I went to the British Library on Saturday to see the exhibit “Taking Liberties: The struggle for Britain’s freedom and rights.” Beginning with the Magna Carta (on display!) it showed how unstable British politics have been, and for how long.
I was fascinated by the section on the long struggle to give women the vote. The movement started in the 1860s, but the exhibit claimed that it didn’t have much success until after the First World War – women over 30 got the vote 1920, and women over 21 in 1928. The Suffragettes were more organized, and more radical than I thought. They blew up post boxes, stages rallies in the street, and accumulated criminal records. In fact, so many of them went to jail in the 1890s and 1900s, and then went on hunger strikes in order to be released, that the government passed a new law. The “Cat and Mouse” law permitted the government to release a woman after a hunger strike and then rearrest her as soon as she had gained enough weight not to die in jail.
It seems unimaginable now that the suffrage activists would have to go to such lengths to prove that women should be allowed the same democratic rights as men. But female suffrage was very threatening to the moral and social order of the times. If women were willing to blow up mailboxes in order to get the right to vote, who knows who they might vote for if they got the chance?
The exhibit was a good reminder that freedoms and rights are often grudgingly given by those with more power to those with less. Those with less are often called to put their beliefs on the line. I started to ask myself, “would I be willing to go to jail for my rights?” If ever my right to vote were revoked, I would like to belive I would.
Democracy (especially in Britain) sometimes seems wounded and tepid – with too much balancing to truly bring change. But another amazing event of this week proves that it can still work. Obama’s inauguration, and the vision of millions of people on Washington’s mall, suggest that people with less power, working together, can still shift the heavy machinery of government. But we all need to be willing to push.