Women in Westminster: Tapping on the glass ceiling

Women have come a long way when it comes to getting involved in British politics. However, there is still a long way to go and that pace of change is yawn-inducingly slow.

Suffragettes fought for the female vote. 100 years later, progress has been achingly slow. (Photo: About.com)

Suffragettes fought for the female vote. 100 years later, progress has been achingly slow. (Photo: About.com)

Oh, election time! Stories about various politicians lying through their teeth, leaders desperately trying to find an opportunity to use that fantastically cheesy but euphonious phrase that their speech writer prepped them with, vague discussion of the NHS, austerity, immigration, trident, austerity, the EU, housing, austerity, coalition and, of course, austerity. The old school boys have stuffed their school ties in their back pockets and are trying out those glinting smiles and sob stories instead. Twitter crowns Miliband with a flower garland that is so flattering, we all wish that he had been less busy with the campaign so that he could have gone to Coachella. It all seems rather familiar and yet, there is something different, isn’t there?

A tingling, fizzing sense in the air that this time it’s not a two horse, or even a three horse race. And this time 3 of those horses are being jockeyed by women.

Talking of horses, it was in 1913 that Emily Davison threw herself under a horse for women’s suffrage. It’s just under a hundred years since women were given the vote. We’ve had a female prime minister. You’d think that by now, seeing women engaging in political discourse on the major broadcasters would be run of the mill, and yet, this year, the BBC Election Debate was the first time that female major party leaders have outnumbered their male counterparts.

If we just consider the years since women got the vote then the time line that is created reveals the path (achingly slow, certainly, but progress all the same) leading up to that election debate this year. 1919: Nancy Astor is the first woman to sit herself down on one of those green benches and scowl. The next notable change being the passage of The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 giving equal voting rights to men and women. Then in 1929, even with equal voting rights, just 16 female MPs were elected (I really did mean achingly slow). Skip forward to 1958 and the first woman appointed to the House of Lords – a mere 39 years after Nancy Astor (whoever said the House of Lords was always one step behind…).

So that brings us to the next major event: Maggie, 1979. The sun shines on the day when finally a woman steps into Number 10 and feminism has succeeded and the glass ceiling has been broken and… oh. The sky can be seen through a glass ceiling and it was the perfect illusion until other women tried to follow her up and found that it was still there, glinting a little and unscratched by Maggie’s smart, low heeled shoes.


A woman for all women herself. (Photo: Vogue)

A woman for all women herself. (Photo: Vogue)

Margaret Thatcher: first female Prime Minister and, lest we forget, as yet last and only female prime minister. Coincidence? I think not. If there was one thing the reputation of powerful women didn’t need, it was a Thatcher-shaped stain; a woman who epitomised the concept of pulling the ladder up; who has become one of the most well-known Prime Ministers in the history of our Parliament but for all the wrong reasons; who was the exception to the conservative rule that she was determined to maintain; whose success managed to simultaneously act as proof for all sexism sceptics that the struggle for gender equality was nothing more than a feminist delusion, while also warning people not to risk female leadership again. Margaret Thatcher: NOT a feminist (I’d even argue that her humanity is up for debate but perhaps now is not the time). Do I still have to include Maggie as part of the progress time line? If anything, it was nothing more than a glitch.

On a more positive note, first female leader of the House of Lords: 1982, Baroness Janet Mary Young and, of course, first female Speaker in the House of Commons: 1992, Betty Boothroyd (fantastic name – very satisfying alliteration).

The 1997 general election: the Labour Party selects party candidates from all-women shortlists. The number of female MPs increases from 60 to 120 and now women are actually a force in the government, rather than an awkward, disparate spattering. Have they entirely lost their novelty, token, gimmick status? Not quite. But are they now too big a group to be dismissed as such? Yes. Conclusion: progress. But it is worth noting that the total number of MPs in 1997 was 659, so only 18% of the seats were held by women. Still. That’s much bigger than the 9% of the previous Parliament.

In the Parliament of the last few years, there were more female MPs than even after the 1997 boom. I mean, don’t get your hopes up, we still didn’t quite reach a third of the house but you know, baby steps. 22% in fact, that’s 148 MPs, one in five – I wouldn’t say those statistics sound great, exactly, but those are the highest figures we’ve ever had. 22% of our representative democratically-elected Parliament are women. Considering that about half the population is female, I guess they are using the term “representative” loosely. And that seems sketchy even before you start to consider the number of women of colour who are MPs, or the number of transgender and non-binary MPs. Just step outside of Parliament and examine the figures for female mayors (13%) and local authority leaders (12.3%, down from 16.6% in 2004).

