100 Women – and Lots More – on 100 Years of Voting






By Renate Haas

2018 marks one hundred years since Parliament passed laws enabling the first British women to participate in the elections as both voters and candidates, and a raft of events are planned in commemoration. The government has committed ₤5m to fund official celebrations, and there will be numerous further activities.

One illuminating start has been made by the Guardian, which has asked 100 politicians, campaigners and other prominent UK women to reflect – politically and personally – on this momentous anniversary. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/28/100-women-on-100-years-of-womens-vote-suffrage The interviewers address an interesting variety of aspects: What does voting mean to you? Why is it important? When did you first vote? When did you feel the vote made the most difference? What was your most exciting voting experience? Do we undervalue the vote? Could the voting system be improved? Which group needs most encouragement to vote? Are you encouraged by how women’s rights have progressed since 1918? Where should we go next?

In her introductory contextualisation, Helen Lewis (deputy editor of the New Statesman) highlights that progress for women has often felt painfully slow. As late as 1982, for instance, there were only 19 female MPs, and it was only in 2017 that their number exceeded 200 (but still stayed below one third: 208 out of 650 seats). Shirley Williams, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords in 2001-4, the daughter and granddaughter of suffragists (Vera Brittain and Edith Catlin), remembers being heavily patronised when she first got elected in 1964, men literally patting her on the head to express their approval of a speech of hers. Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservative party, summarises: “If you count up every woman who has ever been elected to the House of Commons in the past 100 years, you still wouldn’t be able to fill the green benches – it’s only 469 out of 650 seats. In many ways women are outperforming men – last year more women than men were offered places at Cambridge – but you still see a very small percentage of women in the military, the church, in business, in politics.” Diane Reay, Professor of education at Cambridge University, criticises the extremely poor representation of working-class women – less than 1 % of MPs. Provocatively she compares with her own career: “It’s been a struggle to go from a coalmining background to becoming a Cambridge professor, but probably a lot easier than becoming an MP.” On a similar note, Jane Campbell, Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission 2006-8, observes: “Being a disabled woman, I know what discrimination feels like but I sometimes think I’m more disempowered as a woman than as a disabled person.”

Evidently, a great deal remains to be done. The 100 interviewees, nevertheless, make up an impressive gallery of distinguished women (which is underlined by the fact that for many of them there are photos and links to articles by and about them). The collection features not only Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Diane Abbott, former and current ministers, shadow ministers and a number of pioneers like Ann Taylor, first female leader of the House of Commons, Helene Hayman, first female Lord Speaker (2006-11), Jacqui Smith, first female home secretary (2007-9), Sayeeda Warsi, first female Muslim to attend Cabinet, and Preet Gill, first female British Sikh MP. Beside many MPs, it also includes such activists and public figures as Catherine Mayer and Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality party, Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, Marai Larasi, executive director of Imkaan, the BME (i.e. black and minority ethnic) women’s campaigning group, Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, Shakira Martin, NUS president, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project (platform), Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor of the political blog The Canary, Christine Burns MBE, retired Trans activist, Barbara Hosking, Amy Lamé, Lola Young, Caroline Criado-Perez, Jane Robinson, Faiza Shaheen and Ruth Deech.

A portrait gallery in the literal sense will be offered by Turner prize winner Gillian Wearing in connection with her statue of the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, which will be unveiled in Parliament Square in April. 52 photographic etchings on the tiles of the plinth will depict 59 key women – and a few men – who were central in the push for women’s suffrage. This is part of the mayor of London’s campaign #BehindEveryGreatCity, which intends to “celebrate London’s role in the women’s suffrage movement, mark the progress that’s been made on women’s equality over the past 100 years and take real action to tackle gender inequality” in the capital. https://www.london.gov.uk/about-us/mayor-london/behindeverygreatcity The year-long programme includes a display of works by an international selection of female artists on the London Underground: Linder, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Geta Brătescu, Marie Jacotey, Heather Phillipson, and Nina Wakeford. Since there are almost six million journeys taken on London Underground each day, this means mass presence indeed. https://art.tfl.gov.uk/projects/?numPosts=16&pageNumber=&main_select_value=&sub_select=&autocomplete=&autocompleteText=&past_projects=&action=projects_loop_handler

Parliament, for its part, has launched Vote 100, another year-long programme with a great variety of events. https://www.parliament.uk/vote100 In academic respects, it has teamed up with Royal Holloway, University of London, to produce a Mooc, titled Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/womens-rights Together with the University of Westminster and the History of Parliament Trust, it will also host the international conference A Century of Women MPs, 1918-2018, 5-7 September. https://acenturyofwomenmpsconference.wordpress.com/

In Manchester, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be erected, the city’s first new monument to a woman in over a century. In short, 2018 promises a lot that is worthwhile watching out for. At a time when in many countries populists wage their “war on gender” and polemicise against “state feminism”, trying to exploit negative associations with state socialism, it is all the more important that UK authorities emphatically celebrate the centenary with the intention of kickstarting further societal change to fight discrimination.