100 years ago, on 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted certain women the right to vote. This was a significant milestone in the fight for gender equality, and was a triumph for the Suffragettes who were spearheading what we now refer to as the first wave of feminism.
Now, in 2018, we’re on the fourth wave of feminism and whilst it’s empowering to see how far women have advanced socially, it’s also disappointing to see women still fighting for some of the same things they were a century ago.
When the opportunity arose for me to have a part in Contact Young Company’s (CYC) new production, She Bangs the Drums, I didn’t hesitate to take it. Firstly, because I’ve done a production with CYC before and loved their process of creating a show, where the cast and creatives work together to devise a show entirely from scratch. But also because, as a young woman and an avid feminist, I was eager to know more about the Suffragettes and to explore the journey feminism has taken.
My previous knowledge of the Suffragettes came largely from my family history. My great grand-aunt, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, was a prominent Suffragette in Ireland. She was a founder of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, which was Ireland’s largest Suffragette society, and she was also a hugely significant feminist activist and writer.
Her militancy and dedication to the cause led her to be imprisoned several times and her political writings influenced people globally. At the age of 11, my family took me to Ireland to teach me about my family history and learning about Hanna’s story inspired me to want to continue her fight.
Considering how much she, along with many other Suffragettes, sacrificed for women’s equality, it seemed imperative to me that their legacy be continued. So this, I suppose, was the moment I truly became a feminist.
Bringing her story to the stage has been really important to me as her story is one that is perhaps lesser known. It’s also been fascinating to learn about other lesser known Suffragettes who fought so hard for the right to vote, such as Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who was an Indian princess and also a fearless Suffragette, and Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton.
Bulwer-Lytton was an upper-class Suffragette who during her first time in prison, was given preferential treatment due to her high class and social status. Therefore, on her second arrest she disguised herself as a working class woman to expose how women were treated differently in prison according to their social class.
This show feels more relevant than ever right now because of the amount of conversation and change that feminism is causing. Just in the last few months the Times Up and #MeToo movements have brought women’s issues and women’s voices to the forefront, which is incredibly encouraging. And when I watch the women who are leading these movements, I recognise in them the same strength and determination the Suffragettes had.
So, although we perhaps haven’t made as much progress in the last 100 years as the Suffragettes would have hoped, maybe now is when all that will change. Maybe now we are on the brink of another female revolution. And if we are, then it’s crucial that we learn about the Suffragettes and take inspiration from them. Because we’re going to need a whole lot of Suffragette strength.