“However benevolent men may be in their intentions, they cannot know what women want and what suits the necessities of women’s lives as well as women know these things themselves.”
Millicent Fawcett 1847 – 1929
100 years on from the seminal Representation of the People Act 1918, the struggle for women’s equality continues to this day. The Act, giving men and women (over the age of 30 and with property) the right to vote, laid the bedrock for an arduous and painstaking struggle for women’s political equality. Now, the focus has shifted to women’s social equality. In the same spirit as their suffragist foremothers, women around the world took to the streets in their millions for the 2018 Women’s March, a reprise protest march of the inaugural 2017 Women’s March. At the March, the treatment of women in the workplace, sexual harassment and women’s rights all had an added impetus in the wake of the revelations surrounding the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile male figures.
As the fallout from these cases deepen, there has been a societal self-reckoning in attitudes towards gender akin to what Britain experienced for much of the 20th century. At the epicentre of this struggle, Parliament, a newly launched exhibition in Westminster Hall aims to shine a light on the hidden ‘her-story’ of this period. The ‘Voice and Vote’ Exhibition, open until October 6, showcases the ways in which women overcame a plethora of barriers preventing them from participating in democracy. Through interactive features and hitherto unseen historic objects, pictures and archives, visitors can experience a slither of what it was like for women seeking to gain the right to vote.
The Exhibition opens with an immersive space known as ‘The Ventilator’, a loft space above the House of Commons chamber from which women watched and listened to Parliamentary debates 200 years ago. Women were banned from public galleries and had to resort to this dark, claustrophobic space to watch the discussion of issues they were campaigning for, such as the abolition of the slave trade. Entering into the space, visitors can peer downwards into the chamber and listen to the loud bellows and rather sinister laughter of rambunctious male MPs. Positioned next to the exhibit is a watercolour sketch of The Ventilator, on loan for the first time from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which gives a chilling depiction of the reality of women’s exclusion from political life 200 years ago.
It was not until a fire ravaged the old Palace of Westminster that women ‘graduated’ to The Cage, the next immersive feature of the Exhibition. In the new House of Commons, a Ladies’ Gallery was built to allow women to view the Chamber from above the Speaker’s chair. The gallery was blockaded with bar grilles, which were installed to stop MPs seeing the women, but also resulted in an impeded view for the women. While The Cage did not quite have the same dank quality to it as the Ventilator, it more than recuperated its losses with a sauna-like stuffiness. For 84 years, women were forced to wedge their heads through the bar grilles of The Cage to gain a clear view of what was occurring beneath them. It is a stark reminder of the struggle and sacrifice that early suffrage pioneers made, later culminating in the Representation of the People Act in 1918. Not only did this Act give 8.4 million women the vote, but the Act also meant that women could stand as an elected representatives for the first time. Though she never took her seat, Constance Markievicz of Sinn Fein became the first elected female MP that same year.
Continuing the theme of ominous-sounding nicknames, women were granted their first members’ room known as ‘The Tomb’ in 1918. It was the only private space that female MPs had in Parliament and as more women were elected, it became so crowded that women would work on floors. Its cramped dimensions and Spartan décor (there was only one wall peg and three chairs) made The Tomb a very apt description. The room was first used by Nancy Astor in 1919, which was, as Luke Pollard MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport notes, a vital first step in “paving the way for more women standing in and winning elections”.
The final part of The exhibition is The Chamber, which explores the experience and work of female MPs and the members of the House of Lords today. Since the Peerage Act of 1964, women have now occupied the highest positions in Parliament, including Betty Boothroyd, the first, and only (so far) woman Speaker and Baroness Hayman, the first Lord Speaker in the House of Lords. A remarkable feat considering where women were sitting, let alone standing, decades before.
Standing on the shoulders of suffragist giants, there are now 207 female MPs, a record high of 32%, 206 female peers, 26% of Members of the House of Lords and a female Prime Minister. Four years in the making, Voice and Vote Exhibitions illuminates a journey that has long been overlooked in history, drawing more attention to the campaigning, the protests and the achievements of women in British political history. As the Hon Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and the 265th woman to be elected to Parliament, wrote: ‘This exhibition is not just about equality, and the anniversary of some women gaining the right to vote, it’s about women’s right to stand for election, to sit in the House of Lords, and as hundreds of people visit this exhibition it will allow each of them to learn more about what it has taken for us to get to where we are now and what still needs to be done.’