This speech was delivered by Maninder Kaur, a YWCA Young Women’s Councillor at the Song Kitchen Suffragette Dinner held on Saturday 7 March 2020. This is an edited version of a longer speech.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Maninder Kaur and I am currently studying at the University of Sydney. As a daughter to two Indian immigrants and sister to some of the biggest bogans you will ever meet, I come from a small regional town in tropical Far North Queensland, just south of Cairns. Despite being a small girl in a small town, I’ve always dreamed big and wanted to change the world.
When I became a member of the YWCA Young Women’s Council (YWC) I didn’t think that I’d be meeting some of the most loving and caring sisters in the world. The YWC is an incredible platform where women from diverse backgrounds come together, share unconditional love and use their voices to create change. I’ve had the opportunity to network with like-minded people, been offered incredible opportunities and learned a lot about what intersectional feminism looks like in 2020.
Tonight, we’ll be celebrating the suffrage movement with a dinner inspired by recipes from the 1880 Women’s Suffrage Cookbook.
Suffragettes were often thought of as radical, too masculine to have husbands or were neglecting their children to starvation. However, the cookbooks were proof that women could still cook and feed their children even while being active in politics. As one cookbook put it ‘good cooking and sure voting goes hand in hand’. Ultimately, the cookbooks served as propaganda for the cause – the fight for getting women the right to vote. They are a humble icon of resistance and a product of a collaboration between some of the greatest suffragettes of the time.
Now these suffragettes may be perceived to be as the women who chained themselves to fences, went on hunger strikes or sashed shop windows, but it took a few years before the suffragists resorted to that level of drastic action. Originally, the suffragette movement was comprised of, and for, middle-class, property-owning, white women. Nothing like the intersectional feminism that we see today. These early campaigners weren’t interested in extending the same rights to women of colour, migrant women or those of a lower socio-economic status or class. Their campaigns were peaceful and law-abiding in hope of gaining Parliament’s respect to be granted the vote.
One suffragist, however, grew tired of this passive campaigning style. Emmeline Pankhurst is renowned for being a catalyst of the suffrage movement. Her motto, ‘Deeds Not Words’ symbolises her belief that taking action would allow the movement to gain momentum to get attention from mainstream media. And she was right. The radical behavior and chaotic outrage finally got women’s right to vote to be a mainstream issue.
However, let’s not leave queer, disabled and women of colour suffragettes forgotten to history. These groups were also prominent contributors and advocates of the movement.
Lesbian couples such as Evelina Haverfield and Vera ‘Jack’ Holme or Lettice Floyd and Annie Williams were all very open and accepted couples in the campaign. Ethel Smyth was also a prominent queer leadership figure for her composition of the suffragette anthem, “The March of the Women”.
Rosa May Billinghurst, who was a woman with disability, was an absolute force. She was confined to a hand-propelled tricycle after being left unable to walk from childhood polio. However, she still took part in protests, often ramming police with her tricycle chair or smashing windows. She was even thrown in Holloway Prison on multiple occasions but survived like the thug life chose her.
Women of colour such as Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last king of the Sikh Empire, publicly rebelled against the British establishment and by 1909 was one of the most prominent British suffragists. She played a big role in the Women’s Tax Resistance League, appearing in court because her refusal to pay taxes.
All these women played a huge role in our present-day definition of intersectional feminism. They acknowledged and understood that sexuality, race and disability didn’t matter since they were all fighting for the same goal of equality and justice.
The reason that the suffrage movement became so popular with woman is because conditions in the 19th century were tough. In Australia, women had very few legal rights and even those were transferred to her husband when she married. Married women had to surrender all property and any wages to their husbands. And if they had children, husbands were the sole legal guardians.
Women in the workforce also experienced great difficulty through earning two thirds less than a man for the same job. Work was often unsafe, as trade unions resisted women’s involvement in the workforce as they thought it would reduce men’s wages.
The suffrage movement worked on all these issues but most importantly, the political representation. Having a women in politics meant that a women could fight for their rights in parliament and make meaningful change.
In Australia, it wasn’t until 1895 that South Australian women became the first in the world who could vote and stand up for parliament. The other states followed later and in 1902, the newly established Australian Government enabled white women to vote in and stand for federal elections. By 1911, all other states had extended the right to vote at state elections to women.
This was a huge milestone for the time since Australia was the second country to grant white women the right to vote. However, the same right was not extended to Aboriganal and Torres Strait Islander women and men until 1962. Even to this day representation of minority groups is still lacking in our politics and there is still more we need to achieve.
The Women’s Suffrage was an incredibly monumental movement by progressive and strong women. Their courage and bravery in the face of persecution is what we still need today to fight the issues of today’s society. Unfortunately, woman still face discrimination whether it be through the gender pay gap and superannuation, lack of leadership opportunities, representation in politics, gender-based violence or reproductive rights. And these issues further burden women of colour, disabled or queer women.
But we can change that. So let this dinner stand as a testament to those who paved the way, to those fighting today and those of the future.
As an intersectional feminist I’m proud to be part of the YWCA, an organiaation that works for gender equality and provides so many critical programs and services for women, young women and girls across Australia.
Thank you for coming tonight to join me in the reflection of the suffragette movement and all those who sacrificed for a cause greater than themselves.