As Jeanette Winterson tells it the early Suffragettes were the Pussy Riot of the day. They were even more daring and provocative than the Russian activists, considering the social mores of Edwardian England where women were expected to shut up and put up. They were certainly not expected to be pioneers of direct action and agitprop – chaining themselves to railings and blowing up letterboxes.
This was a do or die struggle for civil rights, plain and simple. “The bravest were the poorest,” writes Winterson. “In London activists included working women from the factories. And across the country, on their half day off, servants who could lose their jobs if found out crowded into Suffragette rallies.” Working men, she reminds us, had few rights but “were, in law, persons in their own right. Women, legally, were grouped with children and the insane”.
Cleverly, the author weaves threads from the Suffragettes’ story into present-day concerns. “There is still a sex war going on,” she says, “but we have to remember something simple and obvious: discrimination of any kind is never, ever rational – it just pretends to be”. Feminism is, as they say, the unfinished revolution.
There’s plenty of wry humour in this timely, absorbing book (it’s the size of a picture postcard and a third of its 72 pages are taken up with Emmeline Pankhurst’s famous 1913 “Freedom or Death” speech). But there’s anger too. Justified anger. The book is a reworking of Winterson’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture of 2018. Footnotes guide the reader on further reading and online resources – a peek at the robot Sophia on YouTube is rewarding. She/it has been awarded full citizenship (a person in her own right?) in Saudi Arabia meaning she has more rights than flesh-and-blood Saudi women. What does that say?
Winterson recalls the Marriage Bar – certain jobs/careers were not open to married woman. Shockingly “it wasn’t until 1975 that the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to manipulate the labour market in favour of men”.
Britain is a rich, progressive country and we have foodbanks and large-scale poverty. Domestic violence, the 2008 crash, the exploitative gig economy and even Trump all come under Winterson’s scrutiny. She reminds us “life is not a spreadsheet” the way big business would like it to be.
Men remain in power and misogyny is as rife as ever. Winterson’s book is not exactly a call to arms but it’s a strong polemic. Perhaps it should be mandatory that every parent, grandparent or godparent should see that everyone gets a copy of this book on their 16th birthday.