This is a proper gem of a book. Taking its title from Millicent Fawcett’s words following the death of Emily Wilding Davison, Winterson adds her Twenty-First Century voice to the calls from the Suffragettes and Suffragists for true equality for women.
Winterson starts by acknowledging how far we’ve come, pointing out that in 1908, whilst ‘working men had few enough rights, [at least] they were, in law, persons in their own right. Women were not. Women, legally, were grouped with children and the insane.’ And the distance we’ve come since then is certainly significant. I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t until the year I was born, 1975, women could get their own mortgages. I have grown up knowing that women do have the same voting rights, legal rights, etc etc. But then she moves swiftly into our present, demonstrating brilliantly how uneven things remain, socially and in terms of expectations. She refutes the idea that we’ve ‘won’, that there’s no need to keep banging on about equality now (so perhaps we can all just shut up now?), and suggests that ‘we see double – we notice a few women here and there, and we think, oh this is equality – look, there’s a woman.’ She highlights the gender pay gap statistics, quoting a Guardian report from 2018 (2018, ffs!) which reports ‘an average gender pay gap of over 18%’ within the 3,000+ UK firms sampled (The Guardian, 4th April, 2018). And the point that resonated with me most strongly concerns careers and hours of work. I want to quote it here in full:
‘Part of the justification for [the pay gap] has been that men are prepared to work longer hours. Well, someone at home is doing the shopping and the cooking and looking after children, then.
The culture of long hours that kicked off in the 1980s makes it pretty impossible for a working person to have a home-life unless someone other than the working person is making that home-life.
Women go part-time, not because they can’t manage the stress or the pressure of work, but because children need time, elderly relatives need time, our friends, the people we love need time, love itself needs time.
And when it comes to being ‘prepared’ to work long hours, we all know that the true length of a working week for a woman with a family is 24/7.’
Now, I know that the culture of long hours and a rubbish work-life balance will have an impact on men too. That discussion is being had elsewhere. However, until the impact of ‘women’s work’ in the home, as it has been called in the past, is properly recognised, and until we have affordable, decent childcare for all, I can’t see how women can have access to the same thing men automatically expect – a reasonably rewarding job that pays enough, and a nice, clean home to go back to.
Winterson employs a marvellous balance of irritation and dry humour. She quotes her mother, the late Mrs Winterson, ‘The bible tells us to turn the other cheek but there are only so many cheeks in a day.’ The suffragettes were clearly not the joyless harridans they’ve often been painted as either – I’d love to get my hands on a copy of the board game Suffragetto, marketing in 1908 as a fundraising opportunity for the WSPU.
There’s something really reassuring in the courage and sense of solidarity on offer in this book. Like the #MeToo campaign, it reminds us that others might feel the same as us, feel the same frustrations as us. Also printed in this volume is Emmeline Pankhurst’s stirring speech ‘Freedom or Death’, which she delivered in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913. The bit I particularly enjoyed is when she describes the difficulty the government faced in trying to shut down women’s voices:
‘We wear no mark; we belong to every class; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest; and so you see in the women’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it: you cannot locate [the violence], and they cannot stop it.’
However, this was quickly followed by a sense of frustration that we’re even still having to fight for equal pay in 2019. My final thought on finishing this pair of brilliant essays is that women need to stop bitching about other women, knocking each other down in a bid to win at a competition with parameters essentially set up to measure success in male terms. Female solidarity would take us so much further – we’ve made huge advances, but there’s clearly still some way to go.