Women in Politics: 100 years of voting and 191 women on the benches
By Natasha Egan-Sjodin, member of the APPC's Young Consultants Committee
With the centenary of women’s suffrage fast approaching, Emily Thornberry MP stood at the dispatch box last week to remark that she is the only Emily to be elected to the House of Commons since 1918. With 155 'Davids' elected over the same period, the 'Emily's' of the political world have some catching up to do.
Coincidentally, this year is also the centenary of the Qualification of Women Act being passed, which allowed women to stand for Parliament. In the first election open to female candidates, 17 stood for election, and the sole winning candidate did not take her seat.
The Parliamentary history of women is fraught with hurdles: we would have to wait a further six years (1924) until we had the first female minister. A series of Labour appointments to senior government posts follow, until, eventually, the Conservative Party select Margaret Thatcher as their leader. Four years later she takes up residence in Number 10 Downing Street, the first of two Tory women to govern from the big house.
Now, under the UK's second female Premiership, and with a record number of female MPs elected in 2017, 32 per cent of the House is female. Yet, the total number of women elected to Parliament is lower than the number of men elected, despite that fact that women outnumber men beyond the walls of Westminster Palace.
According to Ipsos Mori, 62 per cent of women at the 2017 General Election cast a vote - it's hardly as if women are somehow underrepresented in Parliament because we don't vote. Steps have, however, been taken in the past to encourage female voter participation. Labour front-bencher Harriet Harman MP commissioned a report from the House of Commons Library which suggests that 9.1 million women did not vote in 2010, sparking a “women’s manifesto” in the 2015 General Election, and many of us will recall Labour’s pink bus. Subtle, no but memorable yes!
Similarly, within the political world, an increase in female parliamentary candidates has also been encouraged by all-women shortlists, a move which has received some criticism for taking the “true democracy” out of the race for a seat in the House of Commons, but which has been successful in ensuring that Labour has the highest percentage of women in the Commons.
With 100 years of female votes perhaps it is time to cast a critical eye over the reasons that still discourage women from entering the political arena. In 2017, Labour MP Diane Abbott warned that abuse and misogyny act as key deterrents, and, whilst online abuse is certainly not limited to women in the public eye, female politicians face an extraordinary amount of abuse on social media. A New Statesman study last year found that there were 25,688 abusive tweets sent to female MPs over a six-month period.
Now, following cross-party calls for tougher action against online abuse and a series of politically themed sex-scandals, Theresa May is set to crackdown on the intimidation of political candidates. Whilst the new rules will apply to all parliamentary candidates, the timing is notable, and the centenary of women walking through the halls of Westminster Palace will be marked by calls for tolerance and respect inside and beyond those same corridors.
Today, women in politics are not afraid to have their voices heard, and women sit on the seats of power in Downing Street, Bute House, and Buckingham Palace. But there is still room for more women at the top of our politics, and the 100-year anniversary of female suffrage is a good a place as any to start bolstering the ranks of women in political life.