Living the legacy of suffrage campaigners

By Marianne Overton | 06 February 2018

Today marks a century since some women in this country were first extended the right to vote, a historic milestone on the path towards gender equality and democracy for all. Yet a hundred years on since the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, these issues are still very much at the top of today’s public agenda.

So this centenary comes as a timely opportunity to both remind ourselves of the actions of those suffragists, suffragettes and other campaigners in our communities who helped change our public and political life, and what more still needs to be done.

The Local Government Association has been working with the Women’s Local Government Society (WLGS) to seek out and champion the work of 100 pioneers from across the country who made an impact in their areas, unveiled to coincide with the anniversary of the Act on 6 February. These include many of the first female councillors, magistrates and mayors, some of whom went on to lobby and campaign on the national stage. Women from all walks of life and backgrounds, from artists and singers to teachers and shop workers took part in local suffrage societies.

Among those whose names have been put forward is Margaret Wintringham from Lincolnshire, who became the first British woman to take her seat in the House of Commons where she continued the campaign after 1918 to further extend the franchise, as well as on equal pay and for state scholarships for girls as well as boys.

Other nominations include Catherine Alderton, the first Lady mayor of Colchester and first female member of Essex CC, who in 1913 led a ‘pilgrimage’ of suffrage supporters from all over Eastern England to a rally in Hyde Park.

Reading’s Phoebe Cusden came from a more humble background and went on to make a significant mark in her town and beyond as a councillor and campaigner for nursery schooling, later leading on the development of town twinning when moved to help the children of Dusseldorf affected by Second World War bombing.

The North West was home to not only the Pankhursts, but also lesser known but significant figures like Annie Kenney, who was imprisoned for several days for her activism and Lydia Becker, founder of the Women’s Suffrage Journal, who both hailed from Oldham.

Alice Colinge was an early candidate for Bolton Town Council who chaired the local Women's Peace Crusade.

Councils are celebrating this centenary in their own ways, through exhibitions, parades, talks, plaques and many other commemorative events. Nottingham has been chosen as one of seven ‘Centenary Cities’ across the country with special links to the suffrage movement, where the council is working with local history and women’s groups to highlights its connections, as well as promoting equality and support for young women to register to vote.

Elsewhere, Oxford City Council has organised its own gathering this week to celebrate the life of its former Lord Mayor and chairman of Oxfordshire CC, Olive Gibbs, who was born in 1918.

Surrey CC is hosting its March of the Women, in recognition of it being home to activists and witness to scenes in suffragette history, including Emily Davison stepping out in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

All of these events are being run to encourage and inspire an interest and support for democracy, where all voices count in governing our communities. The 100 pioneers announced this week worked to help level the playing field so that today’s women have the opportunity to play a full and active role in our democracy.

But women are still under-represented in local government, especially in leadership roles. We cannot afford to miss out on the skills and experience they hold if we are to make the best decisions.

A study by the Fawcett Society last year clearly demonstrates the slow speed of progress achieved over the past four years, in representation and in the gender pay gap. Steps which could help to remedy this include all councils offering options such as shared parental leave, childcare support and flexible working. A less combative and more inclusive consensual approach to decision-making is recommended.

The LGA’s ‘Be a Councillor’ campaign is encouraging women and other under-represented groups to engage in politics, which is being expanded to include female mentors and greater support for young women considering running for public office.

Local government will continue to be at the forefront of driving change and promoting equality, changing culture with little imposition of structures. We also need political parties, of all persuasions, to play their part by encouraging and supporting the next generation of aspiring councillors.

Our female leaders of tomorrow need only look around their own communities to find inspiration from those who came before them.

Cllr Lesley Clarke and Cllr Marianne Overton are the chair and vice chair of the Women’s Local Government Society

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