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The suffragettes: How we can change the world

As we celebrate lesbian suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s 145th birthday, Debbie Gold reflects how the fight for Votes for Women in the UK reflects modern LGBT struggles
Emmeline Pankhurst's 145th birthday is marked this weekend.

The suffragettes are often cited as an inspiration in campaigns for civil rights everywhere. Just a month or so ago Julian Clary compared the struggle for gay marriage to the suffragette campaign for Votes for Women in Britain. This weekend, as we commemorate Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons that we can learn from the suffragettes in our movement for LGBT civil rights.

The true inspiration of the suffragettes was in their absolute, unwavering commitment to their goal – despite huge obstacles in their way, and the enormous mistreatment, abuse and violence that they experienced. After decades of trying to use constitutional means to create change, they eventually realized that they needed to use more confrontational means.

Just as in our own campaign for LGBT rights, the Stonewall Riots acted as a catalyst to bring our communities together to fight for change – so the actions of the suffragettes – chaining themselves to fences, setting fire to post boxes, daubing graffiti on golf courses – brought home to politicians and society the strength of their argument and the urgency of their need for enfranchisement and basic human rights.

Many suffragettes were arrested, sometimes simply for trying to ask a question on women’s suffrage in a public meeting. Once in prison they were treated as criminals rather than political prisoners. As a protest against this, many used the only weapon they could to draw attention to this government sanctioned attack – hunger strike – and faced the pain and indignity of forced feeding.

Famously, Emily Wilding Davison was killed when she tried to stop the Kings Horse at the Epsom Derby (she didn’t kill herself, as some have suggested – and the proof is her return bus ticket you can see on display in the women’s library).

Emmeline Pankhurst was a leader of this movement, but she isn’t representative of it. In fact, the movement was incredibly diverse, represented even within Emmeline’s own family, where her daughter Sylvia (my true hero!) rejected Emmeline and Christobel’s (another daughter) need for national recognition, choosing instead to focus her suffragette activities locally in east London, and connecting them to the wider fight for worker’s rights – continuing this fight even when her mother and sisters abandoned the campaign for suffrage at the outset of the First World War.

The suffrage movement brought together women from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Though many of the leadership were from upper and middle classes (Annie Kenney a notable exception), many working class women found a place within the campaign, and linked it to the greater struggle for enfranchisement for the working classes, and greater working rights. We should never forget these thousands of otherwise unknown and uncelebrated women – stuffing envelopes, selling papers, joining marches – creating a movement for change which is still in place today. Equal voting rights (finally gained in 1928) was only the first hurdle, there followed the fight for reproductive rights, for fair divorce and child custody laws, for equal pay, and on and on.

Our movement for full civil and political rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexual and trans people, is a natural successor to that movement. We too have had our moments of celebrity and daring – who can forget the fantastic lesbians protesting section 28, invading the BBC news studios, the GLF invasion of the Festival of Light, or of course the Stonewall Riots?

We’ve also experienced our share of oppression including imprisonment, and violence from the medical professions. But over the years we’ve chipped away at the unfair laws, and we’ve nudged society forward bit by bit. We’re partway through that journey, and we couldn’t have managed it, we still can’t manage it, not without the leaders – the names we all know – but without of the countless individuals, working alone, and in groups large and small, doing the day to day work of creating change. That means you – we needed you – and we need you still – without you everything always stays the same – if the suffragettes showed us anything – they showed us that together we can change the world.

Debbie Gold is chief executive officer of Galop, the London LGBT hate crime organization.

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