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What Would the Suffragettes Say if They Could See Us Here Today?

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Taken from Helen Pankhurst's speech in Parliament at an event commemorating 100 years since the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby on 8 June 1913.

Walking down the corridors of power, the Suffragettes would find that we have neither arrived at our destination in the UK, nor globally. They would be delighted to come across some women MPs but they would otherwise find a system that makes it easy for some people to belong - whilst others have to fight to be heard. On hundred years on, it is far from a level playing field. Less than 0.2% of the world's population are governed by a gender representative parliament.

They would look globally, because gender equality, like democracy, exposes how interconnected we are, both at home and overseas. One shining example under the Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, is DFID's very explicit focus on girls' and women's rights. Another is The Foreign Secretary William Hague's G8 initiative to prosecute the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict situations.

However, the Suffragettes would look behind the policy exceptions to uncover a parliamentary system in which the gender agenda is marginalised rather than mainstreamed.

And what would the Suffragettes make of civil society and the general public? They would be appalled by the low voter turnout - after all the sacrifices including most poignantly that of Emily Wilding Davison's, they would have anticipated and deserve much greater engagement - to speak up until we achieve equal representation.

And yes, there is a resurgence of powerful and effective gendered political activism, especially amongst the young. Perpetrators of violence against girls and women are less likely to get away with it. The activism that is exposing them and the expression of collective outrage, is evidence of an awakened public voice - though the establishment, particularly the media, the police and the courts, are still far from being the perfect gender-sensitive instruments of justice that they could and should be.

I can just imagine the suffragettes looking at the world we live in now, rolling up their sleeves to log onto their laptops and tablets, signing online petitions, tweeting and - ever their favourite - getting out there to march 'shoulder to shoulder'. They would relish the myriad opportunities to take part in events such as A Chime for Change, One billion rising, CARE International's Walk in Her Shoes, the campaigns of the Fawcett Society, UK Feminista, WaterAid and so on. In the UK at least, we have endless opportunities to engage and make a difference, using our voices in ways which are no longer silenced.

The Suffragettes were, after all, a social as well as a political movement giving colour and meaning to the lives of women. They shared experiences across background, class, location and age, allowing them to live a larger, more important life, as well as have fun together. Camaraderie and the opportunity to connect with the wider human causes of justice and freedom, compensated for all the derision and violence they faced. Their unflinching efforts played a part in the much wider transformation of our society - moving us along the path to a more inclusive and enabling context.

Nevertheless, these very same tools that amplify the feminist voice, are also the ones that feed the legal and illegal pornography industry, objectifying girls and women and allowing images of violence against them to flourish like never before. They are also used by fundamentalists and political extremists to disseminate their very different vision of the world, and how gender relations should be constructed. These are troubling forces that increase the need for a more gender representative and accountable 'establishment' - one that can speak to the democratic ideal of equal opportunity, and counter forces which, at their core, are selling a vision of male power and female subservience.

So the Suffragettes of old would say that the vote was only ever just the beginning. If they were alive today, they would not be sitting still, saying 'we have the vote - our work is done.' Rather, they would be urging us on knowing that we cannot stay still, because of the political and economic inequalities and the fact that, scratch the surface and the most misogynist of views are still ubiquitous.

The feminist agenda voiced - by women and men - needs to echo in Westminster and all our institutions, in our streets, and in our homes. And yes, we do need a statue of Emily Wilding Davison within Westminster - to remind the establishment of how myopic it was. We need to pay tribute to all our suffragette forbears to remember their flair, their passion, their innovative thinking, their courage and unstinting commitment to freedom and justice.

Most fundamentally of all we need to remember that the job is not yet done.

'If they were alive today what do you think the Suffragettes would do to galvanize girls and women politically? @HelenPankhurst #suffsaid (use hashtag)

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