As part of my usual morning routine, I sat in front of the TV this morning and turned on BBC Breakfast while drying my hair. I was confronted by something slightly different – Dan Walker was absent, and Louise Minchin was accompanied by Steph McGovern. Aha! I thought, an all-female sofa – must be 6th February.
I’m aware of how cynical this sounds. Today is a day for celebration, what happened in 1918 was a monumental achievement and it should absolutely be talked about and celebrated as much as possible. I just couldn’t quiet the voice in my head that was shouting “IT’S A GIMMICK!”
BBC Breakfast has been getting better in terms of gender representation – McGovern is a regular fixture, usually talking about business, but sometimes other things as well; while the sports presenter is usually female. Both posts (especially sport) would previously have been considered automatically male roles, while the spots for female journalists would probably have been confined to the weather, and any topics that had a particularly female focus. Representation is hugely important – women need to be shown to be able to take on any role that a man can, and seeing female journalists in a variety of roles in a primetime news show is essential.
What we can’t ignore is the fact that the BBC is among many corporations who have recently published figures revealing a significant gender pay gap. The Suffragettes’ iconic slogan “Deeds Not Words” feels appropriate here – filling the red sofa with women on this particular day might be classed as a deed, but it’s a pretty superficial one. The point of suffrage was full participation in society, and if we want women to be able to do that, this needs to be reflected in their pay.
I also found this particular “deed” to be superficial in more ways than just the sudden disappearance of Dan Walker. Both Minchin and McGovern are white, blonde, slim and appear to be non-disabled. The weather presenter, Carol Kirkwood, is likewise white, blonde, slim and appears to be non-disabled. The sports presenter today was not the usual Sally Nugent or Katherine Downes, but a presenter whose name I didn’t catch, who was also…(ready?)…white, blonde, slim, and appeared to be non-disabled. As we know, the 1918 Representation of the People Act only achieved suffrage for some women – specifically those over 30 (who were deemed to be more intelligent and so able to handle the responsibility), who, crucially, were also property owners. This effectively excluded millions of working class women who were not property owners, and likely excluded many non-white and disabled women, as both race and disability tend to intersect negatively with class. I found it ironic that in celebrating 100 years of suffrage for some women, the BBC only managed to rustle up one very specific type of woman. ‘Representation’ this is not.
As Helen Pankhurst pointed out in one of the news clips, full equality of suffrage wasn’t achieved until ten years later in 1928. Let us celebrate today as an important first step, but let us not ignore how much there is to do in the next decade before we can start patting ourselves on the back for 100 years of “equality”.