Opinion

Does 'Suffragette' Show Us How Much Still Needs To Change For Women?

Does 'Suffragette' Show Us How Much Still Needs To Change For Women?

With new film Suffragette set to shine a light on the work of women who got us the vote, Emmeline Saunders looks at how far we still have to go.

Imagine your life transported back 100 years ago. How different would things be? You wouldn't be reading this for a start – 85 per cent of women may have been literate, but chances were you'd be too busy looking after your children, managing a busy household or working a back-breakingly manual job to find time to sink yourself into a book.

And you wouldn't have had the vote either. That was eventually given to us in 1928 (or 1918 if you were over 30 and could meet a property qualification), thanks to a group of incredibly brave and determined women (and men) who gave their health, wealth and occasionally their lives to secure for us the most basic of human rights: the right to participate in the democratic process as equals to men.

Now, new film Suffragette aims to draw attention to these women for the first time, with Carey Mulligan playing Maud, a laundry worker whose consciousness is slowly raised by observing the conditions in which the women around her are forced to work.

So just how much has changed since 1915? And more importantly – how much further do we have to go?

We're going to explore some of the key issues that are raised in the film to see whether things really are any different for women now.

Women In Society

Arguably, women in the UK are still conditioned to believe marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle of our life goals. Constant articles in the mainstream media berate ‘career women’ for delaying pregnancy; those who choose not to have children are still seen as ‘unnatural’, and entire industries have sprung up to capitalise on the big wedding business.

In the home, we’re still doing the majority of the housework – a recent Workingmums.co.uk survey found just 20 per cent of couples split the cooking and cleaning chores equally – and Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, has argued strongly against the unfairness of women taking on all unpaid domestic labour while working full time. Back in 2009, this was valued at nearly £33,000 per women – that’s £33,000 it would have cost each household to pay someone to carry out work that women are doing for free.

Women In The Workplace

Much has been made of the UK’s gender pay gap – it’s slowly narrowing (something we've worked on), but it still remains at 19.1 per cent for women as a group compared to men. Detractors claim this is to do with the overwhelming majority of part-time jobs being taken up by women, but Fawcett Society stats show women in full-time employment still earn an average of 9.4 per cent less than men working the same hours.

We also have a problem with occupational segregation, with women making up the majority of workers in lower-paid professions like health and social care. Men, on the other hand, are much more likely to work in highly paid areas such as law and medicine, and make up an enormous 88 per cent of employees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries.

And while we’ve had maternity rights enshrined in law since the Employment Protection Act 1975, women were routinely being fired for getting pregnant up until the late 1970s. Many still experience maternity discrimination to this day – a recent government study found one in five women have experienced harassment or negativity from their employers during or after their pregnancy or maternity leave.

Women In Politics

Considering it’s been just 87 years since women were granted the vote on an equal basis to men, British politics has hugely changed for the better in terms of equality. Since the 2015 general election in May, the proportion of women MPs has swelled to 29 per cent – up from 23 per cent in 2010.

But 29 per cent is still nowhere near representative of society, and with just two-thirds of the whole population turning out to vote this year, hundreds of thousands of women failed to take part in the democratic process to choose a government.

Why not? Research has shown women are proportionally far more likely to suffer from benefits cuts and the loss of jobs in the public sector, instead being shuffled into lower-paid agency work and zero-hours contracts. Is the lack of female role models at the top to blame for our failure to flex our hard-earned political muscle?

But It's Not All Bad…

One of the dangers to 20th century women that Suffragette highlights so well is that of forced pregnancy – women were expected to carry children to birth and continue breeding for as long as they humanly could, which pushed up the mortality rate among working class women and their infants. It wasn’t until 1961 that the contraceptive pill was brought in for married women (though singletons had to wait until 1974 to have it prescribed to them) to help them make informed choices about their family planning.

Rape in marriage has also been illegal since 1991, making it possible for married men to be prosecuted for sexual violence towards their wives for the first time. And while Suffragette’s Maud faced the very real possibility of losing her son, women have had automatic parental responsibility for their biological children enshrined in law since the Children Act in 1989.

How much do you think has changed for women since the Suffragettes won us the vote? Have your say over at @GraziaUK or post on Grazia’s Facebook.

Suffragette is now in cinemas across the UK.

Words by @Emm_Saunders.

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