We are grateful to Dr Dana Mills for this interesting blog reflecting on Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas on political equality and their continuing relevance. She discusses a Vote100 favourite ‘the ventilator’ an area we would love to know more about, particularly first-hand accounts by women who visited it, so please do let us know if you come across any.
WE CAN’T BREATHE
Equality of political rights is inextricably linked to equality in access to political and public spaces. But Mary Wollstonecraft already said that in 1790.
By Dana Mills (1)
The Ventilation Room
“We can’t breathe”, said the women huddled in the ventilation room in the Chapel of St Stephens, crouching in their heavy dresses, fluttering their fans for gasps of air. “We can’t breathe” they muttered to one another. Until 1834 women’s sole access to debates in the House of Commons was through the ventilation room. Women could listen to debates by gathering in the space above the ceiling of the Commons Chamber, in what was the upper part of the original Chapel of St Stephen. The Ventilation Room only provided access for a small number of well-connected women, and the viewing was very restricted and uncomfortable.(2) We can imagine the lack of air and claustrophobia felt by those women, huddling together, in a desperate effort to listen in on political debates to which they had no access.
In 1790, one woman, light years ahead of her time, found herself feeling suffocated by political inequality. Mary Wollstonecraft (27 April 1759- 10 September 1797), pioneer in advocating women’s rights and, as Bee Rowlatt notes, “the original suffragette” (3), wrote about the manifold aspects of oppression of her time. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, widely considered the foundational text of modern western feminism in 1792. But prior to that, in 1790, she wrote her radical tract on equality, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, an attack on Edmund Burke and response to the French Revolution which both gives us a glimpse of her struggle for equality but also speaks very strongly to our lives today. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men she writes: “the only way in which the people interfere in government, religious or civil, is in electing representatives” (4). Political equality is what Mary Wollstonecraft lived and breathed. Famously she writes: “virtue can only flourish among equals” (5). Political equality, however, for her, is a complex and intricate idea, a multi-layered concept, as we learn from her writing about the development of women’s education: “let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale” (6) .
Equality in rights requires equality in access to space. Whether it is in access to political spaces, in which we hear, think, and deliberate among equals, so that virtue can flourish; or a space for the development of political consciousness in itself. The process of the development of the political psyche requires equal access to the public sphere. Before the construction of the Ladies Gallery in 1834, which was the first space within British Parliament allocated to women, Wollstonecraft understood the significance of the spatial dimension of equality in the quest for equality in access to political rights. After all, it is very hard to concentrate on debates when one can’t breathe. And as suffragist Millicent Fawcett, a key figure in the archive of Wollstonecraft who published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1891, noted, watching debates through the metal grille “was like using a gigantic pair of spectacles which did not fit, and made the Ladies’ Gallery a grand place for getting headaches.’ (7)
But it is not time yet exhale a sigh of relief. Radical change has been made to the constituency though; namely, the Representation of the People Act 1918 , giving 8.4 million women the vote, and followed by the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowing women to stand for election and in 1928 the Equal Franchise Act which finally gave all women equal voting rights to men. These milestones in British political history carried little change in the space in which it took place. The neglect of reforming the spaces of politics, so that those spaces enable a true equal debate between those who are part of the growing electorate, left the hangover of stuffiness in the struggle for equal rights. This aftermath of breathlessness is still with us today.
Indeed, Wollstonecraft, in her staunch defence of equality, notes “this great city, that proudly rears its head, and boasts of its population and commerce…. how much misery lurks in pestilential corners, while idle mendicants….repress the plaints of the poor!” (8). The Equal Franchise Act, though fundamental in the struggle for equality broadly, and feminist politics specifically, was far from achieving equality in access to public spaces; and indeed, the feeling of lack of breath experienced in Ventilation Room’s by those crouching women is sadly not a thing of the past. They are not the last to feel excluded from public- and specifically political- spaces, neither in the UK nor in the world more broadly. The feeling of stuffiness in the public space gave the Black Lives Matter movement in the US (9) its campaigning slogan in solidarity with the infamous last words of Eric Garner, killed while held in a chokehold by a NYPD officer, “I can’t breathe” (10). There are very many people today who feel that they still can’t breathe.
The image of 18th century women crouching in order to subversively listen to parliamentary debates may seem long gone. The fights for equal suffrage, carried on by Fawcett and her suffragette and suffragist sisters, continuing the legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft, ended in the Equal Franchise Act. But the lack of equal access to- and equal representation in – public spaces of the bearers of universal suffrage is creating a continuing sense of suffocation. For real equality to flourish among equals, we must be sensitive to those who gasp for air. We must continue the struggle for real equality that Wollstonecraft has called upon us to fight for. But we should not sink in doom and gloom by that feeling of breathlessness, and must remind ourselves that power can be shifted and oppressors can be done away with, as “the more equality there is established in among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society”; moreover “no man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks”(11) . These lines, written more than two centuries ago, are really a breath of fresh air.
The challenge of making Parliament gender sensitive today has recently been explored in a report ‘The Good Parliament’ by Professor Sarah Child. The modernisation of the Palace of Westminster is addressed in the newly published Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster report from the Joint Select Committee on the Palace of Westminster.
Dr. Dana Mills teaches political theory and feminist political theory at Oxford. She will be spending 2016-2017 as a Research Fellow in Centre for Ballet and the Arts in NYU and in the Hannah Arendt Centre in Bard College. Her first book, Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries, is out in November 2016 with Manchester University Press. Dana is an activist who campaigns widely on human rights and feminist issues and supporter of www.maryonthegreen.org. which is working for a memorial to recognise the work of Mary Wollstonecraft.
1With thanks to Bee Rowlatt for continued inspiration; Meirian Jump, Madalena Leao and Gabriella Mills for helpful comments.
4 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men in: A Vindication of the Rights of Women and A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999,35
5 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, op.cit, p. 59
6 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Op. Cit. 101
8 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, op. cit 59
11 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, op. cit 55