I would have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Suffragettes

A century on, the battle for equality still rages, says the writer of a new sitcom

Share
Related Topics

It was a picture in a newspaper that started it. There was this band of rather unlikely looking women– ordinary, slightly dishevelled. They certainly didn't look like radicals, or murderers. But as the article related, these women had plotted to kill the then prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and their actions in campaigning for women's suffrage would change the course of history.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the day Emily Wilding Davison walked in front King George V's racehorse, on 4 June 1913, it's important we don't forget what the Suffragettes achieved. That article, published only recently because of rules about the release of documents from the National Archive, prompted me to read everything I could about the Suffragette movement, and led me to write my latest sitcom.

It's called Up the Women, and is a three-part comedy about a group of hopeless parochial women who try, and fail, to become Suffragettes. My original plan had been to write a film; they used to meet in a disused shooting range under Oxford Street, and I came across lots of fascinating stories. But a serious film didn't really spark anyone's interest. Because I'm a comedian, I think humour was the only way I could get it out there.

The subject matter is obviously quite serious, so in my comedy the humour comes from the fact that they are failed Suffragettes. They live in the quiet town of Banbury, and none of them wants to make a fuss, but they realise there is something important in the suffrage movement.

The Suffragettes lived in a world in which they were unable to live and act freely, in which their worth and identity would be measured only by their abilities as a wife and mother. So they resolved to change the world. Davison was a first-class honours student in literature and science. She was prevented from studying at Oxford because women were not admitted, and completed her degree at a London university, supporting herself by working as a governess. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union in 1908, the year that Christabel Pankhurst, a first-class law graduate, who could not practise law because of her sex, first lashed out at a police officer – causing a media frenzy and putting the Suffragette movement on the map. Over the following two years, the movement gained enormous popularity through these publicity stunts. By 1910, the Government was actively suppressing coverage of many stories, including the attempted assassination of Asquith.

The frustration of the suffrage movement was that the liberal coalition refused to see women's votes as a human-rights issue. Lloyd George was reforming labour laws for the working man and trying to get landowners to pay tax. At a time when society was built on the adage "A woman's place is in the home", votes for them seemed like a waste of parliamentary time, but the Suffragettes would not give up, even when things got nasty.

During one protest outside Parliament, known as Black Friday, two women were beaten to death and 200 arrested. In a first-hand account, one woman describes how she was taunted, groped and thrown by policemen, and told to "get back to the sink". Reading this, I resolved to try and understand where the deep-rooted sexism in our society comes from and why women, one half of humanity, could be so devalued, disrespected and degraded. It convinced me that the Suffragette movement was inevitable and necessary; and had I been alive then I would have been standing shoulder to shoulder with them.

The most chilling aspect was reading all the anti-suffrage material that convinced people that women were not capable of choosing a prime minister; that they were intended for supplication to men. It was easy to see the parallels between this and the propaganda rhetoric that justified slavery for 400 years – the insidious, spurious "evidence" that suggested that African slaves were intellectually inferior and not capable of being self-determining men and women in society.

This kind of propaganda was used to brainwash women into believing that they were not intellectually or biologically built for a life of freedom; shockingly, the powerful anti-suffrage societies were often female-led. Today, we are faced with a society still riddled with the propaganda rhetoric of oppression, in which gender differences are fetishised and exaggerated, where intelligent young women in the public eye are routinely expected to pose like porn stars in men's magazines if they want to "get on". Instead of being valued and enjoyed for their wit, intelligence and talent, they are judged by their "tits" and "bed-ability". If Emily Wilding Davison were alive today, would she be in Nuts in her knickers under the title "Suffrage-tits!"? I think she would have told them where to get off.

'Up the Women' begins on BBC4 on Thursday

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Key Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A really exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Trade Operative

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An established, family owned de...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen for a Customer ...

Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children who fled the violence in the Syrian city of Aleppo play at a refugee camp in Jabaa, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley  

A population bigger than London's has been displaced in Syria, so why has the Government only accepted 90 refugees?

David Hanson
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Ukip on the ropes? Voters don’t think so

Stefano Hatfield
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project