750 years on, what about women in parliament?

19 Jan

2015 is a big year in the history of democracy in the UK, with the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the charter which laid the foundations for the rule of law and rejected the divine right of kings, and this week’s 750th anniversary of the first English parliament. The De Montfort parliament met on 20th January 1265, and was marked by its inclusion of representatives from the major towns, as well as knights from the counties, thus making it the first parliament with regional representation beyond the baron class.

With all these anniversaries, it seems a good time to reflect on the history of women in parliament – a history of course much shorter than men’s, as women only gained the right to stand in 1918, shortly after women over 30 had been granted the right to vote, following the lengthy campaign for women’s suffrage. The first woman to be elected was Countess Markievicz, who as a Sinn Fein candidate did not take up her seat, though she went on to serve in the Irish parliament. After over 700 years of parliamentary history we are now represented by 650 MPs, 23% of whom are women. This is the highest proportion of women MPs ever achieved, but this progress is rather dwarfed by the following infographic:


Source: http://ampp3d.mirror.co.uk/2014/08/20/there-are-more-male-mps-today-than-all-female-mps-in-history/

So what can we shout about in terms of women’s representation and participation in Parliament? Having taken just short of a century to make up less than a quarter of MPs, is it time to take more assertive measures to get women in via quota systems or all-women shortlists? The European countries with the best records in terms of women’s representation are the Nordic countries, where various strategies have been implemented. In Iceland, there is a voluntary quota system for party candidates which has led to a parliament that is around 40% female; 44% of Swedish parliamentarians are women – there is no quota system here, but gender equality is powerfully supported constitutionally, including in the famously egalitarian system of parental leave. Over half of Sweden’s government ministers are female.

Meanwhile back here in Britain, a House of Commons Library publication illustrates the contribution of women in parliament to social justice and family welfare. The first sitting woman MP was Nancy Astor, who remarked in 1928 that 20 measures affecting women and children had been passed since 1918, when women first entered parliament, compared to only 5 between 1903 and 1918. So women’s voices have made a difference to the legislation and life of Britain. Since then, women MPs have been instrumental in introducing laws regarding domestic violence, FGM, Child Benefit and reforms to women’s rights in terms of pensions, as well as crucially influencing the climate around equal pay, marriage and divorce and wider equalities legislation.

All this suggests that women can make a difference in the House, and that women voters can make their voices heard. As we limber up to the 2015 election let’s remember how far women have come, but not underestimate the challenges. Depressingly, it has been estimated that nearly three quarters of parliamentary candidates are men. Women must campaign – and vote – to change that.



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