Wanted: a next generation of European suffragettes


Picture of Assita Kanko
Assita Kanko

Member of European Parliament and 2019 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Assita Kanko is the Founder of Polin, a Belgian political incubator for women

“We should all march to parliament not as lawbreakers, but because women should be law makers. A society that allows women no part in decision-making cannot flourish. Beyond the homes, what lives are we permitted? Important posts are barred to us in all professions. Posts in governments are just for men, yet all their decisions affect women. They must either do us justice by giving us the vote or do us violence. And then we got the vote there and in other places.”

These were the words of the famous suffragette Emeline Pankhurst during the cruel ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913. Treated as criminals instead of political prisoners, suffragettes went on hunger strike, which led to the government brutally force-feed them in the most humiliating ways. But public opinion was on the suffragettes’ side, and they were released – to gain strength before they could be arrested again.

The words by Emeline Pankhurst may seem obsolete today. Yet, it is evident that, globally, women have very limited chances to participate in decision-making in all fields. At the time of the suffragettes, all access to power – including power in marital relations – was legally barred to women. Today it is no longer so: we can be lawmakers; we can vote; we can divorce; we can own things. But what is holding us back from taking our share of the power? Why are women still staring at power, instead of sharing it?

Quoting de Beauvoir, all the exceptions we make individually contribute to the global submission of women

Of today’s leaders, only 10% are women. Just look at the news and you can see who decides and who submits. A hundred years ago, the suffragettes did not want to be governed without their consent. And yet, women are still governed in all domains without proper participation, despite having more power than back then. I feel ashamed every time I think of the sacrifices of the suffragettes so that we could make use of our rights and opportunities. Although most men and women generally agree that the inclusion of women in decision-making is important for societies, the way to achieve this still triggers debate – if only it would trigger action, too.

To achieve gender parity in the European Union, it is crucial that we shift from debates to concrete, strong actions and create conditions that allow the sharing of power between men and women everywhere, starting from homes: as long as power is not shared in the homes, we cannot reach the balance we need in society. Women need to be relieved from house chores and parental responsibilities that they now mostly take care of alone. Even inside the EU, women are often almost automatically assigned to these tasks, perceived as the female ones.

Simone de Beauvoir published the Second Sex in 1948, and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights saw the light of day that same year. In her ground-breaking book, de Beauvoir discussed the imbalance in the homes, sharing an example of a female teacher who had to go home from work to feed her husband who was watching television, feed the kids, and then run back to work. Is this any different from many households of today? Except the fact that the husband is maybe using his smartphone instead of watching television.

We still have a long way to go, but I believe in two ways to achieve parity:

The first is through the women themselves. We must change and, unlike the teacher in de Beauvoir’s book, we need to win our individual battles inside our homes and support each other. Quoting de Beauvoir, all the exceptions we make individually contribute to the global submission of women.

But this alone is not enough. We also need to make an impact through legislation to encourage the EU member states to motivate their citizens to share parental leave after the birth of a child. This way we can give women room to achieve their personal ambitions and give fathers the opportunity to take care of the household and see their children grow. This way we can trigger structural change and give the next generation a stereotype-free reference of parenthood.

Gender parity is not an option but a necessity

Change is hard, for both men and women. While men might not want to lose their privileges, women might unconsciously continue to submit to their old reflexes of not using power, or simply won’t know how to resist the old structures. Role models can truly help in this regard – they help remember how great we are and how much we can achieve – but we need to have more female role models and empower women to run for elections. Simply put, encourage women to dare to be more ambitious and never be ashamed of it. The example women set also encourages adolescent girls to show interest in powerful positions and understand that it is not only perfectly normal but also possible to achieve them.

The EU of today is looking grey and male – we must make sure that the EU of tomorrow is more diverse and more equal in terms of sharing power. Gender parity is not an option but a necessity: keeping women massively out of decision-making for whatever reason deprives the world a major part of its talent and potential. And can we really afford to lose this potential?

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