One hundred years ago women got the vote. Of course it wasn’t quite as easy as that: the Representation of the People Act, passed on February 6, 1918, permitted the 8.4 million women aged over 30 to vote. But it took another decade before they had equal voting rights to men. The battle for equality has been fought on many fronts: the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and Seventies strove for equal pay and rights, in the 1980s the frontline was America’s British nuclear air-bases, Miner’s Strike picket-lines and overthrowing mother-in-law jokes in comedy clubs.
Today the digital revolution has brought new empowerment. Feminist blogs, the Everyday Sexism Project and #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have exposed abuse of power over women by famous, rich and powerful men. Feminism has never been more widely discussed. Yet the ideological battle is far from won: harassment, trolling and misogyny are commonplace and amplified online.
The Centenary Action Group, a coalition including The Fawcett Society, Oxfam and CARE International, is challenging the government to promote more women, stating: “The more diverse decision makers are, the more widely power is spread – and the less room there is for abuse and discrimination. It [will be] more likely that decisions made will benefit everyone, including the most marginalised women and girls.”
But while activists or BBC journalists have the ear of government and a media megaphone when they raise issues of inequality, those who are marginalised by economic, social, physical or educational circumstances have no such mouthpiece. In their day-to-day lives, equality might not be top of the to-do list for a young mum struggling to feed her family, or an ex-prisoner whose life-chances are limited years after she has served her sentence.
Here we ask women you won’t find in the headlines to share their experience of ‘equality’ in Britain today. It is clear that 100 years after the right to vote was won, some women are more equal than others. The battle is far from over.
Women find themselves being ‘sandwich’ carers where they’re bringing up their own children and looking after an older relative as well
Beth Britton, 37, from Berkshire became a carer for her dad aged 12
More women than men are carers. That’s not to ignore the role that men take, but more women find themselves in the position of being ‘sandwich’ carers where they’re bringing up their own children and looking after an older relative as well. It’s all unpaid, and this has important implications for us getting back into work, our pensions and our chances in retirement.
I was a carer for my dad, who had dementia for 19 years, beginning when I was 12 years old. Caring responsibilities come on progressively. It began with stuff like getting him interested in looking after his garden then eventually it progressed to cooking, shopping, personal care and other little bits and pieces along the way until it becomes massive. My mum was around but she was working, so these things fell to me. People say you become a carer, but you don’t realise you’ve become a carer.
It had a massive impact on my childhood. I had no further education. I was really into sports writing and I was good at English, so I could have studied journalism or media. But it just wasn’t an option for me.
Things rumbled on until we found my dad collapsed after a major stroke. It didn’t stop when he went into a care home though – the responsibilities don’t end. We were there almost daily, singing songs with him, enriching his life. And if it’s a bad home you spend an awful lot of time battling with managers. Sometimes the commitment is as big, if not bigger.
Having an addiction changed me as a woman, as a mum, as a person
Edinburgh tour guide Biffy Mackay, 27, overcame homelessness and drug addiction
My tours at Invisible Edinburgh are based on powerful local women, and also show a different side of the city, such as charities and projects which help homeless people. I was homeless too – I used to never have a permanent place to stay, and never knew what to do next.
I think it’s different being a woman and being homeless than being a homeless man. It’s more dangerous. A lot of women I speak to get approached by creepy guys, but you wouldn’t see that happening to another man. I only slept rough a few times, but it’s really scary, every little noise frightens you.
For example, one time I was just sitting and this man was speaking to me. My boyfriend came over to check I was OK and the stranger started giving me abuse, claiming I wasn’t homeless because I had a boyfriend. He wouldn’t have said that to a guy, or be questioning whether he was homeless. I don’t know why people don’t think women can be homeless, I’d like to know why.
There are organisations to go to get sanitary products. People are more aware of issues like that when it comes to being a homeless woman, but in Edinburgh there’s a hostel in the city centre, and of the 26 spaces only three are for women. The women’s hostel that was there has just been turned into a men’s one. They need to support homeless women better. They have to think about more women’s only or women’s spaces in hostels. When I asked someone at the other hostel if they thought there should be more women’s spaces they said they didn’t think there was a need for it. But I disagree.
When it comes to addiction I don’t think there is a difference for men and women. It’s just as hard. I’ve got three older kids, and I started taking drugs when I first lost custody of them. Taking drugs stopped me from actually seeing my kids – I was maybe ashamed or embarrassed, and didn’t want them to see me like that. The last time I saw them was 2011.
Having an addiction changed me as a woman, as a mum, as a person. It’s changed the way I think about other women too. I go past some girls on the street and I just think of how young they are and what a shame it is. I got pregnant again when I was getting myself clean and it made me even more motivated to succeed. My youngest daughter, Charlotte, will be four in May.
I’ve not always been interested in powerful women. As I got older I realised how tough it was and how we can be discriminated against. My tour looks at JK Rowling, ‘half hangit’ Maggie Dickson (who survived being hanged after her premature baby died within a few days of being born) and Elsie Inglis (a doctor, suffragist and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals) and I tell my own story too. People like to hear my story, I always get applause at the end. I’d want my daughter to be as understanding about women as I’ve become. I want to impart that wisdom on to her.
