Stepping Towards Equality: From the Workhouse to the Chambers?

Today the UK marked 100 years since some women—specifically those aged over 30 with property—won the right to vote, a vital leap towards universal suffrage which would come a decade later.

The significance of this anniversary should not be lost on any woman or feminist for it was the first tender step towards a level of equality between all people, regardless of their birth, station, gender, sexuality, religion, wealth or other, that we still strive to achieve today across all aspects of society.

However, for me, this auspicious anniversary reminds me of my own female family history though I cannot claim kinship with those titans of the suffragette movement; instead I am reminded of my maternal grandmother, Gladys.

Gladys was born in a workhouse in Gravesend in 1904, rumoured to be the illegitimate daughter of the dock worker William Mackie who subsequently died on the Titanic in 1912. Born in poverty, as was still commonplace in those times, Gladys was just another child put in service to those rich folk with nice big houses. Though an unpalatable thought to us now I am certain Gladys would have been thrilled to be out of the workhouse with a roof over her head and fed for her toils. In the era before the welfare state I guess Gladys, in some respect, would have been considered fortunate.

Like thousands of working-class women with barely any education and trapped with a single option for her future, Gladys took up the only choice she had: marriage. With marriage came children; 8 of them with the youngest, my mother, arriving in 1948. Gladys became the matriarch, keeping house and home while her husband, Charles, cycled from Southend to the Shell refinery in Grays and back every day.

By all accounts Gladys was a fierce woman not to be messed with. Charles wouldn’t win an argument with her – I’m sure he knew better than to try. Her life was not an easy one but she lived through tremendous change. She witnessed the creation of the NHS and welfare state – two things which would have immensely improved her life chances and those of the thousands of people who fell fatally prey to destitution and disease.

She would have seen and heard of the suffragettes and their hard-fought victories. Of course, aged just fourteen, she could not vote in 1918 but she could in 1929. I wonder if she used her vote. I wonder what she thought of the suffragettes. I wonder what she thought the world would be like in 2018.

In her lifetime the world changed so much but I wonder if she—in the workhouse, living in servitude, and then whilst raising her own family—ever thought that the world would change so much in just two generations of her family. That a girl from the workhouse, born with no title and no birth-right to vote would have a granddaughter who is proudly standing as a candidate in the 2018 local elections.

Samantha Reed

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