Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the role of women in public life and the progress made in increasing their representation in Parliament 100 years after the Representation of the People Act 1918 received Royal Assent.
My Lords, 100 years ago this House, our Parliament and every other Chamber across the UK looked very different. Every woman in the country was unable to vote, stand for election or sit in your Lordships’ House. The year 1918 was a turning point and, 100 years on, women and men gather to celebrate and commemorate. It also marked the end of a horrific and unimaginable war that changed our country for ever—and from the tragedies of that war came an acknowledgement that our country needed to change.
The Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent on 6 February, exactly 100 years ago tomorrow. The Act gave the vote to women over 30 with property for the first time and extended the vote to all men over 21. It was a massive step in the right direction, but the fight for women’s participation goes back decades before 1918 to petitions, lobbying and debates throughout the 19th century and includes the first petition to Parliament in 1832, the first mass petition in 1866 and countless failed Bills in the following 50 years. The determined lobbying, and the persistent production of thousands upon thousands of pamphlets alongside those petitions, are most associated in later years with the suffragists—the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies—led by Millicent Fawcett.
The suffragettes—a pejorative name given to the more militant campaign—were centred on the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Pankhurst family. Tired of the lack of progress, this group changed its mode of campaigning to include protest, vandalism and even arson. The suffragettes were also joined by prominent figures such as Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who upset her neighbours in Hampton Court Palace, where she lived in a grace and favour apartment, by selling suffragette newspapers at the palace gates.
This fact demonstrates the nature of the campaign for women’s suffrage: it crossed social boundaries, cultural boundaries and international boundaries. It brought together women from all walks of life in a common purpose, all determined to be heard and all intent on making their case. Women wanted to be truly represented in the laws and customs of our country; women demanded to take part in writing the laws and customs of the UK. The voice of women deserved to be heard. The suffragettes and the suffragists may have used different tactics but they all saw them as a means to achieve the same end.
In 1910 Princess Sophia joined Emmeline Pankhurst and other women and attempted to meet the Prime Minister in Parliament. Many of them were forcibly removed. This was just one of numerous incidents when women entered Parliament only to be ejected by violent means. Many were gradually banned from the estate after they continued their acts of vandalism or chained themselves to railings and statues. You can see their work on damaged statues all around the Palace. Their story and their relationship with this building are told by the stained glass window that nods to the Cat and Mouse Act. This Act released hunger-striking women from prison until they regained their health, only to then promptly return them to their cells.
Being of a peaceful and non-law breaking nature, had I been alive 100 years ago I would like to think I would have been a suffragist. I would like to tell the story of the procession organised by the suffragists in the summer of 1913. They organised marches throughout Britain which culminated in a great rally in Hyde Park on 26 July. Volunteers led multiple routes to the rally. Over about six weeks, meetings were held along these routes, bringing together women from all walks of life. By the time the marches ended in Hyde Park, the group of women was 50,000 strong.
There are very few occasions even now when you see women collect in numbers of that scale. That the suffragists collected in such great numbers, with such pride and despite the risks, is testament to the strength in their souls and the knowledge in their hearts that they were right. The will and the determination of those women, and the men who supported them, meant that not only could some women vote in 1918 but that they could also stand as parliamentary candidates.
But it would be another 40 years until women were welcome in your Lordships’ House. The year 2018 also marks another key milestone: 60 years since the Life Peerages Act, which allowed women and men to enter the House of Lords for the duration of their life. The Act marked a fundamental shift in the entire make-up of the House of Lords. It meant that Parliament could acknowledge and benefit from the vast pool of expertise of both women and men to work alongside hereditary Peers. In total, 294 female life Peers have been created. At the current time there are 203 female life Peers in your Lordships’ House, which means that 69%—or over two-thirds—of all the female life Peers created are still here. I find that an amazing statistic. But women still represent only 26% of the total. I hope that noble Lords will agree with me that there is still a way to go.
The women in your Lordships’ House today also reflect a broader change over the past 60 years. They are drawn not just from political careers but from professional roles, from business, and from science and the arts, bringing a huge range of talent from across the full spectrum of society. This would have been unthinkable 100 years ago: not only that women would be recognised for their merit but that they have had the opportunity to demonstrate their merit with careers.
Women have made history in all sectors. In your Lordships’ House, the first two Lord Speakers were women. I am particularly amused by the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who said that,
“it gives me some quiet satisfaction that, should a man break through the glass ceiling to succeed me, he will be known as the first male Lord Speaker”.
I hope that the current Lord Speaker appreciates his role in history. The point remains that any man who goes first is always the first person. I sincerely hope we are on our way to a world where a woman can be remarkable for achieving a feat rather than for doing so despite the implied handicap of her gender.
I shall mention some other brilliant women firsts who followed Baroness Wootton as the first female life Peer. Baroness Swanborough became the first woman to take her seat in your Lordships’ House in 1958, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester took her seat as the first female Lord spiritual in 2015 and Baroness Young became the first female Leader of this House. Outside the Chamber, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, became the first woman to be appointed Attorney-General in 2007, the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, was the first woman to be chief executive of a FTSE 100 company and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, became the youngest woman to join this Chamber at the time when she took her seat, having already succeeded in the male-dominated technology sector.
