The abuse that surrounded the campaign for women’s suffrage is still with us
We cannot expect deep-rooted power imbalances to crumble and fall at the utterance of worthy but empty rhetoric. It is up to us to take action, writes Liz Saville Roberts
Being elected to parliament was a proud moment for me and my family but it was an equally important moment for my party. In taking my seat in the House of Commons I became Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Plaid Cymru’s first female MP.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first women being given the right to vote in the UK. This landmark event was the result of years of campaigning by indomitable, courageous women. They rejected, struggled against and ultimately overturned their society’s assumption that half of humanity was unequipped with the physical, intellectual and moral strength to engage in politics.
The women who fought back against those attitudes were ridiculed and physically attacked for daring to suggest that their opinions on matters of significance were equal to those of men. “You set of sickening fools” was the message on a postcard sent to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. “Why don’t you drown yourselves out of the way?”
Yes, we have come a long way since then, but the societal attitudes, the gender conditioning and the abuse that surrounded the campaign for women’s suffrage are still with us in the 21st century, and their impact is profound.
What happened historically to women is writ large in the political sphere today. Threats of violence; insults based on appearance, weight or race; belittling comments based on gender stereotypes; or references to a woman’s sexual attractiveness. The imagery used against the Suffragettes compares to the imagery used on social media to attack, belittle, silence, shame and undermine female politicians.
It is up to us to remould society and bring about the reality of equality. We cannot simply expect deep-rooted power imbalances to crumble and fall at the utterance of worthy but empty rhetoric, to submit to well-intentioned but unenforced laws. It is up to us as politicians, our respective parties, our institutions, the police, legislature, media and civic society as a whole to challenge abusive behaviour and to tackle the issue at its root.
In some cases it will involve legislating, in others it will involve implementing existing legislation (and securing the budget to do this effectively), but in all cases it will involve culture change. It must call out and condemn the casual use of aggression and threat of physical violence to silence women’s voices in the digital arena.
It was a pleasure to open an international summit this week in London, involving all seven political parties represented in the House of Commons as well as delegates from twenty countries across the world, all in London to discuss how we can work together to drive through this culture change, and put an end to violence against women in politics.
The event began as an ambitious but modest partnership between Plaid Cymru and some key campaigners in Buenos Aires, through our work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). Thanks to the outstanding hard work of the WFD and the dedication and commitment of every single Westminster party and their international offices, we managed to grow that partnership into a truly ground-breaking event. It brought together politicians, government ministers, parliaments, civil society and young activists from all parts of the world, to determine what we can do to consign violence against women in politics to a chapter in the history books.
One of the most crucial lessons taken from the summit was the importance of ensuring that those of us who have succeeded in breaking through these barriers, help others do the same. Talented young women who would be valuable assets to our respective countries need to be told that they deserve to take up their full role as leaders, law-makers and power-brokers. We cannot allow the culture of abuse to turn these future leaders away from politics.
The ideas, suggestions and solutions stemming from the discussions at the summit will be collated and developed into a joint report between all the parties and the WFD over the next few months. It is incumbent on all of us to continue to work together, not only to encourage young women, but to ensure that in future, women will not need that encouragement – that all of us – men and women – can carry out our role as politicians with respect and authority, and free from abuse.
Liz Saville Roberts is MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Plaid Cymru spokesperson on Justice, Home Affairs, Women and Equalities and the party’s Westminster leader
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