Almost a hundred years and 25 general elections after women got the vote, groups of determined campaigners are fighting to finish the job started by the suffragettes – including Sandi Toksvig, who’s quit Radio 4 to focus on politics
Women have been able to vote for almost 100 years, and the first female MP took her seat in 1919.
But nine million British women didn’t vote in the last general election and just a quarter of MPs are female.
Frustrated by the slow pace of change, a group of modern-day suffragettes are fighting to change this – 25 general elections after women got the vote.
A former international businesswoman in the hotel industry, Frances Scott runs 50:50 Parliament, a group which uses the suffragettes’ signature green-and-purple colours to promote their “call for action” to improve gender equality in Parliament.
“There are only around 80 mothers in the House of Commons, which makes them 12 per cent of members – when in fact mothers make-up 40 per cent of the population. I think Westminster needs to modernise and come into the 21st century.”
She doesn’t believe that women are uninterested in politics – just that they aren’t being selected to run as MPs.
“It’s always been in the hands of the parties, and the parties are predominantly men.”
Scott wants the mainstream parties to do more to encourage women into politics, and for working hours and conditions to be changed to make it easier for women with families to participate. Her petition, which has just passed the 10,000 signature mark, simply calls for Parliament and parties to sit up and take notice.
Other women are fighting to change the system from the inside out. Founded a month ago, The Women’s Equality Party is bringing gender directly into politics. It will not run in the general election, but has high hopes for 2020.
Catherine Mayer, former editor at large for Time magazine and biographer of Prince Charles, co-founded the party at the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre last month alongside Jude Kelly and Sandi Toksvig, who has announced that she is quitting Radio 4’s News Quiz to focus on the project full time.
Mayer thinks women are finally speaking out because they are exasperated at how slowly things are changing.
“I was watching women MPs debating—very cordially—the same old questions about how to achieve better representation and outcomes for women. And I suddenly thought that if Ukip had taught us anything, it was that the only sure way to get the mainstream to adopt policies is to start stealing their votes.
“So I stood up and suggested I go to the bar and found a Women’s Equality Party. A few days later Sandi Toksvig, who was starring in the closing celebration of the Women of the World Festival, suggested the same thing.
“This appears accidental. But actually it’s no accident that Sandi and I reached the same conclusion, at the same time.
“There is enormous frustration at the glacial pace of change but there is also opportunity in the weakness of the mainstream parties, which is opening the door to more narrowly focused movements.”
Like Scott, Mayer thinks women are passionate about politics, but are being discouraged by an outdated system.
“The reason there are so many public school boys in the upper echelons of Westminster is not just because they feel comfortable with each other, but because they have all been educated to see the same characteristics and behaviours as positives, and they are less able to spot talent when it doesn’t look or sound like them.”
It was at a Counting Women In event that Mayer stood up and made her announcement. This campaign, which pushes for equal representation for women at all levels of government, is run by women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society.
Dave Ward, of the Fawcett Society, agrees that women are desperate to be MPs.
“It isn’t a lack of women who would be interested in coming forward and being MPs – it’s the parties and the way that they select candidates. Women face an uphill battle to be picked by their own parties.”
So what can be done?
Solutions include two-party constituencies, where a man and a woman are elected in each location, job-sharing as independent Rachel Ling suggested, or all-women shortlists.
The campaigners all agree that inequality in Parliament is something that has been ignored for too long. But that seems to be changing.
50:50 have had their cause championed by stars including Paloma Faith and Gemma Arteton. Scott’s campaign has been running for a year, but her petition has seen a huge upsurge of interest in the past few months. Mayer set up her party just a month ago. This month Jon Snow spoke out on Channel 4 about the dearth of women in Parliament.
The issue is attracting more and more attention – and the campaigns are tapping into a growing enthusiasm for change.
Mayer says: “We’ve got a core and growing group working on the party now and think we’ve got the key people in place to get the party fully up and running, and new volunteers contact us every day. The enthusiasm out there is extraordinary and wonderful.”
Dave Ward thinks that a flurry of high-profile feminism since the last election, such as Caroline Criado-Perez’s push to keep women on bank notes, and Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project, have inspired a new generation of suffragettes.
“A lot of women are getting involved, challenging society and the way it treats women. They are all coming together, and becoming more and more willing to speak out and say when they see things that are outdated, sexist, and that pose a problem to women in their lives.”
Royal Holloway student Natasha Barrett, 20, is among them. A century ago the university was a hotbed of suffragette activity, and counts Emily Wilding Davison as an alumnus. Now Barrett is carrying on the fight, running the feminist arm of the university’s #votebecause campaign, encouraging students to get involved in politics.
Like all these women, she think it’s vital that women turn out to vote on May 7 and have their voices heard.
“I definitely think there’s a link between lack of representation in Parliament and women not voting. Because women got the vote so much later than men, there’s been a lot to make up for in that respect. Women are still learning that they’re entitled to the same things as men, and when they don’t see other women represented, it makes them feel they don’t deserve a place in it as much.
“The suffragette movement is incredibly inspiring to women today, but I don’t think inspiration is enough – something practical needs to change.”
Mayer says she feels “an enormous debt of gratitude towards the suffragettes”, and Scott says that while she thinks their measures were “drastic” she has “huge respect for what the suffragettes did – they were major human rights campaigners.
“I think they were fighting a much bigger cause than ours, but I feel like we’re trying to finish the job.”