This month one hundred years ago, a group of women in Britain launched a campaign for women's right to vote. The battle was led by Emmeline Pankhurst. She launched the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughter, Christabel, in October 1903. Their struggle ultimately resulted in the Equal Franchise Act that was passed on July 2, 1928, 25 years later and just a few weeks before Emmeline died.
The WSPU used non-violent and some violent means to push their cause. The women courted arrest. They went on hunger fasts. At one point, Emmeline was arrested every month for a whole year. But at the end of the campaign, these women succeeded in winning the right to vote. Of course, the suffragists (as opposed to Emmeline's suffragettes) fought for the same rights in a more genteel manner and today, the Fawcett Society, established by Millicent Fawcett, still exists and continues to fight for greater representation of women in British politics. They argue that there are four Cs that prevent women from participating more fully in politics: Culture, Childcare, Cash and Confidence.
In this day and age, the very idea that some people thought women were a lesser breed and therefore not fit to vote seems laughable. And yet this happened just 100 years ago, in one of the so-called more "advanced" nations.
Some of these arguments are evident in the tedious debate over reservation of seats for women in the Indian Parliament. We keep going over the same ground. What kind of law? What formula should be used? Should it be one-third, one quarter, one half, or nothing? And after the annual ritual of discussions, debates, articles in newspapers, debates on television, we remain on the same spot. Will we still be treading water a hundred years hence, one wonders. "Deeds not words" was the motto of the women who fought for the vote in Britain. Emmeline Pankhurst was a most interesting woman and even today, her life and battles have a resonance. She married, Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer in Manchester who was the author of the first women's suffrage bill. He also formulated the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 and 1882 that permitted women to retain what they earned or the property they had bought before or after marriage.
How often women's rights activists in this country have argued that at the root of many of the problems women face is the issue of women's equal rights to inheritance and their right to retain control over their income and property. Even the dowry problem that refuses to disappear is deeply rooted in women's disenfranchisement on issues of property ownership and inheritance. Girls would not be seen as a burden or a liability if they were guaranteed an equal right to inheritance and property.
The inheritance issue apart, sharing political power with women remains a sticky issue, even in Britain, the birthplace of the suffragettes. When over 100 women were elected to Parliament in 1997, heralding the victory of the Labour Party led by Tony Blair, the media immediately demeaned these women by calling them "Blair's Babes". The implication behind that description was that these women were there courtesy their political master and not because they were capable in their own right.
Women were also elected in large numbers to the assemblies of Wales and Scotland in 1999. But they did not meet with the same kind of denigration as the women at Westminster. In fact, in both Wales and Scotland, the women Labour MPs outnumbered the men. After the 2003 elections, the Welsh parliament became the first in the world with an equal number of men and women. At Westminster, however, the numbers of women MPs dropped in the 2001 elections and the Labour Party, which had been instrumental in increasing the number of women in Parliament, succeeded in returning only 95 women as compared to well over a hundred in the previous election. These numbers might appear insignificant but given that the women had such a tough time increasing their numbers to become 18 per cent of the MPs, the loss of even one seat is significant. In fact between 1918, when the first woman was elected to the British parliament and 2001, only 173 women had ever been elected.
It is interesting how the record of a few women politicians, and particularly the corrupt ones, is constantly brought out as a reason not to give women any special concessions. But the battle of the suffragettes was not for special favours; it was for the same right as men have. Similarly, the demand that more women enter elected bodies is not based on the assumption that women have special rights or that they will be better leaders (although they sometimes are), but that they have an equal right to be there as men. In an unequal playing field, helping them to get there through reservations or any other means is necessary and should not be viewed as a special favour.
Unfortunately, when irrational emotions are involved, rational arguments do not work. And in this area of women's participation in politics, rationality is always the first casualty.