Pioneers in Politics: The Transformation of Female Suffrage from Alice Bacon and Harriet Harman to Rachel Reeves

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“A woman MP has to do everything a man MP did, and a little bit more. I don’t believe that any woman in parliament, ever, has done more for women outside of parliament, or for women entering parliament, than Harriet Harman.”

With its allusion to the famous words of Alice Bacon, these introductory remarks struck a sweet chord in 2018, a year that marks the centenary of women first gaining the right to vote in Britain, as well as the right to stand as a Member of Parliament. As a celebration of this breakthrough moment in women’s suffrage, the University of Leeds hosted Harriet Harman, Labour MP of Camberwell and Peckham, to provide a guest lecture that reflected on the pioneering life of Yorkshire’s first female MP, Alice Bacon. A Labour MP who served for Leeds North East and Leeds South East between 1945 and 1970, Alice remains an inspirational figure, but also one who is often forgotten.

The evening’s lecture was preceded by an exhibition in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, where material from the Feminist Archive North was on display. While observing the colourful array of posters, postcards and banners on show, it was impossible to miss the projected DVD playing in the background. This was ‘Video Vera’, a documentary highlighting the actions of great women of the North. To the soundtrack of these inspirational and revolutionary women, the collection took on a new meaning. The postcards depicting the witty defacement of female-objectifying advertisements, the placards of ‘female only’ artwork, the banners that were carried on more marches than their bearers care to remember – all became part of a physical network of female connection rebellion. It was encouraging to see t-shirts and bags expressing solidarity with women of Asia and Africa, recognising the universal and diverse nature of women’s suffrage, something overtly ‘white’ feminist movements are often criticised for overlooking.

There were also some extremely rare documents from the library’s Special Collections on show, and it was here that you learnt the brutal extent of female subjugation throughout British history. A medal on display told the story of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, a vicious law that allowed for the early release of female prisoners who were starving themselves to death out of protest, but also allowed for the reimprisonment of these women once they had gained enough strength to begin publicly protesting again. However, while the selections from the Special Collections offered an extremely unique insight into a not-so-distant time, it was the nitty gritty physicality of the Feminist Archive North’s material that made a greater impression- that captured the communal spirit of the women who came together again and again to make the movement what it was.

With the effects of the exhibition fresh in the mind, the relevance of Harriet Harman’s lecture was increased tenfold. Held in the expansive confines of the Great Hall, the imposing walls offered a serene setting for the night’s proceedings. But they were also the walls of an institution which only appointed its first female professor in 1946, a fact vice-chancellor Alan Langlands was keen to point out at the start.

The talk began with an introduction from Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West. Having written a book on Alice Bacon, Rachel was the perfect candidate to discuss the life of someone who so dramatically shaped the lives of women in Britain. Acting towards the end of her career as Minister for Schools, Alice helped introduce the comprehensive school system to the UK, meaning it is precisely because of women like her that people from less privileged backgrounds were able to sit and listen to this lecture in a hall which, for many years, was reserved solely for society’s elite.

“Inverting the power dynamics that allowed these incidents – as well as countless others which may never be revealed – to occur, Harriet saw them as an opportunity to be capitalised upon, to impose lasting change”

Yet Alice remains a mostly unknown figure in the realm of politics, the marginality of which Harriet Harman commented on. Harriet admitted she wouldn’t have known about Alice if it wasn’t for Rachel’s book, because, “for the most part, women are hidden from history. Unless we write about ourselves, unless we write about what other women have done, History will tell us what men did, but it will not tell us what women did. We have to write it down, or suffer from invisibility.” It was a remarkably self-aware comment that highlighted the importance of the evening itself, as an ambassador for discussions on the realities and difficulties that still remain for women in politics.

When Alice became an MP in 1945, only 24 MPs out of 640 were women. Compare that figure to last year’s General Election, which saw 208 female MPs elected. Harriet used this evidence to highlight the major steps that have been taken towards realising equal gender representation in Parliament. However, she noted how equal representation is only half the battle; convincing the media and ignorant doubters in society is another fight entirely. Referring to the example of ‘Blair’s Babes’ – the headline used to describe the large number of women in Tony Blair’s first government – Harriet argued how perspectives of women in politics continue to be shaped by demeaning lenses. “The thing about Blair’s Babes is that it was not light-hearted party banter, it was belittling women who had struggled and who were determined to make a difference. It was demeaning, and it was produced by the newspapers who pretended it was a joke. But it wasn’t.” The same issue, sadly, survives today. News outlets seem far more concerned with focusing on what female figures like Theresa May are wearing instead of what they are saying or doing. By taking away their voices and their actions, the media continues to portray female politicians as objects for public consumption.

This is a symptom of sexist societal standards, as exhibited by contemporary events like the Weinstein scandal, the resignation of Carrie Gracie, and, most recently, the disgusting accounts of female objectification and sexual harassment at the President’s Club dinner. The resentment towards these issues lingered, pertinent amidst the crowd. However, rather than advocating short-term aggressive backlash, Harriet looked towards long-term progress from these incidents. “The important thing is to recognise that this goes on all the time up and down the country. We need not just to change the mood, but to change the reality as well. What we need to do is ensure that all these moments are not just moments but opportunities for lasting change.” Inverting the power dynamics that allowed these incidents – as well as countless others which may never be revealed – to occur, Harriet saw them as an opportunity to be capitalised upon, to impose lasting change.

Speaking on the development of feminism abroad, Harriet was equally persuasive. “I think the most important thing for women and girls in developing countries is women in government in those countries. Because who is going to best defend the right to go to school of a young girl in a Nigerian village? It’s not someone from an aid agency, it’s a woman from the federal legislature. We should put our support for women in politics. Women’s representation- that’s the best and most sustainable way of dealing with inequality, that’s the key to the [global] future of women.” On this note, Harriet detailed plans for a conference in the House of Commons which would invite women from every parliament in the world to debate and discuss a diverse range of issues. This would then be followed by “forming a giant WhatsApp group for all these women to have an ongoing complaint about men”, Harriet jokingly added, her tongue firmly in her cheek.

Concluding with the assertation that the next Labour leader must surely be a woman, Harriet was met with a rousing round of applause. Her lecture, tracing the progress of political gender equality from Alice Bacon to Rachel Reeves, was an enlightening discussion that highlighted the necessity of understanding the roots of female suffrage in order to better understand its future and, hopefully, its eventual success. “Women in politics are still pioneers”; their actions are still subversive and revolutionary in a realm which continues to deny them space and equal representation. But they are there “for a better democracy, for a representative democracy. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re confident that the arc of history bends towards progress. So, we will get there.”

And due to the nature of the lecture, with its focus on women abroad, the supporting role men can play, as well as its willingness to engage with and include all oppressed groups, it’s clear that we will get there… together.



Robert Cairns


[Image: Meet In Leeds, Robert Cairns]