We brag about our democracy, but women are still less represented in our legislature than in Kyrgyzstan, China, Rwanda and Sudan
Ninety-five years ago today, on November 28, 1919, an American became the first woman in Parliament. Technically, she had been beaten to it the previous December by the countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish nationalist who fought and won her campaign for Dublin St Patrick’s from Holloway Prison. But Sinn Fein, her party, was boycotting Parliament, and with them she refused her seat.
British socialite and politician Lady Nancy Astor on the campaign trail in Plymouth in 1923. Photo: Getty Images
Yet since then the progress for women’s representation has been slow. Until 1987 women represented less than five per cent of MPs; this doubled in 1992 then doubled again to 20 per cent in 1997. Even now, nearly a hundred years after the initial Act, only 23 per cent of representatives in both houses are women. Will it take until the 200th anniversary of Lady Astor’s election before we write about equal representation as if it were business as usual?
Only two countries, Rwanda and Andorra, are governed by parliaments in which there are as many women as men. Unfortunately they only account for 0.02 percent of the world’s population. In global terms, the UK is close to the average of 22 per cent. But across the world these figures are generally improving, with strategies to support women into leadership positions forming part of a broader fight to win their equality.
Often this starts at a community level: in Burundi, CARE international supported an initiative called “Elect & Become Elected”, which sponsored training of women in communication, campaigning, and leadership to prepare them for competition with their male counterparts. Partly as a result of the initiative, the country met its target of having women make up 30 per cent of all elected officials at the provincial. Other organisations such as Womankind Worldwide and our own government’s Department for International Development have supported similar local initiatives.
As others forge ahead, Britain falls behind. In 1997 we were ranked 20th in the world listing of the proportion of women in parliament; by the end of 2004 we had fallen to 49th. Now, in 2014, the mother of Parliaments and birthplace of the Westminster system stands in a rather miserable 64th place. Though we brag about our democracy, we and the USA (ranked even worse at 85) are beaten not only by European countries including Germany (21st) and France (40th) but by others not renowned for their liberal heritage such as Kyrgyzstan, China and Sudan. There are organisations in the UK trying to address the imbalance, including UK Feminista, the Fawcett Society and 50:50 Parliament, but these initiatives face an uphill battle given a British establishment which, despite the odd lurch towards equality, seems a long way from truly embracing it.