One hundred years ago this week, on February 6, one of the truly radical changes in the structure of British society occurred when the 1918 Representation of the People’s Act was passed, paving the way for women to be given the right to vote for the first time in this country.
Ten months later, on December 14, women did just that in a democratic UK election, with more than eight million of them being eligible.
Mind you, it was not all women, just those over the age of 30 who met certain property qualifications. It would be a further ten years before all women over the age of 21 were made equal with men at the ballot box, and another four decades until the voting age of 18 was introduced.
What we take for granted today as a democratic right was not easily won. Throughout the late 1880s women had been campaigning for the right to vote, some making their voices heard peacefully, others more militantly.
Emily Wilding Davison became notorious as one of the most determined and courageous campaigners who were prepared to endure inhumane treatment to further the cause. She was arrested nine times, sent to prison on seven occasions and, from 1909, brutally force-fed 49 times.
Although born in London, Emily had close connections with Morpeth and Longhorsley, where her mother lived, and it was from the village that she set off on her last journey to London in June 1913 and on to Epsom, where she stepped on to the track during the Derby. She was struck by King George V’s horse Anmer and died four days later without regaining consciousness.
Perhaps Emily’s actions at Epsom were the moment that changed opinion about women and the vote because her death and funeral, followed by her burial in St Mary’s Churchyard, Morpeth, attracted such international publicity.
Five years ago, I had the privilege to be part of events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her death, organised by the Emily Inspires! group, which will be arranging local commemorations of the centenary of women getting the vote.
On Thursday, March 8, the International Women’s Day service at St Mary’s will take place, followed by the laying of flowers at Emily’s grave. Two days later an event in Morpeth Town Hall will remind people how important it is to use their right to vote. Again, I will be privileged to be involved.
Readers might ask why this should be happening after all these years. The simple answer is that people like Emily Wilding Davison were prepared to stand up in the face of great adversity, opposition, personal danger and the most brutal treatment to fight for something they believed in.
In this country we are rightly proud of our democratic system, and every now and then we get the chance to exercise our right to vote and choose the people who run the country and our councils.
We have come a long way over the last century, but there is still more to do.
For instance, only a third of MPs are women, and that has to change. I work alongside some wonderful women at Westminster, not least of whom was Jo Cox, who was murdered as she went about her duties. Jo was a brilliant MP, good friend and colleague, who is sorely missed in the Commons.
Like Emily, Jo believed that women have the right to be heard, to lead and to play an equal role in society. It’s important that we all remember that as we pay homage to a local lass who was perhaps at the very heart of a watershed moment that changed the history of this country.
Statues will be erected around the country as tributes to Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett and Alice Hawkins. Emily Wilding Davison will take her place alongside her fellow pioneers of the women’s movement when her statue is unveiled in Morpeth’s Carlisle Park.