EDINBURGH – Flora Drummond was a sight to behold on
the morning of October 9th, 1909.
Carrying a whip and dressed in a purple and white military
uniform, the Scottish suffragette – aptly nicknamed the “General” - led hundreds of women in a march through
the city of Edinburgh to demand the right to vote. Thousands
of spectators looked on in wonder at the sea of flags, bagpipes and floats; many more stared in astonishment at the sight
of Drummond riding her horse astride rather than sidesaddle.
But never the kind to conform to antiquated notions of
modesty, Drummond and her sisters of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant suffragette organization, would
continue to shock the patriarchal establishment by burning and destroying government property and staging hunger strikes in
prison. In this way suffragettes differentiated themselves from women suffragists, who used more peaceful methods to fight
for the vote.
Nevertheless, suffragists were invited to participate
in the march as well. Both camps’ efforts would pay off in 1928 when British women finally were granted the right to
vote on the same terms as men.
Now on the 100th anniversary of the procession, Scottish
feminists are paying tribute to these women by holding workshops, theatre performances and forums across the country.
Most recently on October 10th, about 3,000
men and women reenacted the event by marching in Edinburgh
with banners and signs reading “Votes for Women” and “Equal Pay.”
Channeling the spirit of Drummond, most of the demonstrators
wore purple, green and white scarves, sashes and ribbons – the colors of the WSPU; many also donned Victorian and Edwardian
But while all had come to celebrate the suffragettes’
achievements, the march also stressed the need for women to keep exercising their political strength.
“An article came out in 2007 just before the [Scottish]
parliamentary elections that suggested that women were not turning out to vote and not engaging in the political process,”
said procession coordinator Fiona Skillen of Gude Cause, the organization that planned the event and which takes its name
from a suffragette slogan. “We wanted to really do something to encourage
women to engage in the political process again, celebrate women’s history and mark the centennial of the event.”
Gude Cause invited numerous women’s organizations
to march; their banners and flags highlighted the contemporary issues affecting Scotland: “The problem of inequality
in the workplace, conflict resolution, violence against women, human trafficking….These are issues that I think some
people are oblivious to or they think that because of past legislation the problems have been solved, but that is far from
the case,” said Skillen.
Indeed, women in Scotland still face a number of economic, social and political hurdles. They suffer
a 17-18 percent pay gap from men - a statistic lamented by dozens of young school girls who partook in Saturday’s procession
singing “We work all day, we get less pay” to the tune of Snow White’s High Ho.
More shockingly, the rape conviction rate sits at just
3.9 percent – one of the lowest in the world; and one out of two boys and one out of three girls believe there are some
situations when it is ok to hit or force sex on a woman, according to the feminist organization Engender.
Lily Greenan of Scottish Women’s Aid, an anti-domestic
violence lobbying group, sported a purple sash with the phrase “This is What a Feminist Looks Like.” She hoped
the march would inspire change and advocacy: “I think that some of this is a celebration. It’s a way to say ‘hey,
we’ve done a hundred years of work and its gone really well,’ but it’s also a way of saying we still do
have a really long way to go and women are not fully co-participants in society - certainly not in this society.”
It’s a sympathy shared by Scottish Parliament member
(MSP) Fiona Hyslop. She addressed the procession’s concluding rally on Calton Hill, which overlooks the site of a former
prison that once held the suffragette Ethel Moorhead.
Hyslop bemoaned the low percentage of female MSPs, which
she said has dropped in the last ten years from about 40 to 33 percent today. But while stressing the need for more political
participation by women, she acknowledged that the suffragettes would have been proud of modern-day feminists’ accomplishments.
“Ethel was jailed in Calton Jail on the ground now
where the Scottish government has its seat and where I now have an office,” said Hyslop to the cheering and singing
crowd. “I think Ethel and her sisters would be quite pleased that a hundred years on we have women MPs in a Scottish
parliament and we have women ministers in that place that used to be Calton Jail.”
Commemorations of Scotland’s
suffragette history will continue through the rest of the year; an exhibition showcasing their struggle is on display in the
Museum of Edinburgh
until January 9 2010.