Getting a bit late in the day to write about this one (although I’m not quite as far behind the curve as the woman in the crowd who asked why they couldn’t have done it in the summer when it wasn’t so cold), but I joined the Bristol Women’s Voice lantern parade to celebrate suffrage. The date was 6 February 2018, 100 years to the day after the passing of the Representation of the People Act which first gave the vote to (certain) women.
I don’t have much form when it comes to parades and marches but even so this one must stand out as being both rather ad hoc and orderly at the same time. Ad hoc because – obviously – the organisers had never run one before and had had no idea of how many women would turn up. In fact I don’t think I saw a single person with clipboard, megaphone or anything else which might have signified their being in charge; orderly because everyone was in great spirits and many, I suspect, like me just wanted to be there to mark the occasion and not to make any larger point.
Also it was snowing.
So off we went, into the rush hour traffic which necessarily ground to a halt and logjammed the entire city. I don’t know how many of us there were – hundreds certainly, maybe a thousand or so at the start before the cold felled many. There was no police presence to count us and the inane local newspaper report spoke only of lots being there to celebrate all women getting the vote (They didn’t. Not in 1918. Try Wikipedia next time).
The organisers – Bristol Women’s Voice – had run workshops in libraries and museums in the weeks prior to the event so people could make lanterns which were ingeniously brilliant in their simplicity and effectiveness. (Too late I discovered that there had even been a session on the train to Severn Beach – a situation so bizarre that it begged to have been seen.) I cobbled one together from the instructions on the website but came up short when I came to deciding what to write on mine. Votes for Women may have been historically accurate but I felt that the event was to be more of a celebration of achievement than a replication of the struggle, Deeds not Words would have got my vote had I thought of it in time. But there were many and various examples to be seen.
Some women were moved to tears by the thoughts of the suffragettes, they said. I struggled to feel a connection to the undeniably brave women of a century ago. As far as I know I can claim no suffragettes or suffragists in the family so I can not make their battle personal. I thought about my grandmothers – women I have known – one of whom was 20 in 1918, the other only 5. The former would have had to wait until she was 30 in 1928 before she was entitled to a vote, not then being married or owning property, the latter would have grown up seeing her mother casting her ballot for the first few times. That made it a bit more real.
My younger grandmother did not talk about politics. When asked who she would vote for the most handsome man would always be the reply. With a husband involved in local politics she had to keep her views to herself and this was undoubtedly her way of telling a child to mind her own business. But until now I hadn’t reflected on to what extent her stock phrase – this faux empty headed, fluttery feminine disinterest – hinted at a female disconnect with politics. Although all women were enfranchised by the time she turned 21, she had grown up in a culture where this had not been the case and early expectations were engrained. And I looked at the women around me and began to wonder what in their lives they had accepted as being just the way the things are. Older women would remember being paid less than their male colleagues, their mothers would have encountered the marriage ban. By the time I entered the workplace the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was in place and, thanks to earlier women’s efforts, I was able to enter traditionally male fields, albeit in a minority and always in a skirt. Many battles have been won but many remain.
I’ll leave you with these links to a piece composed especially for the lantern parade which may or may not work. I hope one of them does because it was rather uplifting.