Are We the Modern Suffragettes?

BRICKS talks to the young women who are continuing the fight for gender equality, from the Women’s March to Free Periods and #TimesUp. Is this the birth of a new movement?

Words by Jessie Williams

As the statue of suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, is unveiled in Parliament Square (the first woman out of the 11 already there), one can’t help but think of a similar pivotal moment which took place five months ago, just down the road.

You could hear them cheering and chanting before you saw them. A mass of red had swiftly descended on Downing Street. Thousands of girls and young women of all shapes and races dressed in scarlet, huddled together and held homemade placards. Their aim? To fight against period poverty. But it wasn’t just that. It was a display of solidarity with women everywhere who feel that their voices have, for too long, been ignored. One of the speakers stood on the podium and declared; “The suffragette spirit is alive and well.” 

The event which took place last December was organised by Amika George, an 18-year-old schoolgirl and founder of Free Periods, who is just one of a plethora of young female activists using the internet to mobilise, raise awareness and take a stand for women’s rights. 

She says she’s just a teenager who is fighting to change something she feels is totally wrong. “I certainly didn’t set out to be an activist. I saw there was real injustice in period poverty and I found it disgraceful that the Government was refusing to take action.”

On 26th March the Government announced that they would use £15 million from the Tampon Tax Fund to pump into projects benefitting women and girls, one of them being Brook Young People’s ‘Let’s Talk. Period.’ project which aims to address period poverty (they’ll receive £1.5 million). George tweeted that she was “Just thrilled!!!” after hearing the news. It is a testament to the determination of the young women involved in the campaign, although they are still waiting for a long-term, statutory pledge. But it’s a start.

George’s Instagram posts prove just how much social media can fuel the flame of activism – her call to arms had spread over the image-sharing app like wildfire, gathering up young supporters, many of whom had never been to a protest before. This was a new generation taking their first tender steps in the world of campaigning — and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I certainly didn’t set out to be an activist. I saw there was real injustice in period poverty and I found it disgraceful that the Government was refusing to take action.

Amika George

2018 is the centenary of women over the age of 30 gaining the right to vote in the UK (it wasn’t until 1928 that women aged 21 and over could legally vote). Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline, who lead the suffragette movement, says the baton has been handed over to us. “I think all women, all young girls, probably to some extent reflect on their lives and their opportunities compared to their mothers, or their grandmothers, or great grandmothers. So I think there is that sense of knowing we have more opportunities and wanting to do better for the next generation.” 

But, in a country with a 9.1% gender pay gap, and one in four women experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime, it begs the question; what would Emmeline think? Her descendant replies: “If you look at every aspect, from political representation to financial and work autonomy, through to cultural spaces that women occupy, through to family dynamics; clearly we have moved forward. But it’s been 100 years, so I think she would be saying ‘Come on, we can do better for the sake of everybody.” 

Free Periods March, London, December 2017. Photo: Ben Katzler

Maggie Matić agrees. The 25-year-old activist and PhD candidate in the Contemporary Feminist Movement, says we are seeing increased conversations around intersectionality. “There’s an awareness that, yes, white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual women may have had it a lot easier than they have in previous decades, but there’s still a long way to go for women of colour, for working-class women, for queer women, for disabled women. And that actually, society is still failing those women, incredibly and dangerously.”

That is why today, like over 100 years ago, women are refusing to be silenced; both online and off. But, instead of throwing themselves under horses, or going on hunger strike, this new generation are using hashtags and retweets as their weapons of choice. There’s #MeToo#TimesUp#FreePeriods #PovertyIsSexist – each one a piece of a larger movement. Matić says the internet has democratised women’s voices. “They’re using those spaces to tell people that they’ve been neglected historically.” The 60’s was all about burning bras; will social media come to define 21st Century feminism?

