Written by Isabelle Shaw
Despite recent attempts by some modern historians to expose the disillusionment that the major turning points across the study of history were solely caused by strong, or infamous, men, on many occasions the study of events completely ignores leading women who contributed to a prominent change in the past. Undeniably, this is the fault of historians who lived in a patriarchal age and preferred to celebrate the achievements or power of men. It is vital that the power of women is documented as being equally important. At times the spotlight owed to many influential women was shadowed by their lack of representation in history books.
Most history books analyse historical events based on male leadership and organisation. This image causes young women in the present to feel irrelevant and perpetuates the false idea that women only influenced history after the suffrage movement. It is impossible to ignore the role of women during the early twentieth century who relentlessly fought to enfranchise women. The history of women’s rights was a long and enduring process that was so vital considering their bravery opened liberation for women of the present in creating a world that would be radically different if it weren’t for the feats of women. However, it is essential we move away from the narrative that David Lloyd George gave women the vote and it was solely the war that helped women, and better understand who was involved in influencing history that led to the catalytic point of the male Prime Minister granting the vote to specific women.
Jenni Murray argues that in fact the ideas of the suffragettes and suffragists, though not popularly recorded, started long before their official unions. Mary Wollstonecraft bravely writing her manifesto ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’ acted as a motor to consolidate the desires of women and push the movement. The long-term impact of her controversial piece should not be overlooked, due to her influence on leading suffragists such as Fawcett. Despite the age of desire for radical change campaigned by those such as Wordsworth, Godwin, Coleridge, Priestley and Blake, her work was the “first systematic and concentrated attack.” Her campaigning for equal education of sexes meant that the “women’s rights movement in England and America owes as much to her as the modern Political economy owes to…Adam Smith.” It is important that we look at the longevity of Wollstonecraft’s work and not forget her influence since she inspired those who followed her legacy.
We must focus on the role of women during this movement more importantly as the backbone of the movement. In the same way that Millicent Fawcett’s husband was able to “open political doors for her”, it was her determination and hard work to enable women to be politically represented that cannot be overlooked. Her tactics were based on lobbying politicians and combined with her charismatic nature to give speeches to persuade politicians rather than use violent tactics. As well, she was president of the NUWSS in 1897 and often helped working-class women, which reveals she wanted to help all, not just bourgeois women. In addition, her lesser-known work was her fight against child abuse and prostitution. She became a member of the National Vigilance Association to campaign against the atrocities. Her campaigns to end women being excluded from court offence cases were also wholly influential. According to Murray she “never wavered determination to promote the cause”. In fact, it is essential that her work is documented, since her, albeit less popular, work in passing legislation was a huge contribution to the final enfranchisement of women. Without her dedication, child abuse and exploitation would be higher than it is now, and her influence is undeniable as currently in most countries women are allowed to represent themselves in court.
As well, the myth that throughout history only men have fought ignores the likes of earlier historical figures such as Boadicea. Murray argues that “we should honour and show more respect to the woman who reminds us that there was a time in distant history when men and women had equal rights and property.” She was named the ‘warrior queen’, and systematically set towns on fire in a rebellion against the Roman invasion of England around 60 CE. Also, she reminds us of change and continuity that women were not always considered inferior but the Romans “destroyed a social structure which had been of such importance to the women of the tribes of Britain – equality.” This is significant as it proves that women did fight in our past and should not be used as an argument for women being overlooked or of lesser importance when studying history.
Nancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat in the British parliament, a Virginian who took her millionaire husband’s place. Although she was not connected to the suffragettes cause initially, she was an “ardent” feminist with a quick, charming wit to challenge Churchill. Murray describes the relationship that “suffragists and suffragettes soon came to accept Nancy Astor and recognise her value to the cause”. She was an ideal candidate, as she came from a similar class to the other MPs and helped them get used to the idea of a female MP as she didn’t often make a fuss but set the way for more forthright feminists. She was a philanthropist and often concerned herself with the poor, campaigning for widows’ pensions, employment rights, maternal mortality rates, nursery school provision and raising the age of consent. However, what is important is that not all women held the same views on women’s rights as she opposed the equal divorce law and lost her reputation after initially supporting Nazis, but later denouncing their portrayal of women as mothers and child bearers. Nevertheless, she was an “effective model…male MPs and gave them a chance to get used to her and the idea of women being a part of the parliamentary system.” It reminds us of how fragile, and recent the acceptance of women in policy-making in Britain and could quickly disappear.
It is also important to look at the history of race alongside gender history since many women are not only overlooked in history due to gender but also ethnicity and race. For example, revisionist historians, such as Jenni Murray, have recently identified the gross underappreciation of Mary Seacole, overlooked by Florence Nightingale. It is important that we remember both women as great nurses during the Crimean War, however, we cannot ignore the discrimination implied by ignoring Seacole’s efforts. She was of Scottish-Jamaican descendancy, who after the epidemic of cholera in Jamaica moved to England to volunteer as a nurse during the war but was rejected. She went with the Crimean Fund to Crimea and built her own hotel and was an aid for the wounded. Murray argues “I’ve not convinced Florence Nightingale and her team were able to do much more than offer comfort and care at the height of the conflict, and Mary’s humanitarian efforts are pretty incredible for a woman with no proper training.” Therefore, it is essential to look at both alongside each other to appreciate that the experience was not the same for all women, especially racial minorities were doubly as prejudiced.
In conclusion, it is important that women are not overlooked in the study of history because it reminds us of the equal importance of women in the past, and consequently the present. Murray tells it best when she reminds us of Afghanistan, a ‘post-feminist world’ that now has reversed to a society where women suffer from violence and have no legal rights, gender history is important to represent the fragility of the enfranchisement of women. As well, gender history reminds us that it is not only men who progressed our society in science and the arts, but women were wholly influential too. We cannot generalise the experiences of women from social to racial prejudice as history shows multiple factors work together in the repression of women. It is important to include women in the historical conversation as these women remind us of progress and regression.
Murray, J. (2016). A History of Britain in 21 Women. Simon and Schuster.
Murray, J. (2018). Votes For Women! Simon and Schuster.