Sometimes people have this perception of you because you look a particular way
Anita Davies, 46, visually impaired community councillor from Bridgend
When you’re a woman with a disability, you have two things against you. If I came from an ethnic background, there would be three strands to it.
The local authority here is cutting nine bus services, and all but one of them serve disadvantaged areas where you tend to have poverty, unemployment, disability and ill health. This is why we need to be around the table when the decisions are being made. There are people who make decisions about our lives who just don’t understand our lives.
There needs to be a variety of people in positions of power at a local and national level. The people at the top will be the people who have maybe done well at school or have the ability to speak in a particular way. I’ve been criticised for the way I speak. I always say, “I’ve spoken this way for 40 years – this is the way I speak.” I think people think it’s OK to say these things to a woman. People should not be afraid to be themselves.
The man in the train station ticket office asked me recently if I was going shopping for the day. I told him I was going to work. Because I had my cane he assumed I couldn’t possibly work. He didn’t mean anything by it, but sometimes people have this perception of you because you look a particular way.
Having said that, I’d never want to get a job just because I’m a woman. Sometimes you do have barriers you have to overcome though, because if you have children or caring responsibilities it’s more likely to be women who need time off work or a break in their career.
When you consider what women went through for us to win the vote, I think it’s hugely important that we use it.
Without nursing I’m wasting my knowledge, my skills
Abi, 55, is a midwife from Nigeria but does not have refugee status and so can’t work
I trained as a nurse in Nigeria, after which I went in again for my midwifery and became dual-qualified. I worked as a nurse and a midwife and became the sister in charge of a clinic. It was a private clinic and after a couple of years there I crossed over to a government hospital and worked solely as a midwife. I looked after pregnant women. I took delivery of babies and neonates and did a lot of maternity care. I have over 30 years of experience in nursing.
I have not been able to work in the UK due to my immigration status. According to the rules of law in this country if you do not have a work permit you cannot work, or if you do not have indefinite leave to remain you cannot work. So without that I just can’t. I feel like I am wasting away, rejected, unhappy, depressed. Nursing is the main job I know how to do. Without it I am wasting my knowledge, my skills, and it is making me look like a vegetable. I am really unhappy about it. I want to get back on my feet, to have my job back and to be able to function. I would like to have opportunities for development, to build my skills even more so that I can be useful to a lot of other people, and myself. This way my happiness will come back, I will be happy with myself and with my environment.
Refugee and migrant women in the UK often do not have the right to vote, and yet are affected by laws and policies decided by politicians.
It’s definitely harder to achieve equality when you have literacy problems
Kirsty Hopcraft, 33, from Cambridgeshire, is a mum of four who had difficulty reading and writing
I don’t have email, and I wouldn’t even have bothered going for a job before I started to get help. I missed out on so much. I wouldn’t really want to go outside – even to the park – because I didn’t know what was around me. It’s definitely harder to achieve equality when you have literacy problems.
My school didn’t pick up on it so I never knew what I had to do to get help. I didn’t know how serious it was until I had the children and they were coming home with their homework. I couldn’t read it and that was scary. I had absolutely no confidence.
I used to go to my oldest for help. Nine months ago I started going to Read Easy, and it’s improved me so much in that short time. Now I can read a magazine. When my four-year-old comes home with his letters and his sounds, I can see what he needs to do.
My ambition is to write a story one day. And to work in caring.
A conviction is something that is still easy for society to discriminate against
Arts worker Erika Flowers, 51, from London says equality does not apply if you’ve been in prison
I grew up in an era where my careers advice at school was pretty much ‘would you like to work for British Gas, the NHS or be a secretary?’ My teenage years and early twenties were forged in the Thatcher era which I think had a profound influence on my expectations, new power for women, women can do whatever men can do. I went to college and university and then embarked on a career, which was what all new women were expected to do in these times.
My journey then took me on a path that ended up with my serving a two-year prison sentence for drug charges. I did not steal from anyone or cause anyone any harm, but I do now have a conviction to contend with. I definitely feel that society has yet to come to terms with rehabilitation, if you have a conviction, you must be bad! A woman with a conviction, now that’s got to be one to avoid! I made a bad choice and a mistake. Prison did not take my abilities away from me, but having to declare my conviction is an immediate slide down to the bottom of the ladder.
Within the women’s prison system equality and diversity is impressed upon in an attempt to alleviate bullying, compulsory sessions are a part of all inductions. These ideals do not however translate to the world outside, a conviction is something that is still an easy option for society to discriminate against, which raises all sorts of questions around how we as a society deal with punishment and rehabilitation as a whole.
Awareness and action are two very different things, however. Social media, openness, naming and shaming and more people making their voices heard, it is possible that this 100-year anniversary of women getting the vote could well be a catalyst for real change.
Very much at the forefront of our collective thinking, equality and diversity are even job descriptions that never existed 20 years ago. Equal pay and equal rights for all, could, I hope, be a norm for the future. We have come a long way in the past 100 years, maybe this juncture could be a new beginning for further change, anything is possible.