The depth of women’s history amazes me every time I dive into the unheard stories and details from this field. The more I learn, the more I realize that the past lessons are still being ignored. Here are some facts from women’s history that remind us of the importance of women’s emancipation and their struggle for change.
‘Equal degree’ took even longer to get than the ‘equal vote’
Women in the UK got an equal vote only in 1928. Before that, starting in 1918, women’s suffrage was quite limited because of different qualifications of age, property, and education applied to women voters. However, if 1928 sounds way too late for suffrage equality, then the following fact might seem shocking: the right to earn a university degree became universally available only 20 years later in 1948. And the last British university to award women the degree was… Cambridge.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the university simply ignored the issue. The University of Cambridge had its first women’s college in 1869, but it didn’t grant women the same student status, degree, or possibility to participate in the school’s governance. There were efforts to change the situation, i.e., women’s petitions, and the university voting on women’s inclusion in 1897. Unfortunately, the idea to grant women the same rights and opportunities in academia was voted out. 1713 votes against the proposal compared to 662 of those in favor.
And the last British university to award women the degree was… Cambridge.
The striking fact was that the idea of voting was met with huge anti-women near-riot protests organized by male students. These well-educated elite men would throw fireworks at the window’s of women’s college, destroy local shops, set a bonfire in Market Square, and burn an effigy of a woman on a bicycle (a metaphor of the progressive new generation of women at the time) that was placed outside of the university during the anti-women campaign prior to the voting day. Interestingly, someone that day collected the evidence of the protest from the ground (fragments of confetti, eggshells, grit, and dirt, the spent rockets) and later gave it to the university. Recently it was rediscovered and digitalized so that everyone can look at these tangible artifacts of the history of sexism and discrimination.
Women wanted not only political or economic but also physical emancipation
And by physical, I mean being able to live an independent life. Like moving freely outside the home, being mobile in the public space, without being guarded by a man, without constantly being under the patronage of some gentlemen whether you want it or not. This need for physical emancipation was met with the invention of a bicycle that unexpectedly made women mobile.
First modern bicycles were enormous and dangerous mechanisms. But at the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘safety bicycle’ with equal size wheels appeared. Even though initially it was created for older men who couldn’t risk using traditional ones, it was taken over by women. And, jeez, that cycling was liberating.
But at the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘safety bicycle’ with equal size wheels appeared. Even though initially it was created for older men who couldn’t risk using traditional ones, it was taken over by women. And, jeez, that cycling was liberating.
Western societies at that moment still adhered to the norm that an upper or middle-class woman in public space had to be accompanied by a man. So the image of a woman riding a bicycle alone without anyone protecting her from the dangers of the world looked unusual and disrupting the natural order. Needless to say that women cyclists had to confront stereotypes and prejudice (including medical ones) just for riding a bike. But the effect was huge: having individual transportation meant being more active in public life, community work, and society in general, having better physical health, and adopting a more rational, liberal and, well, ‘scandalous ‘dressing code – wearing bloomers and elastic corsets instead of old-school Victorian dresses.
Bicycle inspired women to travel, sometimes even around the world. Annie Londonderry did exactly that. She started her trip in 1894 from Boston – took her bike, a revolver, and left for Paris, Hong Kong, and other parts of the world. Even though she started her journey wearing a dress but soon changed into more practical clothing – the already mentioned bloomers. She came back after 15 months and was named as the first woman to accomplish such a trip.
Suffragettes didn’t have Facebook or Twitter but found other ways to spread the message as wide as possible
Suffragettes from the Women’s Social and Political Union (1903-1918) in the UK were determined to try multiple forms of fighting for women’s emancipation, including militant ones such as bombings, smashing windows, chaining themselves to the railings, and so on. One of the ingenious, smartest tactics suffragettes used in their campaign for women’s political rights was using penny coins as a canvas for their message. Coins were in everyone’s pockets, circulating widely in the society, going from hand to hand for years. Can you imagine a better platform for a political statement with this outreach?
One of the ingenious, smartest tactics suffragettes used in their campaign for women’s political rights was using penny coins as a canvas for their message.
Suffragettes would deface a penny coin with a slogan “VOTES FOR WOMEN, “covering the profile of the King of the UK Edward VII, which was placed on one side of the coin. The other side of the coin with a Britannia (the female personification of the UK lands) was mostly left untouched. Women chose a penny coin for a couple of reasons: its low monetary value guaranteed that the government wouldn’t recall it from circulation, and it was still big enough to hammer the words successfully.
Even though this was definitely a criminal act and a direct insult of the highest authority, the perpetrators were never found. Despite the fact that the coins’ slogan was identical to the motto of the aforementioned WSPU. It’s unknown how many coins were defaced like that. But it proves how determined and ingenious the suffragettes were, aiming for a gender-equal society.