The EU is carrying on a hundred year fight for women's rights

10 March 2016

This week, for International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate women of the North East of England, my constituency.

There are many women from the region who deserve to be celebrated, among them Ummee Imam, the Director of the Angelou Centre, Mary Midgely, the famous moral philosopher, Mo Mowlam, the MP for Redcar who brokered peace in Northern Ireland by overseeing the Good Friday Agreement, Steph Houghton, from Durham, who is the captain for England and Manchester City Ladies.

But perhaps most famous and most rightly celebrated is Emily Wilding Davison, the only suffragette who died in the fight for women’s right to vote. Before she died under the King’s horse at Epsom Derby, she was jailed nine times and force fed on forty-nine separate occasions. She hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons during the 1911 census so she could give it as her place of residence, and she saved her fellow suffragettes from force-feeding after throwing herself down a 10-metre iron staircase in protest while in prison. Her fight was long, and hard, and she did not get to live to see it succeed.

On Tuesday, Priti Patel, the Minister of State for Employment, invoked the suffragette movement by claiming that the EU undermined the rights that the suffragettes fought for, because it undermines our democracy.

Ironically, the suffragette movement was incredibly internationalist, and fought in solidarity not only with women across Europe, but with women across the world.  

Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline, said in response:

“My great-grandmother fought tirelessly for women’s rights and dedicated her life to making sure women could live their lives free from discrimination. It is unacceptable to use her achievements to argue for something that is so out of line with the spirit of international solidarity that defined the suffragette movement.”

“To the contrary, I believe that my great-grandmother would have been the first to champion what the EU has meant for women, including equal pay and anti-discrimination laws.”

EU law protects equal pay for equal work – something the suffragettes themselves fought for in the 1910s – maternity rights, bans gender discrimination in employment and provision of services, tackles domestic violence, and has invested millions of euros to combat female genital mutilation.

The suffragettes understood that internationalism was important, because the problems that women face do not respect borders and violence against women is a problem shared across the world. I believe that women are safer, stronger, and better off inside the EU, and I think Emmeline Pankhurst would have agreed with me.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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