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Woman throwing a punch representing "Powerful Women: Women in Power"2018 marks the 100 year anniversary since some women in the UK were given the right to vote – provided that they were over 30 and either owned their own homes or were married to householders. It was not until a full 10 years later in 1928 that in the UK everyone over the age of 21 was given the right to vote, regardless of gender.

There is no disputing that a great deal of progress has been made since 1918, but it may come as a surprise that women in both India and Philippines gained the right to vote ahead of Switzerland where it took until 1971 for women to be granted the right to vote (and even then, it wasn’t until 1990 when all local government districts enforced the law!). Female landowners 21 and over in India were given the right to vote in 1921, with all women being allowed to vote in 1950. The people of the Philippines were far more progressive when in 1937 as a result of a referendum, 90% of the 500,000 who voted were in favour of women being given the right to vote. Unfortunately women have yet to succeed in being granted the right to vote in the Vatican City – the smallest state in the world where 800 or so female residents are prohibited from casting a vote.

The first petition for the vote from an individual woman was presented to Parliament in 1832 by Henry Hunt MP, on behalf of Mary Smith from Stanmore in Yorkshire but it took a full 86 years before the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted some women the right to vote. Bizarrely, Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons in 1919 as the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton. In 1923, the first female Labour MP, Margaret Bondfield was elected as MP for Northampton – both before the majority of women were actually eligible to vote.

Since 1919, progress for women in politics has been swifter and we have seen women take positions of considerable power in the UK. Everyone remembers Margaret Thatcher as the first female Prime Minister in 1979 and she is undoubtedly one of the most influential politicians since Churchill, regardless of your political persuasion, and was the longest serving prime minister in over 150 years.

When Baroness Shirley Williams became disillusioned with the Labour Party, she became the first female to found a major political party when she co-founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and became its first elected MP the same year winning a by-election.

Labour have yet to appoint a female as its leader. Margaret Beckett was however, the first female to hold the office of Foreign Secretary and Mo Mowlam had arguably one of the most challenging roles in Government when she was appointed Northern Ireland Secretary in 1997 – the first time a female had ever held the office. She was responsible for overseeing the peace talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement despite being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1997.

From top left to right: Marjorie Mowlam, Labour party M.P. for Redcar; Margaret Beckett, Labour party Member of Parliament for Derby South and Dr.John Cunningham, Labour M.P. for Copeland; Nicola Sturgeon. Bottom left to right: Margaret Thatcher, previous British Prime Minister, speaks on July 1, 1991 in London; Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May.
From top left to right: Marjorie Mowlam, Labour party M.P. for Redcar; Margaret Beckett, Labour party Member of Parliament for Derby South and Dr.John Cunningham, Labour M.P. for Copeland; Nicola Sturgeon. Bottom left to right: Margaret Thatcher, previous British Prime Minister, speaks on July 1, 1991 in London; Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May.

It took 60 years for the first female Prime Minister to be elected but only 26 years until the second – Thersea May – took charge of the office. In addition, we now have female leaders of the Welsh and Scottish political Parties of Plaid Cymru (Leanne Woods) and the Scottish National Party (Nicola Sturgeon). Arlene Foster became the first woman to be Northern Irish First Minister when she replaced Peter Robinson in May 2016 for the Democratic Unionist Party but following Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minster in January 2017, she was removed from office under the terms of the power sharing agreement that collapsed.

Interestingly Margaret Thatcher appointed just one other female to her cabinet during her time as prime minister – Baroness Young – as the first woman leader of the House of Lords.

Today women make up 51% of the UK population but of the 650 MPs in parliament, women number just 208. This under-representation is not a new phenomenon but demands for it to be addressed are growing. In 2013, Frances Scott started an online petition “50:50 Parliament” calling for equal representation in parliament and in 2016 launched a campaign #AskHerToStand with the aim of persuading more women to become MPs. The main UK political parties have committed to doing more to get women into Parliament – Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has gone as far as setting a goal of 50% of Labour’s MPs to be female by 2020 (Commons women and equalities committee October 2016) – an ambitious target. The Conservatives have not committed to a definite number but their own pressure group Women2Win, founded in 13 years ago, has led efforts to get more Conservative women MPs elected. The current number is 67 – up from 17 but this shows there is still a lot of work to be done.

There are doubtless many reasons why women are reluctant to stand as MPs – the abuse received on Social Media is high on the list. Abuse is not restricted to females only though and is an indication of how intolerant people can be when they are able to hide behind the anonymity of an online account.

As a country, are we generally apathetic when it comes to politics and voting? In the 2015 General Election, which was hailed as a bumper election turnout, 66.1% of the electorate voted – the highest number in 18 years (up from 65% in 2010, 61% in 2005 and 59% in 2001).

Analysis of the 2017 General Election by the British Election Study reveals that the overall turnout for the election was almost identical to 2015. It also shows that the % of female voters was as high as for men and yet, still over 35% of women chose not to vote.

I am a firm believer that everyone should exercise their right to vote – at every single opportunity and not just general elections, not least because it is one of the very fundamental freedoms that so many people have sacrificed so much for.

young girl child wearing pink for women's rights and holding sign that says future voter

Famously it was the ultimate sacrifice of Emily Davison that attracted so much attention in the early days of the suffrage movement when she was killed by the King’s horse in the Epsom derby in June 1913. She has also previously be force fed in prison and also soaked in ice water as had other women. Professor June Purvis’ study of the autobiography of women prisoners along with letters and diaries (notably Emmeline Pankhurst A Biography 2003 and Votes for Women 1999) recounts the experience of a poor women Jane Warton being force fed while on hunger strike with two foot long tubes being forced up their noses and then being held down while a mixture of egg and milk was poured down the funnel. Jane Warton was in fact Lady Constance Lytton who had disguised herself as a poor woman to gather evidence of the difference in treatment of poor to wealthy women. As Jane Warton, Lady Lytton was force fed seven times before her true identity was revealed. She never fully recovered from her treatment – she suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923. Worse still, there are accounts of Fanny Parker, force fed through the rectum and vagina. It was widely acknowledged that new tubes were not always available so the sense of abuse, dirtiness and indecency was inevitable. With sacrifices such as this, how can women say that they ‘couldn’t be bothered as it won’t make a difference’?

If, according to Edmund Burke, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”, then does the challenge for women remain, in the words of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1908, that “it is [a woman’s] duty to make the world a better place for women’ by exercising their vote since this is the only legitimate way any of us change force change? I for one believe we should all vote!

Suzanna Bailes

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