It is 100 years since Parliament passed The Representation of the People Act 1918 allowing women over 30 to be added to the electoral role (if they owned property or were graduates voting in a university constituency). As women become increasingly prominent in parliament and the political sphere, it is easy to forget the enormous struggle that brought about that massive constitutional change and the brave women who were behind it.
Many of the suffragettes who fought for the vote were lucky to have benefitted from an excellent education. It was Emily Wilding Davison, an alumna of Kensington High (now Prep) School who in 1911 hid in Parliament hoping to question the Prime Minister over votes for women and famously gave her life for the cause when she fell under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby of 1913.
1918 was certainly a momentous year for women in politics – the bar on women running for parliament was removed that year and shortly afterwards the first female MP was elected. Putney High School GDST is proud to include Baroness Virginia Bottomley, Baroness Camilla Cavendish, Baroness Olly Grender and Baroness Elizabeth Symons among its notable political alumnae – all very much forces to be reckoned with. And it is not just behind the privileged walls of the Houses of Parliament that Putney’s women are being heard. Prominent journalists that found their voices at Putney include: Sophie Raworth (BBC journalist and presenter), Melanie Phillips (journalist, commentator and author or The Ascent of Women: A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas Behind It) and Louise Ridley (currently News Editor at Buzzfeed News).
Girls at Putney have always had a voice and the school is proud of the platform it gives them to think for themselves, to question perceived truths, and to debate with their peers in a democratic environment. Putney takes representatives to the English Speaking Union’s Mace competition – the UK’s most prestigious debating competition and last week, the school took three teams to the Cambridge Union’s schools’ competition to compete in British Parliamentary format, debating the merits of plea bargaining, violence in video games, women only tech companies and artificially removing fear from the minds of soldiers.
It is hard to imagine whether opportunities like these would ever have existed without the fearless campaigning of the women’s suffrage movement; as Rt Hon Baroness Virginia Bottomley of Nettlestone, Putney High School Alumna said, “There are two transformational changes in the world, one is technology and one is women.” But we should also remember that we follow proudly in the footsteps of some less well known but very local pioneers: the men who fought for civilian representation during the Putney Debates of 1647, and played a vital role in the history of our democracy. Their debates paved the way for many of the civil liberties we enjoy today.