Natasha Bishop, 20, founder of The Pants Project, declares that social media is activism’s best friend. According to her, The Pants Project wouldn’t exist without Instagram. The non-profit organisation raises money for Fertility Network UK and uses social media to raise awareness for infertility while promoting self-love and body positivity.

Bishop says it’s a “breath of fresh air” to see worthwhile causes on social media, as opposed to “hollow corporate advertisements and fake representations of reality”. “People want to be part of things, and if that thing is important and making a difference in the grand scheme, people are surprisingly quick to jump on the bandwagon.” She calls it bite-sized bits of activism. 

But the internet can be a double-edged sword. Pankhurst says that although today’s activism isn’t as militant as in her great grandmother’s day, there is still a lot of self-sacrifices. “I think that it’s at our cost that we underestimate the difficulties that some women who stand up face. The horrific misogyny that they face on Twitter; the death threats, the actual killing – Jo Cox – so in many ways there’s still a lot of sacrifices that women face.”

At the same time, this increased visibility has its benefits. “[Female activists] are more visible today,” says Pankhurst. “It does feel like it’s another moment. And maybe it’s like there is this regression…it comes with a moment at which there’s been a backlash, and almost at the same time we have seen the rise of these very vocal, wonderful, strong feminists.” She adds that it is “much needed and a great relief”. 

Bishop says that if her mother’s or grandmother’s generation had been given social media, they too would have used it as a platform for change. “Campaigning today is significantly easier than before, and arguably trendy – and so it should be, finally.” Indeed, during this year’s award season the movie stars were outshone by the female activists at their side. 

Not everyone agrees with this. Writing in the Telegraph, the journalist Elizabeth Day describes today as an era of “millennial protest-lite, where the most important thing is the selfie you take rather than the awareness you raise.” Many also argue that this is just ‘clicktivism’ and digital activism is not as effective as physically doing something, for example, going to a demonstration, volunteering, or attending an activist meeting. Deeds, not just words (or selfies).

Jess Bolton, the 24-year-old founder of the Resist List, a website that helps make activism more accessible, says turning URL into IRL is definitely a problem. “I think obviously it’s good to be intellectually engaged, but it is important that that converts into something more tangible.”

Encouraged by the overwhelming turn-out at last year’s Women’s March, which was initiated on social media, Bolton founded the Resist List in February 2017, and went on to spend every weekend of the first half of the year at a protest. But now she is disappointed with how that energy has petered out. 

So the big question remains: how does one turn that people power on the streets and online into real change? The answer – like most things – lies in politics. The Women’s Equality Party (WE) celebrated its third birthday in March. Despite not having any candidates elected at the last election, Honor Barber, 19, a youth ambassador for the party believes they are forcing gender issues into the public domain.

“[WE] remains the fastest growing political party in the UK, and I think just in terms of campaigns I worked on, the mayoral election, with Sadiq Khan having to declare himself a feminist, and having to talk about various issues related to violence against women at night and on the tube – those kind of things never would’ve happened if Sophie [Walker, the leader of WE] didn’t stand. These things make a real impact in terms of policy and the kind of issues that are discussed.” 

The success of the party, Barber thinks, is down to the grass-roots based organisation. When she joined the party aged 16, she was asked to contribute to the education policies, which she says would never happen in the Labour or Conservative parties. “There’s this idea that young women are only interested in makeup and not real-world issues.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

At the time of writing, Amika George has just been to Parliament to discuss period poverty. She radiates positivity. “I think the Free Periods campaign has turned into a movement, into a voice for those girls who have no voice. We are working with MPs and Peers to elicit real change, and I think we can do it!” It looks like 2018 will be a year of beginnings, as well as anniversaries.

These are just a few of the young women who have grabbed hold of the baton that has been passed down to them and are using their voices – through the megaphone of the internet – to try to change a world that is still very much a man’s. Pankhurst says their actions are what captures the spirit of the suffragettes; “It’s not accepting the status quo, and really believing in yourselves and believing in the sisterhood.”