Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Still a long, hard way to go before equality is achieved

Belfast's role in the struggle for female suffrage is being celebrated on International Women's Day today. Fionola Meredith reports

What is the point of International Women's Day? According to the prevailing post feminist logic – often spouted by younger women who are ignorant of how much has been done already for them and how much more remains to be done – women have won the equality battle.

There's no need for these grand displays of unity and solidarity anymore; no need for marches protesting the injustices against them; no need for chants demanding the rights they have been denied.

Dream on, little sisters. Because, whether they like it or not, there's a long, hard road still to travel before women achieve true equality.

Sometimes, it's only when sexist reality rises up and bites them on their complacent rears that they realise the struggle continues.

A global epidemic of discrimination means that women are more impoverished, less well-educated and have less access to justice than men; their fundamental human rights denied. That doesn't mean that things are fine and dandy for women in this part of the world. In the UK, women are paid on average 15% less per hour than men and are shouldering 72% of the burden of spending cuts.

And look at the poor sprinkling of female representatives we have in public life, particularly in Northern Ireland, where local politics – in spite of having adopted the strange foreign language of rights and equality – continues to be dominated by grey, privileged old men.

This year, the main rally in Belfast for International Women's Day will be a tribute to the suffragette movement a hundred years ago. They couldn't have picked a better theme. These half-forgotten women were visionary heroines and the reality that we inhabit today would be unthinkable without them.

Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson, who will greet the marchers at city hall, has acknowledged the vital role that these revolutionaries played in the history of their times, praising the way the campaign for female suffrage "brought together women from all social, economic, political and religious backgrounds to fight for a common goal".

He's right: in spite of the competing distraction of the Home Rule question, the suffrage movement sought to unite nationalists and unionists, orange and green, extremist and moderate.

Isabella Tod, the feminist and social campaigner who also fought passionately for the maintenance of the Union, insisted that the vote was a non-negotiable necessity.

She said: "It is impossible for women to do their duty and to protect their interests and dignity, without the same weapon men find essential for the same purposes."

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, another leading suffragette and Irish nationalist, protested that women were "classed among criminals, infants and lunatics... in the fact, my status as a woman is worse than any of these". It became a battle of deeds, not words, and by 1914, suffragists had taken their campaign on to the streets, deeply frustrated by Edward Carson's refusal to guarantee the rights of Ulster women in the British political system.

Public property came under attack: windows were smashed, grand houses burned down. The suffragettes, while they never targeted individuals, focused on the comfortable bastions of the Ulster male establishment.

According to contemporary reports, one suffragette even forced her way into the offices of Ulster's newspapers in order to slap the faces of the editors who disagreed with the aims of the movement.

Today, a blue plaque will be unveiled by the Ulster History Circle at the former home on Botanic Avenue of Isabella Tod. It's right that her name should be remembered and honoured.

And it's right that women should take to the streets in their hundreds to celebrate the achievements of the past and to demand full equality in the future.

Because we haven't arrived yet. We're only halfway there.

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