Women march on

The votes for women campaign had its own colours, its own mechandise and its own songs. Picture: ASH

The votes for women campaign had its own colours, its own mechandise and its own songs. Picture: ASHLEY PICKERING

One hundred years of women

Suffragettes gathering to protest in London c.1910 - There would be another eight years of the strug

Suffragettes gathering to protest in London c.1910 - There would be another eight years of the struggle before women got the vote. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

It’s a big year for women.

In my case, quite a big year for quite a big woman – if Boots the Chemist’s electronic, print-your-weight scales are to be believed. I have addressed this issue by wearing more lipstick.

A century ago, the Representation of the People Act came into force, which gave some women the vote. For women it was a start but was by no means the finish. The women’s suffrage movement formally began in 1872 and it took 46 years for anything to change; 56 years before votes for women were on the same terms as votes for men.

I don’t think women ever thought men were better than they were but in times when opportunities were limited and men had fought on the front line in two world wars, maybe it was simply accepted that they should get first dibs at the jobs. At my all-girls state secondary school, I had a number of school friends whose brothers were sent to public schools. Even as recently as the ’60s, it appears, some people deemed boys more important, educationally.

In the ’80s, I answered the front door to a genial man who asked to speak to the head of the household.

“You’re speaking to her,” I said. He stuttered and blustered and then visibly withered under my gaze before scuttling away to nurse his ego. Casual sexism, eh?

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When I was a child living on council estates, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, thanks to television commercials and TV shows, I knew exactly what roles married men and women fulfilled. Before the arrival of children, both went out to work but the women also did the housework and cooking while the men went to football and the pub. After children, the mum stayed home and managed the household while the man went out to work, went to football and the pub. At least that’s how it seemed and my Giant Girls’ Book of Stories supported that view.

My grandmother was a war widow. A strong, independent woman, she worked at the Co-op, played bingo and had the occasional “flutter” on the horses. Where was she in popular culture?

But I didn’t know any women who could drive... oh, except for my mum’s friend, Joan, who was an Avon lady and always looked dishevelled – which probably didn’t help her sales.

Where I lived, men were the drivers, although there were not many families with cars. I thought my uncle John must be very rich because he had a car.

This cars-for-men ethos left us with a legacy of older women who never learned to drive. As a result, their husbands drive them to the supermarket and solicitously open the passenger door for their wives to de-car. The wives go off to do the shopping, unloading the trolley at the checkout, loading the groceries into bags and wheeling the trolley to the car. Whereupon the husband, who has been listening to Ken Bruce’s Popmaster on Radio 2, jumps out of the car and loads the bags into the boot.

This particular feature of supermarket car parks everywhere has been a constant throughout my adult life, although there are fewer such goings-on than there used to be. More often today I see women in supermarkets accompanied by their husbands or partners... or rather I see them trying to chivvy along menfolk who are loitering in the biscuit aisle.

On many occasions, while browsing the fabric conditioners, the woman standing next to me will talk to her husband – who is no longer there. “He was there a moment ago,” she sighs.

Having occasionally mislaid my own husband, I stand in the central concourse and just wait until the wanderer appears, usually bearing something he’d forgotten; usually in red or white.

Now he is mostly retired he goes shopping alone and shows admirable discipline in that he buys only what we need. Me, I’m an intuitive shopper.

While celebrating women and condemning the remaining inequalities, injustices and cruelties that afflict them in this country and beyond, I should also mention that I like men. My husband, with whom I live (at time of writing) and share the household chores, two children (one of them male) and two grandchildren (both of them male), is a man. He was happy to have the word “obey” struck from my marriage vows in 1978 and puts up with my foibles, which are many, varied and sometimes new and totally unexpected.

Very few tasks are ring-fenced but I sew on buttons (only where buttons formerly were) and he does the gardening. If that sounds unequal, I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention it.

If he has a hacking cough that’s keeping me awake, he sleeps in the spare bedroom. If I have a hacking cough that’s keeping me awake, he sleeps in the spare bedroom.

The thing about equality is that it does not mean being the same.

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