A hard-won right

Very proudly and self-consciously, I voted for the first time in a by-election when I was nineteen. Since then, I have lost count of the number of times I've entered a polling booth, for general or local elections, the GLC, London Assembly and Mayor and in a referendum. Each time, though, I do it with an awareness of the women to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude; women who, very controversially, were prepared to risk their families, health and reputations - and even their lives - in the cause of women's suffrage. Yes, men were part of the campaign too, but it was women who ended up being force fed in jail and attacked and persecuted, on the streets and through parliamentary acts.

And today we celebrate one hundred years since that day in 1918 when about 8 million women - over 30, property owners or graduates - were granted the right to vote. It is an anniversary of equality, though based on inequality: younger, poorer, less educated women were still excluded from the same electoral rights as men until 1928.

A century can seem like a long time, and its beginnings lie in a completely other age; and yet, I realise I have already lived just over half a century, and 1918 is only forty-five years away from 1963, the year of my birth. The older women who were our neighbours as I was growing up would have been young women in 1918; women who had grown up never expecting to enter a polling booth or take any part in public or civic life, but who matured and grew older in a world with universal suffrage and female politicians and public figures. How, I now wonder, did all this feel for them, born and brought up in an age with very different opportunities and expectations?

The century shortens, too, when I look at other countries. Italian women were only allowed to vote in local elections from 1924, only gaining equal voting rights in national elections in 1945, when my mother was a teenager and my grandmothers were already middle-aged. Did they chafe and complain against this inequality, or did they simply accept it, as they did so much else, maybe counting this as the least of their struggles? And how did that first vote, that first burst of equality, feel? Sadly, I will never know; until today these questions never occurred to me, and the generations before me have all died, taking these and so many other unanswered questions with them.

And then the century shortens still further when I remember that women in Saudi Arabia only won the right to vote a few years ago, or consider the lack of voting rights in apartheid South Africa.

We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. The discrimination - on the grounds of gender, class, wealth - which led to only partial suffrage in 1918, still exists; often covertly, but no less powerful for that, especially when allied to other forms of prejudice. Women here and around the world still lack equal rights and dignity in many ways. So as we celebrate this centenary and raise our glasses to those whose sacrifices won us this right, we can pray for all those who still have to fight for so much more, and renew our determination to continue working for a world in which there is true equality, fairness and justice for all - one in which the common good is uppermost. And may we never forget, and take this or any other right or privilege - especially if hard-won - for granted.