first gave women the right to vote.
That Act didn’t deliver universal suffrage as only some women were allowed to vote as a result of it but it was a significant breakthrough and followed a long, tireless and courageous campaign by countless women and many men too.
As we commemorate the anniversary it’s hard not to reflect on the attitudes women were fighting back then; attitudes that were not only embedded in minds but also deeply ingrained in the culture and day to day life of Britain.
These attitudes are perhaps depicted best by some of the counter campaigns to ‘Votes for Women’. These campaigns were vicious and served not only to reinforce the stereotype of a woman’s role being in the home but warned of the ‘dangers’ of women participating in the democratic process. It was claimed that it would bring suffering not only to women themselves but also to their families and those around them. Postcards showed women with their tongues being severed or nailed to tables with the caption ‘Peace at last’.
Yesterday I was at the Glasgow Women’s Library which contains a fascinating collection of these postcards as well as other material relating to the movement. It’s a stark and alarming reminder of the scale of the challenge women faced.
The Glasgow and West of Scotland suffrage association once said that when a woman chooses to speak out, “she defies convention and throws aside that much-prized virtue – respectability. She gives up friendships that she values; often she renounces all her past life.”
Of course it was not just friendships and respect that women surrendered – suffragists and suffragettes endured horrific abuse and we must never forget the personal sacrifices they made.
There are reminders of those struggles across Scotland. In my younger years as a student at Glasgow University, I regularly walked past the Suffragette Oak in Kelvingrove Park.
Now, my working days in Edinburgh are often spent in Bute House which overlooks Charlotte Square, the starting point for the Scottish suffragists’ march to London in 1912, and in St Andrew’s House, the site of the old Calton Jail, where suffragettes were imprisoned during 1912 and 1913.
The strength of opposition to women’s suffrage weakened thanks in great part to the contribution of women in the First World War. Just last November we celebrated the work of the formidable Dr Elsie Inglis who, when she was told by the War Office to ‘go home and sit still’ instead took other women doctors and nurses to France to establish a hospital and dedicate it to the health and welfare of soldiers.
She fought against a tidal wave of opposition and against all odds the Scottish Women’s Hospital movement proved to be an unstoppable force. After France further hospitals were established in Serbia, Russia, Greece, Malta and Corsica.
It’s a tragedy that Elsie and so many others did not live to celebrate achieving the vote but their contributions, through their war efforts and campaigning, demonstrated women’s unequivocal capabilities and dismantled the long-held views that women were inferior and not up to the task.
1918 was also the year the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, allowing women to become MPs for the first time. With that in mind it is with immense pride, as Scotland’s first female First Minister, that I will today lead a debate in the Scottish Parliament. This is an opportunity for those of us who owe so much to past generations of women, to pay our respect to the courage and perseverance of the suffragists and suffragettes. We will also mark the progress we’ve made since then on women’s rights and equality.
However we must remember that, even today, only 35 per cent of members in the Scottish Parliament are women –– so it’s clear there is much still to do if we are to achieve equal representation.
Today, as well as commemorating the 100th anniversary of women securing the right to vote, I will announce a £500,000 Scottish Government fund for projects that encourage greater representation of women at all levels of politics.
It’s one element of much wider work the Scottish Government is undertaking to encourage fair, proportionate representation at both local and national levels.
So as we reflect on the past it is also an opportunity to look to the future.
Let us celebrate the sacrifice and dedication of the women’s suffrage movement – but let us also recognise that the best way of honoring their memories and their legacy is to inject new momentum into increasing women’s political representation and achieving true equality for all.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times