The destinations of the leaders of the Suffragette movement in Britain were, as shown in part one, utterly contradictory. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU, became a zealous supporter of the First World War, fervent anti-communist and, in time, Conservative party candidate. Sylvia Pankhurst, her daughter, worked to improve the conditions of working class women, opposed the First World War, agitated for universal suffrage and unreservedly backed the Russian Revolution when it burst onto the scene in 1917. In fact, the East London Federation of Suffragettes morphed, after several incarnations, into the first British Communist party, although Sylvia Pankhurst swiftly became an anti-Leninist council communist.
These outcomes were not accidental but pre-determined by a feminism informed by class in contrast to one that regarded class an irrelevant distraction. Sylvia Pankhurst’s support for ‘human suffrage’, her urgent desire to improve the lot of the working class and her instinctual backing of the Russian Revolution did not subsume her feminism. She advocated a system of ‘household soviets’ in order that mothers could be represented in how society was managed and refused to get married, instead co-habiting with an Italian anarchist in Essex. But she became unequivocal socialist.
A sheen of equality
The other kind of feminism is doomed to play an ultimately conservative role by buttressing already existing institutions, albeit with the caveat that they be opened up equally to women. There is an unmistakable echo of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Party in the assertion of Hillary Clinton’s former speechwriter, Anne-Marie Slaughter, that gender equality will achieved by closing the “leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders.”
There is undoubtedly value in doing this, opening up roles to women that have been the province of men for decades or even centuries. But it is a tightly constricted form of progress. The value will be felt, and already is being felt, by middle class women who will fill those roles as social mobility stagnates or goes into reverse. In the OECD, a club of 34 rich countries, half of the well-paid professional and managerial “class 1” jobs are now held by women. Norway has a law demanding that 40% of company directors are women. Its effect has been extremely limited, aside from creating a tiny elite of rich women. What changes like this do achieve, however, is to lend a sheen of equality and diversity to institutions that don’t merit such validation. They also leave in place, even solidify, armies of poorly paid, overwhelming female, workers doing ‘caring’ jobs such as nursery assistant or cleaner. Gender equality becomes synonymous with elite concerns.
Chartism and other ‘male’ movements
We would do well not to cast ‘patriarchical’ male-dominated movements of the past into the dustbin of history. When the first extension of the vote in Britain in 1832 confined enfranchisement to middle class men only (13% of adult males), the result was the formation of co-operatives and trade unions throughout society. Chartism, the original movement to enlarge the franchise which swiftly followed, was inherently sexist – it demanded the vote for all men only. But this did not stop it being bitterly resisted and posing an existential challenge to the order of things. Male democracy was deemed a mortal danger to the newly minted capitalist system by the liberal rulers of the day and, according to one historian, “the mere demand for the ballot was often treated as a criminal act by the authorities.”
Chartism was accompanied by a wave of strikes and the right to vote was extended gradually, only once the ruling class was convinced workers had become sufficiently docile. “Only when the working class had accepted the principles of a capitalist economy and the trade unions had made the smooth running of industry their chief concern did the middle classes concede the vote to the better situated workers,” wrote economic historian Karl Polanyi in the 1940s, “that is, long after the Chartist Movement had subsided and it had become certain that the workers would not try to use the franchise in the service of any ideas of their own,”. Syndicalism was similarly male dominated (the document quoted in part one from the Welsh miners’ union refers to ‘men’ determining how work shall be done) but it nonetheless represented a radical challenge to how society and industry should be managed.
What this means is that divisions among white men will be replicated among women and people of different ethnicities and, conversely, movements for equality among white men can be adapted beyond their original sexist and racist defects. To take one historical example, Ancient Athens was patriarchical to an absurd degree - women were not allowed outside the family home unless under male surveillance. It resembled, in this respect, modern-day Saudi Arabia. But Athens pioneered a form of direct democracy and political equality that can be used to increase female participation in public affairs. Sortition – where decision makers are chosen by random selection as opposed to elected to a position – has been demonstrated to be far more representative of the population than conventional forms of democracy, reliant on universal suffrage and the vote. The very rights the Suffragettes fought for. Nearly 90 years after women gained the vote in Britain, working class women are the most unrepresented group in the House of Commons. Formal equality and enfranchisement have clearly not had the seismic effects both the Suffragettes, and their opponents at the time, imagined.
Economic inequality and class
But class is very definitely still with us. One of the chief television ‘entertainments’ of today in Britain are reality programmes about the lives of people on welfare benefits. Their tone is uniformly contemptuous and stigmatising, to the degree that, were they about an ethnic group, they would be deemed irredeemably racist. The current width of the UK’s Overton Window permits the suggestion that people who don’t pay sufficient taxes should have the right to vote taken from them, while businesses should be enfranchised. The higher echelons of politics, the judiciary and the corporate world are dominated by the privately educated and Oxbridge graduates, while 91% of the general population go to state schools.
The Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, published in 2010 by the last Labour government, found that inequalities among individuals from the same social group (for example gender or ethnicity) were much greater than differences between the social groups. “Even if all differences between groups were removed, overall inequalities would remain wide,” it concluded.
For this reason, the push to increase gender inequality at the summit of major social institutions, though necessary and valuable for other reasons, will not dent overall inequality which is now huge and getting more extreme. An overwhelming concentration on gender will not make class disappear. This is something Sylvia Pankhurst understood very well. It is why there are statues of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst opposite the Houses of Parliament but not of her.