As will hopefully have not gone unnoticed, last year marked a century since the passage of the Representation of the People Act, with which the right to vote was extended to all men and certain women – around 8.4 million of them, to be exact. To commemorate this, we asked young people to consider how far society has come since then, and whether the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney would be impressed by the state of Parliament today in terms of diverse representation and equal treatment (suffice to say very few people would be impressed by the general state of Parliament following weeks of Brexit chaos, as was seen in our topic at the end of last month).
There have certainly been some advances and notable events in the struggle for gender equality and enfranchisement since this topic was debated. For example, there have been several statues unveiled to commemorate the women who fought tirelessly for the right to vote (in Manchester, Oldham and Morpeth), and the number of books available about feminism and gender has skyrocketed (see Cristina Criado Perez’s Invisible Women for her quantitative take on how our world is, and continues to be, disproportionately designed with men in mind, or Scarlett Curtis’ Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies) for a collection of musings from notable names on what feminism means to them).
But it was, in fact, a recent news story that provided the catalyst for this retrospective look at the suffragette topic: the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Dr Helen Pankhurst, was awarded a CBE for her work around gender equality. This is of course a wonderful thing, and shows that the work women are doing is being respected and rewarded by the highest powers. And yet, Dr Helen herself highlighted that there remains ‘so much that needs to be done’, which seemed to echo the sentiments of many of our voters. As our question was specifically about Parliament rather than whether or not the suffragettes would be happy with today’s society it is worth interrogating what exactly has been done by decision-makers since July 2018.
There has been impassioned discussion of women in Parliament and notable data released surrounding this. Penny Mordaunt’s speech to mark International Women’s Day in March offered a crucial insight into the gender disparities that pervade the professional and personal lives of so many in the UK and beyond. But it was also a celebration of the changes being made, however incremental. She outlined the work being done to help with myriad ‘barriers … and obstacles’ faced by women, such as period poverty, menopause and financial instability.
In line with this, on 5th March (the day after her speech), the government released a briefing on Women in Parliament. It reiterated how female representation is at an all-time high, with 32% of the hallowed benches comprising women. This figure hasn’t changed since last summer as there hasn’t been a general election, but it is a useful indicator for the progress that has been and is yet to come; it could help indicate who will, and should, make up Parliament following the next election in 2022*. According to the report and as can be seen below, representation has, for the most part, steadily gone up since the late 1970s. What we have now is almost 13 times better than 1979. Having a balanced Parliament is something on which all parties have openly expressed agreement; given the current discord plaguing the House of Commons, it is encouraging to find something that is met with a resounding yes.
Even if it seems like slow progress, it is important to keep in mind that the prospect of women accounting for a third of Parliament a century ago would most likely have seemed implausible. As such, these numbers nevertheless deserve to be celebrated and taken seriously.
Another longstanding sticking point in the fight for gender equality has been the gender pay gap. On this, Parliament appears to be bucking the trend. It was recently revealed that
the Gender Pay Gap (GPG) report shows the mean pay gap for the House of Commons was 1.45%. The median pay gap was revealed to be 1.01%. The figures show that men have a marginal pay lead in terms of both mean and median hourly pay over women in the House of Commons. This is explained by the ratio of female to male employees across the organisation, which is largely similar to the distribution across each pay quartile, resulting in relatively equal pay between genders.
Although ‘relatively equal pay’ isn’t perfect, Parliament is certainly taking positive action. If they are able to set a solid and sustainable precedent in terms of equal pay, then it is hoped that other employers and institutions will feel compelled (or, hopefully, inspired) to follow suit. Based on these examples of change, it is evident that in certain crucial respects Parliament is moving in the right direction and creating an environment about which the suffragettes would indeed have been ‘astounded’.
The significance of these attempts to tackle inbuilt inequalities within Parliament should not be underestimated. However, not everything is rosy in the Commons and there is still much room for improvement on the basic treatment of female MPs. As part of the topic, young people discussed the sexist abuse these women face on a daily basis, and what they found was very disappointing when taking into account other progress made; one claimed that ‘just because more women are MPs, it doesn’t mean sexism isn’t still carried through Parliament’. Indeed, some of the abuse levelled at female politicians comes from their own colleagues. A cursory Google search of ‘disciplinary procedures for sexist MPs’ yields very little in terms of information about the repercussions faced by Parliamentarians for inappropriate conduct towards their female counterparts. Without sufficient proof that sexism in government is met with serious consequences, it is effectively being allowed to continue. In the same way that Parliament has set an example in terms of closing the gender pay gap, it also has a duty to quash sexism within its walls. This should thereby set a precedent across society as a whole.
Though many turned out to celebrate the achievements of the suffragettes and to celebrate women in Parliament, the general public also have a significant part to play in the way female MPs feel about their work and their personal safety. The online abuse they receive on the likes of Twitter continues to be widely reported: a study from the end of last year indicated that they are abused online roughly every 30 seconds. Many MPs took a stand, reading out some of the comments they had received. Tackling this abuse so directly is commendable, but the responsibility should not lie solely with the women on the receiving end. There could be serious emotional and psychological ramifications, and inaction could seriously affect the progress already made as promising female politicians may be deterred from pursuing their political ambitions out of concern for their own wellbeing. As a result, the notion of all people being successfully represented in Parliament would be slowed down at best, and totally undermined at worst. With this in mind, change is sorely needed if we are to keep the female MPs we already have in Parliament and continue to improve diversity across the board. There does seem to be some imminent action: the government has just this week released an Online Harms White Paper, the first of its kind in the world. If successfully moderated, this ought to make a huge impact on the digital lives of MPs. On the whole, though, there needs to be a shift in public attitudes towards how we communicate with our politicians and a clear crackdown on those in the Commons with outdated views on gender, and things need to change faster than they have been.
From these few instances alone, it is evident that Parliament is moving forward in some areas, and stalling in others (which is true of many government issues). According to our voters, ‘based on these statistics we still have very far to go’, and the timings loosely allocated to progress by many – “in a generation’s time”, “by 2050” and so on – should only really be used as deadlines rather than targets, especially if we want our young people to see real change. There is nothing to say the enduring issues couldn’t be successfully addressed in the next decade or even less. Debates on women’s suffrage happened frequently in the early days of suffragist campaigning, which kept the issue in the public eye, and the same must be done today.
Based on the current trajectory, if the same question is asked of voters in another half-century, then the Yeses ought to have it. In the meantime, there are plenty of deeds and words needed first.
*Provided there isn’t another one beforehand!
To immerse yourself in further feminist phenomena, check out one of the following:
- Read: Virago Press is an international publisher of books by women, with work by contemporary female writers such as R.O. Kwon and Åsne Seierstad, and established authors like Margaret Atwood and Zora Neale Hurston. This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist also offers a great selection of the world’s best female writing; the winner will be announced on 5th June.
- Write: The University of Oxford offers an Introduction to Women’s Writing course, and Write Like a Grrrl offers creative writing courses for women all over the UK (and the world!).
- Listen: The Woman’s Hour pages have some brilliant interviews and discussions about everything from knife crime, to Brexit, to period stigma and how these affect women in the workplace and at home. There are also plenty of podcasts to subscribe to that take on feminism, which Player FM have listed on their pages.
Georgie is Schools Relationship Officer at VotesforSchools, though she also helps out with content. Her blog series, Power to the Pupils, will take a retrospective look at how the results of the debates by young people in the classroom are coming to fruition – or not, as the case may be. Please get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments about this post or future ones.
Cover Image Credit: ITV News