A century after the right to vote brought to a close an era of violence, coercion and hunger strikes, the country’s second woman Prime Minister was moved yesterday to warn of a new threat facing the female electorate.
The danger this time was more insidious, Theresa May suggested, for the aggressors did not flaunt their prejudice but cloaked it in the anonymity of social media.
Bullying and harassment online had fuelled an “aggressive attitude in politics” which had led to the intimidation of candidates, “most often focused on women”, Mrs May said.
The climate of bitterness and aggression was deterring many from engaging in political debate, she added.
“I think we need to just step back and say that sadly this is leading to some women feeling that they don’t want to put their head above the parapet, they don’t want to take part in public life,” Mrs May said on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, a programme that can trace its origins back to only 17 years after the 1929 “flapper election” in which women in their 20s were allowed to vote.
Later, delivering a speech in Manchester to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, she added: “As we remember the heroic campaigners of the past, who fought to include the voices of all citizens in our public debate, we should consider what values and principles guide our conduct of that debate today.
“I worry that our public debate today is coarsening.That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process.”
Her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, formed a chorus, telling the Commons that she puts up with “hate” because “female voices matter”.
But she added: “We shouldn’t have to bear it: we need to call this sort of behaviour out and make clear that enough is enough.”
The anniversary of the 1918 law passed by David Lloyd George’s coalition government was also marked by a call from Labour to pardon suffragettes who gained criminal records as they protested against injustice.
Jeremy Corbyn said an official apology for the miscarriages of justice and persecution the campaigners suffered would be made if he took power. Ms Rudd said she would look into the idea but suggested that from a distance of a century it would be difficult to carry out.
An academic in York pointed out that some of those involved in the suffrage movement dated back further still, and that several women appeared to have hidden in the roof of the chamber to listen to debates.
Dr Catriona Cooper, who is researching the role of women in the House of Commons in the 19th century, said the first petition for women to vote had been presented in 1832, on behalf of Mary Smith, said to be from Stanmore in Yorkshire.
Official records show she was “laughed out of the House” when she said that she paid taxes and was subject to the rule of law, and therefore did not see why she should not vote.
Dr Cooper, from the University of York, said: “History tells us that the battle for women to reach equality had been going on for close to 100 years prior to 1918, and the struggle is still ongoing in various sectors and aspects of everyday life today.”
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, said the anniversary should be used to tackle long-standing inequality.
But she said there was a culture of misogyny that “seeps out” in life in the UK, adding, “if you raise a voice and raise a challenge you become the target.”
Ms Smethers said it was “surprising and disappointing” that the discussions of 100 years ago were still relevant now.