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Women’s Right to Political Participation

Raquel Rosario Sánchez

In June 1873, US suffragist Susan B. Anthony said:

Friends and fellow citizens: I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.

Standing before a federal court in New York, the suffragist was asked if she had anything to say in her defence. She took the opportunity to denounce what she called “the hateful oligarchy of sex” which made fathers, bothers, sons and husbands the rulers over mother, sisters, daughters and wives. Anthony argued that this sexual tyranny “which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.”

Susan B. Anthony was found guilty and fined 100 dollars, which she refused to pay. She died in 1906, over a decade before women gained the right to vote in the United States in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Barely two years earlier, many women in the United Kingdom had also obtained the right to vote. The Representation of the People Act 1918 granted the right to vote in Parliamentary elections to women over 30 years old and within a certain wealth bracket and the right to vote in local elections to women over 21 years old. Ten years later, through the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928, these rights were extended to all women over 21 in the U.K.

But what is suffrage? What does it mean to have the right to vote?

Voting, as in the physical act of casting a ballot, is a useless exercise, unless it is contextualised within the broader electoral process and crucially, unless we understand it as the legitimate fruit of democratic political participation. Around the world and for longer than a century, women have fought not only for the right to tick a particular box during Election Day but for the right to have a say in political debates and the public sphere.

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979, signed by the United Kingdom in July 1981 and ratified in April 1986, acknowledges that due to historic oppression (what Susan B. Anthony referred to as “the hateful oligarchy of sex”), women faced particular barriers to full enfranchisement in the political sphere.

Article 7, which refers to Political and Public Life, states:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right:

(a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies;

(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government;

(c) To participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.

Are women allowed to participate in the political process in the U.K.? I would argue that they are not. Why? Let’s look at a very brief summary of the evidence.

In 2019, it appears that troublesome women who want to engage in politics, as trade unionist Kiri Tunks has pointed out, are not only slurred but often subjected to physical violence, rape threats, intimidation, demonisation, libel, political ostracism and vilification… even when their political demands are in line with current U.K. law. Grassroots campaigns like Woman’s Place UK, which has sold over 3,500 tickets for events featuring over 45 different speakers from academia, the labour movement, the women’s sector and the feminist movement, must contend with having every single one of their 21 meetings threatened with violence.

The inhospitable nature of the sex and gender debate is strategic. It is deliberately toxic to frighten women in order to prevent them from engaging in the conversation. The message is loud and clear: “keep quiet, or else”. But then again, Tunks ponders:

When, in history, have women won any rights without having to fight to make their voice heard? Without kicking up a fuss? Women are meant to know our place. Keep quiet. Stay in the shadows. Acquiesce. Do as we are told. Behave.

The current state of affairs sees women being attacked and verbally abused on their picket lines, subjected to political witch-hunts for the material they dare to like or tweet on social media, victims of orchestrated smear campaigns within their workplaces, accused of contributing to an unsubstantiated rise in trans suicide, forced to clean urine from their university office doors as retaliation for using their human rights expertise to engage in a public policy debate, confronted with bomb threats considered legitimate by the Police, expelled from social media, and when all else fails, invited by Women’s Officers in so-called progressive political parties to “suck big lady cock”.

When women have the absolute audacity to become Members of Parliament, they are at risk of having their alleged private conversations about public policy leaked to the media in an attempt to discredit and punish them for doing precisely the job they were elected to do. Needless to say, (or perhaps not?), the role of a Parliamentarian is to analyse, question and construct public policy. By attempting to shame women in Parliament for asking questions about social policy, transactivists reveal they want to force women back to a time when we were not involved in policy making and in the political process.

Lily Madigan

Transactivist Lily Madigan, former Labour Party Women’s Officer for Lewisham and current Labour Students National Women’s Officer, has stated clearly that although a Women’s Officer, Madigan has nothing but contempt for women peacefully exercising their rights under the law:

  It is important to remember that in a democratic society, political parties have a responsibility to prevent unbearably hostile climates like this being fomented within their ranks. It is the duty of all political parties to facilitate debate and to broker resolutions when conflict arises. But political parties in the U.K. have deserted women. Under anonymity, Etti’s Daughter writes for Medium that the vilification of women in politics is a rare non-partisan issue:

Labour, Greens and the Lib Dems have shown themselves to be structurally misogynistic. This has been demonstrated not just through their willing acceptance that there is no objective definition of what a woman is, but also the way they have treated women who have different views. Many of the male activists who women worked alongside for years have revealed a different side to themselvesone that does not condemn rape threats or sexist abuse, one that is happy to exclude women from political life because they have a different perspective.

