Woman of the House; Standing for Gender Equality in British Politics

By May, Theresa | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Woman of the House; Standing for Gender Equality in British Politics


May, Theresa, Harvard International Review


The House of Commons has been known for some time as the mother of parliaments. Yet today, for too many, it is known as a debating chamber which thrives on aggressive and masculine speeches from its Members. Many people from both home and abroad see the half-hour weekly exchanges of Prime Minister's Questions as indicative of the style of politics which is practiced in Britain and probably wonder it there is room for women amongst the egos and air of masculinity evident. In fact, there have been women sitting in the House of Commons for over 90 years, and the female voice has been a strong, dominant voice in British politics for much of that time.

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The issue of women in politics has been at the heart of the fight for equality since the beginning of female egalitarian consciousness. In the early part of the 20th century, the suffragettes were focusing their efforts on women's getting the vote. Once the franchise was achieved, other milestones followed: more women started to get jobs in business, media, and education. Now, we are continuing to fight for fair representation at the heart of politics in order that we are represented by a true cross section of society rather than the white, middle-class men that still dominate the House of Commons' benches. The figures are stark and speak for themselves: women account for 52 percent of the population but just 20 percent of the House of Commons.

That balance is different when we look at the female vote. Indeed the power of the female vote is now entrenched in British politics. Every election since World War II has been won on the basis of the majority of the female vote, yet there are still too few female voices in the chamber. At the 1992 General Election, for example, the victorious Conservative Party held a 10 percent lead over Labour among women voters. In 1997, the year of Tony Blair's landslide, Labour led the Conservatives among women by 12 points. Politicians are aware of this and realize that to win women over, we must start talking and looking like female voters.

While it is true that there is still much to be done in terms of representation, I think we are sometimes too quick to bemoan the remaining hurdles instead of celebrating the achievements we have already made within British politics.

The Starting Point: Enfranchisement

At the close of World War I, British women over the age of 30 were enfranchised in the Representation of the People Act 1918. This followed a war which had taken a generation of young men into battle and left women "keeping the home fires burning" in their absence. When many of these men did not return, women continued to work and take on a more active economic role in society as part of the labor force. These women had enjoyed unprecedented freedoms during the war years and were loath to recede back to the subjugated and powerless position they had occupied before 1914. Indeed, the war had brought about a change in attitudes toward sexuality and equality, leading to a vast dramatic and permanent change to their position in British society. The traditional image of the compliant and demure Edwardian woman would be banished forever.

This shift was nowhere more obvious than in the world of politics. It would have been unthinkable to allow women to vote before the war, but the ensuing four years had changed not only women's opinion of themselves but also the minds of the men who returned. Universal suffrage became a goal for women and was grudgingly supported by many husbands, fathers, and sons. This was borne out by the enfranchisement of women over 30 very shortly after the war was over.

The legislation of that year went even further toward achieving true parity between the sexes. Not only could women vote, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 permitted women to stand for election and in the General Election that year, the first female MP was elected. …

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