MANY of the centenaries we have been marking in recent years have been pretty grim, often centred on the terrible events of the First World War. But this last week the country commemorated a positive and ground-breaking event – the passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave the right to vote to all men over the age of 21 and some women over the age of 30: it was only a decade later in this country that the same right was extended to women over 21.
At an official level the Catholic Church since the time of St John XXIII in the early 1960s has demonstrated, in our moral teaching about how society should be ordered, a preference for representational (that is, democratic) forms of government, but this had not always been true (certainly not in the 19th century). Even now, we teach that democracies don’t have absolute powers or the right to override the moral law. But extending the franchise to all citizens has to be seen as a good thing. Incidentally there is evidence that people thought women, when they got the vote, would be more influenced by the Church than men (in France this possibly explains why restrictions on women’s suffrage were not entirely lifted until 1965).
Of course, the right to vote is closely linked to the right for education: here the Catholic Church has often pioneered the education of girls and young women, illustrated by the history of some of the most popular Catholic schools in our area and the religious orders which founded them. The German-Jewish philosopher Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (shown above), one of the patron saints of Europe, in her career as an academic in the Weimar Republic, was a passion-ate advocate of the importance of equal educational rights for girls and women. One thing which is interesting about the centenary commemorations is that the Suffragette campaign which before the war placed such pressure on the government and the ‘establishment’ had many characteristics which many people at the time identified as being on the same level as terrorism – violence against property, arson, civil disobedience and actions such as hunger strikes when in prison. Our moral evaluation of this campaign has to be clear that as a last resort , if people are refused democratic rights, people have the moral right to break the law, provided violence against innocent people is avoided – this is what St Thomas Aquinas called the ‘just rebellion’. What shocked Edwardian (male) society was the way in which those whom men saw as ‘the weaker sex’ were capable of such acts, from all classes and backgrounds.
The centenary also helps us consider other things. One of the few good things to have happened on the world scene in the last few months, following revelations about the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, has been a concerted move against the ways in which women and girls in particular have been harassed or assaulted in numerous different areas of public life. Of course this scandal has been brought to light in our own community of the Catholic Church (in the context of violence and sexual exploitation against all children, young people and vulnerable adults), and while many lessons have been learned we still have a long way to go. But it does look as if the revelations in show business, the world of fashion, sport and politics (to name just a few areas of public life) will have the effect of really changing men’s behaviour for the better, hopefully. The Church, aware of our own short-comings, will welcome this: every human person, male or female, is created in the image of God with a dignity flowing from that which is sacred and non-negotiable, and the right not to be an object of violence or sexual exploitation. Accepting wicked behaviour as somehow inevitable, covering it up, or shrugging it off with the words ‘boys will be boys’ is also unacceptable and sinful as well.
For us as Catholics there are many challenges in relation to these issues. One is that we still need to do more to enable women to be properly engaged in decision making and real responsibility in our own communities. Among the examples whose prayers and support we all need to seek are the great and in many ways formidable women saints of the Church, so often (and falsely) portrayed as weak and submissive: Our Blessed Lady herself, and remarkable women like St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St Scholastica (whose feast is this weekend), St Catherine of Siena, St Teresa of Avila, St Therese of Lisieux, St Josephine Bakhita (whose feast was on Thursday) and many others not yet canonised like Blessed Maria Theresa Ledochowska and the Servant of God Dorothy Day. They are surely rejoicing in heaven that women are able, at least in some places, to play a full role in public life and that, at least in some places, women and girls are safer than in the past.