Last week, on my commute home, a group of school girls in their early teens burst onto the train at their stop. They were radiant and blooming, full of happiness and energy, lost in their own friendships, beautifully multi-cultural. In their arms, they carried a variety of school books. When they laughed, they threw their heads back, they kissed each other, they held hands. A few of them wore skirts, but most wore trousers. The girls took up space on the train, they were louder and more present than any other group in our carriage and they weren’t afraid to take up that space. It was a heart-warming, inspiring display of sisterhood, of the opportunities the feminist movement has carved out.
But I doubted they realised that the opportunities they had now had been hard won, that women had suffered and died in order that those girls could live a life they had only dreamed of. I doubted they realised that almost every single human right women have been granted was fought for by our heroic foremothers, not automatically granted as it was to our male counterparts. Did they know that the reasons Western women can own property, be educated, have our abusers imprisoned, work and keep our wages, decide when we want to have our children and enjoy sex freely, have abortions, have rights over our children, have careers, vote, are all due to the incredible achievements of the feminist movement? I hoped they realised that they were actually enormously privileged to live in a country where feminism has made such gains. But I doubted it.
And I doubted it, not because these girls were ungrateful – far from it, they deserve everything they have and more – but because it was statistically unlikely that they had been taught their herstory. Unless they had a teacher who had heroically decided to veer off syllabus and start teaching women’s history and well as men’s, or came from a family who had been exposed to the amazing stories of our sisterhood and recognised the importance of passing them on, they probably wouldn’t realise that they were the lucky ones. They probably wouldn’t realise that there’s still a lot of work to do.
They probably wouldn’t realise that still, still, women are suffering on the front lines in the battle for gender equality across the globe and that if they take their eyes off the ball for a moment, we lose something that men aren’t in danger of losing. They probably don’t realise that the fight our foremothers started is one for us to continue, that it isn’t over. The rampant inequalities we still face in this country which see poorer women and women of colour maligned and vulnerable, and the horrific human rights offences, rooted in gender equality, which cause suffering for women all over the world, testify that we have to fight on.
Our desire to fight is fuelled by knowing our herstory. We have to know where we came from in order to understand where we can go.
All my life, the work of the suffragettes has been down-played. At school in the nineties, they were barely mentioned, but when they were, they were spoken about as though slightly alien; it was suggested some of them were a bit irrational, slightly irresponsible creatures, often neglectful mothers. There was no context given around their campaign. It was my mother who told me the suffragettes had peacefully campaigned to no avail and so were forced into civil disobedience, when I came home from school confused about the reasons for their militancy. Repeatedly, there was a suggestion that the suffragist movement was supplementary to women being granted the vote; “it would have happened anyway” is a common – and disrespectfully unfounded – refrain.
And across my adult life, I’ve been present in many an infuriating debate where the suffragist cause has been deemed as unnecessary, the strategies befuddled and immoral, and key moments like the Emily Wilding Davison protest considered pointless, despite it shining a global spotlight on the cause. This will be the experience of many women and men in the educational system; this desire to capture herstory and work it into insignificance is a dangerous, persistent and continual cultural trend.
As women grow older and come to understand their herstory in more real and complex ways, they begin to question why they didn’t have the information sooner. They start to recognise their past experiences as signifiers of inequality; they wished they’d known their instincts were right. But by then, years have been lost and they’re starting late. They have to undo years of oppression which leaves them static. The truth of the feminist movement fires women up, inflames them, makes them realise that women have fought for what was deemed impossible, and won. If we help girls to learn their herstories earlier, can you imagine what they’ll be capable of by the time they hit their mid-twenties? There’s a reason feminist history isn’t taught. Feminism is successful. Despite it being niche, undermined, squashed, feminism has worked. Teaching it only helps it work quicker. It takes too long for women to know their rights. We owe our girls more.
Suffragette is a more than welcome relief and is long overdue. It’s a beautifully crafted and well-researched film, deeply evocative, and a real testament to the working woman’s contribution. It focuses heavily on the weighty sacrifices these women made for us, the fear and pain they endured for us. It’s crucial that we understand these sacrifices, the dangers they faced, the incredible legacy they paved, the impact of winning that vote.
We need to start women learning young, so that they can be their happiest and healthiest, but also so that they can be of service – taking our daughters to the film helps them understand from a young age that the fight for equality is ongoing, and to be part of that fight is to make a real, true stamp on the world. Men know their history, they are regularly inflamed and inspired by it, we should know ours too.
And, of course, it goes without saying that men need to watch this film. Feminism believes men are capable of more than their forefathers said they were. Men need to make sure they learn the truths about the oppressions their gender have caused, are causing, make sure they join the pro-feminist fight.
Don’t be a man who leaves the stamp of oppression on this world when you can contribute to the founding of an equal society.