If suffragettes Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Wilding Davison were to turn up in the lobby of the Palace of Westminster today – as they did exactly 150 ago – you could forgive them for feeling a little disappointed.
A century and a half ago – on June 7, 1866 – they arrived at Parliament to present a petition calling for women to get the vote. While many decades later that battle has been won, Ms Garrett and Ms Davies would no doubt be dismayed to see how unequal the political world remains.
Of 649 MPs currently in the House of Commons, just 192 are women. In other words, there are nearly 140 per cent more men than women. More men get to plonk their bottoms on those green benches right now than the total number of female MPs throughout history.
Time for another petition, then.
While campaigns are two a penny these days – their currency devalued when they’re hijacked by the trolls and those with a vendetta to pursue – here’s one which deserves to be taken seriously – 50:50 Parliament, a cross-party campaign to get more women into Westminster, hasposted its clarion call here.
It’s perfectly possible that a lot of women have looked at the antics of the current inhabitants of the Westminster village and decided to give it a wide berth. But it’s also perfectly possible that among the 51 per cent of the UK population, there are some brilliant women out there just waiting to represent us all – if only they got the chance.
So the number one challenge is clear: persuade mainstream parties todo more to select female candidates. All-women shortlists remain controversial, with many female politicians understandably keen to remove any suspicion that they’re there simply to make up the numbers. But in the absence of organic change, the parties have got to force the pace.
Labour still does better than any of the other parties at getting women elected, and that’s in part thanks to removing men from the shortlists in certain winnable seats.
No wonder an exasperated David Cameron still periodically threatens to follow suit. His A-list of priority candidates aimed to parachute a few more women into Parliament, but it was quietly shelved a few years back. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile – now comprising eight white men in the Commons – have insisted that if anyone stands down before the next election, the replacement has to be a woman.
Once elected, though, Parliament remains a somewhat hostile environment. Women tend to get a lot more flak than men, both in the chamber, and, as we’ve seen recently, on social media. And then there’s the difficulty of ensuring some sort of balance between work and life.
Parliament still sits late into the night – though not every night by any means, these days – but perhaps this obstacle has been overdone. A fair few jobs held by men and women have anti-social hours and MPs who might not see their children much during the week do at least get the compensation of long holidays to share with the family.
Admittedly, though, many women rightly want to be a rather more continuous presence in their children’s lives, and perhaps that’s where some more radical reforms are required.
Job shares have been suggested. Although, as I blogged last week, I can’t see political leaders sharing a role, I can see how it might work lower down the political food chain. This idea has been championed by senior MPs, like Liberal Democrat Tom Brake, but it would require legislation.
Simple enough to achieve perhaps. More tricky I suspect is the cultural shift needed both in Parliament and beyond. I’ve seen female MPs tie themselves in knots to ensure they’re putting in the hours and fulfilling their maternal duties, too. It rarely works unless partners are willing and able – their work permitting, of course – to pull their weight at home. It always surprises me how many men and women still assume that mum has to be the main carer, rather than seeing child-rearing and earning a crust as shared responsibilities.
If we want more women in Parliament, that’s got to change, sharpish, so partners, dads and employers are all willing to work on this together.
Surely if the suffragettes started to change the culture 150 years ago, it’s not beyond the wit of man and woman to do our bit now?