Political participation is about engaging in the public sphere. As German philosopher Jurgen Habermas reminded us, the public sphere is the social domain where public opinion is formed and transformed. It is the free participation of the public in political discussions which grants legitimacy to the electoral process and, in turn, to democracy. Women’s global struggle for suffrage was a fight for women’s rights to occupy our rightful place in the democratic process.

Needless to say, political dissent is, in itself, a vital part of political input. We should all be wary of the claim that obtaining dogmatic acquiescence through the use and abuse of intimidation and threats is a sustainable way to engage in what aspires to be a fairer society. Dissent, disagreement and a challenging back and forth of diverging opinions that we may not necessarily agree with, not only helps us get a better understanding of any political issue at hand, but it also fortifies democracy by helping us arrive at a properly thought through decision-making process.

Respectful disagreement is, therefore, to be encouraged not stifled if we strive to be a society where everyone’s human rights are respected.

Women’s opinions are relentlessly policed because opinions are part of the public sphere and, under a patriarchal system, women are to remain sheltered within the private sphere. The bullying, the threats, the vilification and the gratuitous invitation extended to women that we should all just go f**k ourselves if we do not want to acquiesce to this horrid state of political affairs are everyday reminders that women may have won a Parliamentary Act…… or two, but that there are forces which are eager to confine us, voiceless and powerless, back into the home.

As I wrote last December for Spanish platform Tribuna Feminista:

What’s the point of voting? What’s the point of allowing a woman the right to go cast a ballot, if she herself, is more undefined as a human being than the electoral contest in which she is participating? A woman paralysed by fear, frightened that she may lose her job and her friendships if an activist decides to take pictures of her at the entrance of a political event which had to be organized clandestinely, and under the heavy presence of security, to discuss proposals to modify a law which affect women, but which her government didn’t want her to know about, is not free and she is not a citizen.

It is ludicrous to pretend that any country could archive a more egalitarian society if it is precisely its political sphere which has become the area of social life where the evermore degrading debasement of women is not only permitted but encouraged. We will never put an end to the sexism, objectification and discrimination faced by women without addressing the comfortable homes these oppressions have found inside all British political parties. To ignore the voices of women demanding they be treated with respect while engaging in the political process represents a slap in the face to the sex which often constitutes the majority of the membership of those political parties.

For some reason, multiple generations of women and girls have been led to believe that their rights to freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association have already been won.

Evidently not.

Could it be that women are allowed to have rights as long as we sit pretty and promise never to exercise them?

Sometimes I wonder if the empty platitudes spouted by politicians encouraging women to participate in politics represent either a cruel mockery or some sort of sadistic ritual… If the first, who is laughing at us? If the second, who gets off on abusing us?

As an immigrant in this country, I have spent the past year and a half reflecting on women’s right to political participation; how despondent the structural failure of the democratic process feels and how alone women seem to be in our struggle to be recognised both as human beings and as political subjects, in our own right. This ordeal has reminded me of some wise words from Aida Cartagena Portalatin, a poet and writer from the Dominican Republic, who once wrote: “I do not believe that I am here for nothing. This place needs a woman, and that woman is me. I will not return weeping. I will not reconcile myself with disturbing facts”.

One of my favourite poems by Cartagena Portalatin speaks to the power of women keeping their nerves under straining circumstances and standing strong amidst the unsurmountable. In A Woman Is Alone, she writes:

A woman is alone. Alone with her stature
With eyes wide open. With arms wide open
With her heart open like broad silence
She awaits in the desperate and exasperating night
without losing hope
She thinks she is in the Admiral’s ship
with the saddest light of creation
She has hoisted the ship’s sails and let herself drift through the Northern winds
with her figure accelerated before the eyes of love
A woman is alone. Holding her dreams within her dreams
The dreams she has yet to dream and the whole Antillean sky

 

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer and researcher. She specialises in ending male violence against women and girls and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol.

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