I spent much of yesterday reading Millicent Fawcett’s ‘Short History of Women’s Suffrage.’ It’s a fascinating read with some interesting (and depressing) parallels with our own time. It is astonishing to discover just how many times the issue of women’s suffrage was up before Parliament and how many times, in spite of having widespread support, it failed to pass into law. Gladstone stands out as a particular weasel; having indicated he would support the issue when in government, he then proceeded to campaign against it as Prime Minister. Remind you of anyone? Fawcett was in the thick of this debate and knew major players such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau as well as the female opponents of women’s suffrage, whose position she neatly eviscerates. It’s exactly like Phyllis Schlafly who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the US: it’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’
But for all its obvious frustration and anger, the book is not a rant. It’s a very measured account whilst also being well-argued and forceful. The most striking thing about her opponents is that they nearly all relied on some inside knowledge of what God thought about it all. Women were divinely ordained to stay at home and raise children; we were not formed for cogent thought, etc etc etc and this was the way God wanted it. As Mary Wollstonecraft observed a century and a half earlier, ‘I have not found among the disbelievers in organised religion a single opponent of the principle of equal rights for men and women.’
There were a lot of surprising things in this book; such as that the Isle of Man was the first place in the UK to give women the vote and that in many places until the mid-19th century women were allowed to vote by default – simply because there was no law that said they couldn’t. The book is sad because it was written in 1912 when Fawcett thought we were on the eve of obtaining the vote, not realising it would take four years of senseless slaughter to change people’s minds; she did, however, live to see it enacted into law and the first women MP’s take their place in Parliament.
Warning – next section contains spoilers.
In other news, we finished watching Jimmy McGovern’s excellent series Time, starring Sean Bean as a deeply remorseful alcoholic serving four years for killing a cyclist while driving drunk. Four years is not long but the courts took into account that he handed himself into police, accepted responsibility for what he’d done and pleaded guilty in court. The drama begins with him being transported in a prison van alongside two maniacs who are banging the walls and screaming at each other, and in the beginning I thought it was going to be a violent drama which ended with him being killed or else somehow sucked into the system. Not a bit of it. It’s a steep learning curve but he learns how to stand up to bullies and spends a lot of time talking to young offenders about what he’s done. He teaches a fellow-inmate to read and after two years has so impressed the staff that he’s allowed out for a day to speak at a conference – unsupervised. But now it’s payback time: the guy who helped him defeat the bully wants the favour returned, and it’s a big one. After the conference he’s to stop off, pick up some drugs and deliver them to the prison. This is the turning-point of the drama – after delivering his speech to the conference on the need to live a good life, he can’t do it. He gets back in the taxi, goes back to the prison and tells the guy it’s no go. Ten minutes later they come for him, bearing snooker balls wrapped inside socks, but they guy he taught to read and write saves him, though not before he gets one eye socket bashed in.
The prison is often brutal, an environment where the best recourse to getting beaten up is to shut up because if you get a name as a grass life will only get worse. But there are beacons of light in the darkness, and in the end he finds redemption because he is willing to face up to what he has done. The drama ends with him meeting the mother of the man he killed, both of them trying to find a way forward.
There’s a sub-plot too, featuring prison officer Eric McNally, a ‘firm-but-fair’ bloke who actually does get sucked into the system because his son, in another prison, is being threatened. In order to save him he resorts to smuggling drugs into the prison and in the end he’s caught. He and Mark swap over; as Mark is waiting to get out, Eric is waiting to be transported to another prison to serve his time there.
It’s cathartic – and there aren’t many dramas you can say that about nowadays.