We are ranked 64th in the world for gender equality in Parliament (2014, UN). There were more men in the House of Commons in the last government than the total number of female MPs ever. Even if we increase the number of women in parliament by 8 every election (that’s been the average increase for the last 3 terms), then it would still take about 110 years to achieve parity; I really did mean slow progress. I’m not entirely sure that this is what the suffragettes had in mind in the 1900s.

But maybe I’m just being pessimistic… is equal representation viable this time round? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? After all it’s 2015! Fourth wave feminism has taken the internet by storm; Laura Bates is reciting shocking statistics on representation, the number of signatures calling for an end to the “tampon tax” continues to increase and our TV screens are graced with the presence of 3 women. Ok, yeah, I know that none of them are from ethnic minorities, and I know that if you are in England you can only vote for one of their parties, BUT it’s something at least. And what’s more is that these women are really shifting and changing and influencing the run up to the election. Their voices are loud and clear (and, delightfully, left wing – I shan’t gloat but let me say this: Tories, you really need to pull your socks up – none of us have forgotten “Calm down, dear”).

But before we get caught up in celebrating this achievement, I wonder what it really means. Does it, in fact, mean anything? Because the 2 major parties are still represented by men and so the fact of the matter is that for next 5 years, we are going to have yet another male Prime Minister.

The proportion of female candidates for election this term is the highest it’s ever been – good news, eh? Except that’s only 26.1%. That doesn’t sound representative to me. If we look closer at those statistics we find that the two parties with the most even numbers of female and male candidates are the SNP and the Green Party (although the percentages for both are still under 40%). They both, of course, have female party leaders and so I am inclined to bestow upon them the “representative(-ish)” award. Labour is next with 34.1% of their candidates being female. The Conservatives have, predictably, not done quite so well with just 26.1%.

Looks pretty pink to me… (Photo: BBC News)
Then, god forbid, we start to consider the voting gap. It’s actually got worse. In 1992 more women voted than men and yet in the last general election only 64% of women voted compared to 67% of men. That’s why we had the joy of the pink Labour bus this time round. And for all the criticism of its hue, I think we have to think carefully about the real issue with the Labour bus, which is that we needed one at all. It doesn’t matter that it was pink (I mean, to be honest, associating colour and gender is all a societal construct anyway… and, don’t forget, it wasn’t pink – it was “magenta”). What matters is that this country requires a separate, specific, targeted campaign to try and encourage women to vote. In the early 1900s, women were starving themselves for that right.

Clearly something has gone wrong. Somewhere along the line, we became disillusioned, frustrated, tired of waiting for progress that was promising to take literally centuries. We need representation in parliament that is representative of the actual demographics of society – and this extends to more than just gender, but I’ve taken up enough of your time already with this history lesson.

I was glad to see three women on my TV screen. I am glad to hear their voices on the radio. But I am sad, too, because they are now a façade that seems to suggest that the problem has been solved when it hasn’t. It seems like women are being represented, but then why are we still battling for tampons not to be considered a luxury item? Why have we yet to see a female leader of the Labour party? Why is not a single major party leader, a woman (or man, in fact) of colour? Why was Caroline Lucas told to cover up her No More Page 3 t-shirt? Why are newspapers still commenting on the colour of Nicola Sturgeon’s dress but not the shade of Cameron’s tie?

This election is not going to bring about equal representation no matter what it looks like on TV. And that is not good enough. If we want equal representation in Parliament, we need to get women to vote. We need a grassroots cultural shift in schools, in primary schools, in nursery, in the home that tells girls that they don’t have to play with the pram or the stove and bagsy being mummy, while the boys systematically orchestrate a Roman attack or construct a fort or loudly declare themselves the leader of the next game.

We need to raise a generation of women that expect to be successful and expect to change the world. I don’t want to be surprised by female faces on TV outside of advertising; I want to think that that is the most natural thing in the world. Because it is. Because equal representation and a 50:50 parliament are not feminist ideals or the controversial product of positive discrimination, they are an essential part of a legitimate democracy and without them our system is one that cannot claim to be of the people, no matter how much those men in suits say it is.

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