True irony: the fact that the female suffrage centenary is currently sharing column space with the revelation that Tesco, one of UK’s largest supermarkets and employers, could be sued up to £4BN for continuing to underpay their female workers compared to their male colleagues.
It would almost be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad. It would almost be novel, if it wasn’t so damn predictable.
This of course demonstrates the danger of celebrating the centenary uncritically. We cannot forget the job is not yet done.
The suffragettes made great strides, winning a vast number of women the right to vote in 1918. Yet, 100 years later, we have to ask ourselves: have we really moved that much further since then?
Women are still underprivileged within the UK. We are still underpaid, unrecognised, unequal fundamentally.
The suffrage was monumental; we cannot forget its power or neglect to utilise it.
Recognising that achievement, to the level that it has this year, is important and has been surprisingly encouraging. Highlighting the historical inequality that had to be challenged in order to gain the vote is essential to ensure that it can continue to be recognised and confronted.
Equal pay battles, such as the one being waged against Tesco, show the salience of these lessons from the suffragettes. Structural inequality persists within the UK, at a political, economic, and social level.
Even supposedly legally-protected areas such as waged employment are still sustained by the same inherent sexism that the suffragettes and countless other generations of women had to struggle against.
Recognising the suffragettes’ victory over such sexism reinforces that is worthwhile and socially important to challenge the remnants of the same sexism.
Thus, it is heartwarming and essential to see celebrations like commemorations and legal pardons for suffragettes. It validates their struggle, and offers hope that ours will be too.
Yet celebrating the past whilst ignoring current discrimination is dangerous and must be avoided.
So, while pardoning former ‘crimes’ of suffragettes is valuable, political attention needs to be focused on the persistence of structural discrimination that the Tesco lawsuit illustrates.
The fact it is being challenged, to an estimated £4BN in damage, exemplifies the legacy that movements such as the suffrage campaign have had on British society.
As the suffragettes demonstrated, sexism should not and cannot be tolerated. Structural change takes time; implementing legal equality takes even longer; achieving social equality will be the long term pipedream.
Hopefully the next celebration of the suffrage centennial will be unmarred by sexist lawsuits. Perhaps it will instead be accompanied by a celebration of true wage equality, including in the service industry (Tesco, I’m looking at you).
Yet the fact that sexist practices are still being talked about and being challenged are solace enough. They represent the importance of continuing to celebrate former achievements over inequality, such as this suffrage centenary, in order to learn from them.