IT IS a familiar story: winning a vote — or, for the suffragists, gaining it . . . and then realising that the battle has only just started. In January 1918, the Church Times was wrong to believe that a move to defer women’s suffrage to the age of 30 would be defeated because “a woman of twenty-one is more mature than a youth of that age.” We shall have to wait another ten years before celebrating the centenary of universal and equal suffrage. This, though, was just a final throw of the old guard, and the victory in February 1918 deserved the plaudit given to it in the Mothers’ Union Journal of that year: “The vote is a duty we owe to womankind — a responsibility laid upon us by God.”
Ahead of those first women voters lay problems that they would find harder to solve. The Church Times, 27 December 1918, hinted at these in a sketch of two women, the Misses Jenny and Letty Lavender, one of whom had voted in the General Election 13 days earlier. The other, Miss Letty, had not, despite having been a suffragette. She simply did not trust her Liberal candidate:
“Mr Lloyd George said it was our duty to use the vote, and if we didn’t it would show we didn’t care to have it,” Miss Letty went on, as she stood with one hand on the gate, her eyes following the movements of an old grey horse in the opposite field. “I’ve wanted the vote, looked forward to it, prayed for it. But I couldn’t bring myself to feel that it didn’t matter who the man was or what his opinions were, so long as he supported Lloyd George now.”
It would be decades before the newly enfranchised had the option of voting for a woman, even longer until they could vote for a choice of women who held political views with which they might agree. At the 2017 General Election, the proportion of women MPs passed the 30-per-cent mark for the first time.
Over a century, we have learnt slowly that equality and opportunity have multiple layers: that opening the door to women in each branch of activity is only the outer layer. It has been illegal to discriminate against women for many years, and yet the paucity of women in senior positions in most fields indicates the distance that must still be travelled. And what of the Church, where women outnumber men in most congregations and yet, in senior posts, lay as well as clerical, men outnumber women? It goes without saying that the Church should have been in the forefront of the campaign to mirror God’s equal love and equal regard for women and men. In judging past generations for their failings, however, it is worth asking how future generations will judge us. “Daddy, what did you do in the great war for equality?”