Ahead of the General Election tomorrow, and the release of our upcoming anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance (available for preorder now), we asked Michelle Green to reflect on her own voting experiences.
I came of voting age in Canada but, as an immigrant, was without voting rights. I was otherwise living and working under the Western province of Alberta’s right-wing government, which was famous at the time for massive public spending cuts and a fierce opposition to LGBT rights, among other things. At each election, I wanted to know how everyone around me was voting (and quickly discovered what a taboo question that is in Canada). I wanted to know how those who could vote were exercising that right because, while I couldn’t take part, I still felt the effects of those millions of individual decisions.
The first time I voted was in a UK local election. I remember the pencil, the paper, the smell of the voting booth. Twenty four years old, and at last I could participate in one of the fundamental democratic mechanisms. Those six previous years, just a tiny taste of exclusion, have stayed with me. They’re at the front of my mind each time an election arrives.
Nowadays I write stories, and for Comma’s upcoming book on British protest movements I’ve spent these last few months researching and writing about British suffragettes, particularly the working class women who fought for the vote and rarely get mentioned – Annie Kenney, Dora Thewlis, Daisy Parsons, Mary Gawthorpe, Alice Wheeldon, to name just a few – and the women of colour who were largely made invisible if not actively shunned by some in the movement. Mill girls and washerwomen, factory hands and maids.
I’ve read about Sylvia Pankhurst’s support of working class women like Nellie Cressall, who began the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, and their revolutionary newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought. I’ve learned about the brutal practice of forced feeding that was imposed on hunger-striking suffragette prisoners, and the Cat and Mouse Act that followed, devastating the health of many of the women.
Their fight was long, and success won in stages. In 1918, after the rebellion and activism of suffragettes, middle class women were given a conditional vote: they needed to be over the age of 30 and either a university graduate, a property owner, or listed on the Local Government Register (or married to a man who was). Men were granted full suffrage in the same Act, as previously those without property had also been excluded. However, this still left many working class women, single women, young women and poor women excluded, essentially classed as legal minors unable to make such an important decision. It would be 1928 until all British women were given voting rights fully equal to men.
For many women of today, 1928 feels like a very long time ago – the broken windows and hunger strikes part of our distant past. I’ve lost count of how many women (and men) have told me that suffragettes starved and died not for their right to vote, but for their right to choose whether to vote or not. While that may be true in the most basic sense, I cannot stomach it. I can’t stomach the apathy, the weak excuse that voting changes nothing, that pragmatism is passé, that the government still gets in regardless of who you vote for, so why vote at all. I can’t stomach that the struggle for universal suffrage is seen as old history, and the unspoken assumption that the rights won on the bodies of our foremothers are immutable. Most of all, I can’t stomach the fact that working class people are once again being treated as children – lied to, and made to feel that our votes are irrelevant. Our votes are not irrelevant.
On 23rd June 2016, UK citizens (myself included) voted on whether or not to leave the EU, while those most affected by the decision – European immigrants, and Brits under the age of 18 – watched from the sidelines. Over twelve million registered voters didn’t take part, and as we know, the Leave campaign won by less than 4%. Our votes are not irrelevant.
Suffrage was won for us by mill girls and washerwomen, factory hands and maids. It was not granted as a gift from the powerful, or given as a prize for good behaviour – it was demanded, and it was fought for. It was hunger and imprisonment and the willingness to become outcasts. It was Annie and Dora and Daisy and Mary, Sylvia , Nellie and the ELFS; criminal records and ridicule, courage in the face of scorn. Our votes were fought for, and they are not irrelevant. I urge you to use yours tomorrow.
Michelle Green is a British-Canadian writer and spoken word artist. She has appeared at many festivals and live events across the UK and beyond, performing solo and in collaboration with writers, musicians and visual/digital artists. Her stories have featured on BBC Radio 4, in Short Fiction Journal, and in the literary mapping app LitNav, with her poetry appearing in numerous anthologies, including Stairs and Whispers, the UK’s first anthology of work by D/deaf and disabled writers, forthcoming from Nine Arches Press. Her debut short story collection, Jebel Marra(Comma Press, 2015) was nominated for a number of national and international awards, and she is now working on her second collection, an audio and digital short story map of Hayling Island. More atwww.michellegreen.co.uk