My awakening to the fight for women’s votes came when I was 13, and the BBC screened a drama called Shoulder to Shoulder about the suffragettes, with the great Siân Phillips as Emmeline Pankhurst. It made a huge impression on me – not just the history, but because of the debates it triggered at home.
If you have no vote, and no amount of marches and petitions have changed this, how far are you willing to go? Defacing paintings, smashing windows, throwing rocks, committing arson? Would you be prepared to take the risks that came with those acts of violence: going to prison, being stripped, tortured and force-fed? All of which Emily Davison suffered multiple times before the most famous and tragic act of suffragette activism – her death at the 1913 Derby.
My mum was a campaigner in the 1960s, when peace was paramount, and insisted when we discussed this that violence was never the way. But my grandmother’s take on things took me by surprise. What she said then had a profound effect on me. She had always seemed content in her role as mother and grandmother, the backbone of the family and a homemaker in the truest sense of the word. So it was a revelation when she revealed that, had she been born a bit earlier, she would have been a suffragette.
Looking back I can see it makes perfect sense. Nan was a working-class East End girl who got a job in a bank in the early 30s doing all the backroom numerical calculations. But as soon as she got married, it wasn’t just that she was expected to stay at home: in those days your employer automatically let you go.
Throughout her life, she helped friends and family with their finances and tax returns, but otherwise she poured all her energy and intelligence into her children. With a Player’s untipped cigarette in one hand, she taught them, cooked their food, made their clothes and kept a lovely home, because that was her only outlet. Looking back, I think we could all sense her feeling that she could have done something else with her talents. But the opportunity wasn’t there.
It fell to my mum’s generation to fight the injustices Nan suffered: which women were allowed to work; which jobs they were allowed to do; the rights they had, compared with men. It has fallen to my generation to fight the next round of battles – on issues including maternity leave, equal pay, childcare, domestic violence and increasing female representation in the House of Commons.
What Nan and Mum taught me is that the fight for female empowerment and equality was not won a century ago, and is still not won today, as we can see from the debates that have dominated the past year – from Harvey Weinstein to Carrie Gracie.
But here is the key. Before women’s suffrage, the only way we could change the status quo was through pressure, whether applied politely in conversations with influential men, or violently with rocks thrown at their carriages. Gaining the vote gave us the power to make change happen ourselves. It was the fight that made all the other battles we have fought since then possible. We will therefore always be indebted to the women who made it happen.
I have tried to repay that debt in symbolic ways, by supporting what I believe will be a successful campaign to erect a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst – Emmeline’s daughter – in Clerkenwell, London, and leading the campaign – still, to my bitter regret, unsuccessful – to erect a statue of Emily Davison inside parliament.
However, I know that if both those incredible women were here today, they would tell us that statues only go so far. The debt we owe them can be repaid only by fighting as ferociously and relentlessly as they did against the injustices and ignorance that women in Britain still face today.
What is the fight we should not be prepared to leave to our daughters, but must do everything to win today? For me, more than anything else, it is the social care crisis: 85% of social care professionals are women, 65% of people living with dementia in Britain are women, and 60% of unpaid family carers are women. In the next two decades, the care burden is forecast to double.
That will mean millions of women every year forced to give up their jobs, their sleep and their own lives, because there is no one else to care for the people they love – unless there is proper funding, provision and care for all who need it.
This must be our fight today. We owe it to our mums and nans, who either need that care today or will need it in the future. We owe it to the daughters who may one day have to look after us. And, above all, we owe it to the suffragettes to use the power they fought for.
• Emily Thornberry is a Labour MP and the shadow foreign secretary