The brilliant women of your Lordships’ House have succeeded in every corner of society: in law, football and cricket, as business owners, scientists, activists and performers. It is not the mere presence of women such as them that rights the wrongs of past inequalities but the role that they play in giving voice to their communities. They are providing scrutiny of the laws of our country and acting to drive change by contributing a diversity of opinion and experience. We have always been comfortable with the diversity of political opinion that a partisan system brings, but only in this past century have we seen what diverse debate really means.
I am honoured to work alongside some extraordinary women and to work with excellent men who all value the experience and knowledge that we bring. We must also remember and celebrate the many men who have supported the cause of gender equality, and indeed those who continue to advocate for women, for diversity and for equality. The Acts that have given women access to democracy and to Parliament were passed by men. Gender equality is not a zero-sum game. I will make the same comment as last year; I would like to see a greater number of noble Lords of the male variety contributing to debates such as these—and I thank those who have stepped up on this occasion.
I pay tribute to all the extraordinary women and brilliant men who have moved us this far, and to those who continue to strive for equality. There has been 100 years of progress. Let there be 100 years more.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for securing this important debate. I know she worked hard to get it on the agenda today.
Over the last 100 years, women’s lives have seen great improvements. There are more women in political and public life than ever before, although they are still a minority in Parliament. Since 1918, 489 women have been elected to the House of Commons but that compares with 4,801 men. That is quite a minority, so it is not a great figure. Of those 489 women only 45 went on to become Cabinet Ministers, but there have been two woman Prime Ministers in the last 100 years.
The new institutions seem to work better for women. Devolution in 1999 meant that there were many more women in political life, as we have seen in the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I give the example of Wales, where more women were elected in one day, 24 on 1 May 1999, than the total number of female Welsh MPs—19—in the last 100 years.
New ideas were tried to ensure that women were elected, as Labour did in Wales by using twinning or pairing of constituencies to ensure that we fielded an equal number of women and men candidates. By 2003, 30 women and 30 men were elected to the Welsh Assembly. That made it the first democratically elected institution in the world to have an equal number of men and women members. If we can do it in Wales, we can do it anywhere.
New institutions serve women better; a different agenda is pursued because they are much more diverse than the Houses of Parliament. One thing I know: where there is a level playing field, women will come forward. There is no shortage of women wanting to stand for public office and give service. All women want is a chance to serve.
Women have made progress in other walks of life since 1918, not just in political and public life. In the past, many jobs had a married women’s bar which meant that women had to give up work when they got married. In 1946, this bar was abolished in the Home Office, but it took the Foreign Office until 1973. This bar operated in many walks of life, and it must seem strange to women today that it could possibly happen. Thankfully, our laws now prevent it.
There are many ways in which the lives of women have been improved. The advent of oral contraceptives—the pill—allowed women to control their own fertility for the first time. The Abortion Act 1967 meant women were able to seek safe, legal abortions and did away with the backstreet illegal abortionists, where, as we know, many women lost their lives.
The founding of the National Health Service in 1948 meant that women—certainly working-class women—could now get free healthcare. In the past, a woman went without in order that her children could be treated; or, she just could not afford the cost as money was needed for other things, so she went without. Despite some criticisms of the way the National Health Service works, it is still the best thing we have, but it needs to be well taken care of and should get the resources it needs; otherwise, we are in danger of losing such a precious asset.
The lives of women have been improved by the Government setting up new institutions such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, established by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, established in 2006. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, and we remember the Dagenham women who started off the debate by campaigning for equal pay in their workplace.
Unfortunately, there is still a gender pay gap, about which much has been heard in recent weeks. The Women’s National Commission was set up in 1969 and continued for 40 years until, unfortunately, the coalition Government of 2010 decided it was time to close it down. I served as the commissioner for Wales for more than five years, and I can vouch for the great work it did for women as a whole in the United Kingdom, as can my noble friends Lady Crawley and Lady Prosser, who both served with great distinction as chair of the WNC and will speak later in our debate.
The closure of the WNC was a great loss to women’s organisations. No doubt the Minister will say that it was taken in-house—into the Government Equalities Office—but that does not do the work or have the engagement of the WNC. That was definitely a minus for women.
Although women’s lives have improved, there is still much more to be done. Women need to be able to live their lives without fear. Violence against women is still with us. On average, two women a week are killed by their partners or former partners. Women are victims of domestic violence, stalking and coercive and controlling behaviour. The conviction rate for rape is still low compared to other crimes. Sexual abuse and harassment is rife in the workplace and in schools. Women in all walks of life are still underpaid in comparison to men. Many women in public and political life are abused and harassed, especially on social media.
However, despite all this, we all recognise that life is much better for women in many ways. Women’s charities such as Women’s Aid, the Fawcett Society and End Violence against Women, and organisations like the Women’s Institute, Girlguiding and many more, have done great work and continue to support women and girls in many and different ways, although some of these organisations have had their funding cut and are facing resulting difficulties.
Research has shown that austerity has hit women much more than men. Analysis has found that 86% of the savings to the Treasury through tax and benefit changes since 2010 have come from women, and that the previous Budget did nothing to change this. Women continue to bear the burden so much more than men. Many organisations that support women have had their funding cut, meaning that they cannot provide the services they have in the past.
How can we now improve the lives of women for the future? There are certainly a number of ways to ensure that more women come into political and public life. A starting point would be the Women and Equalities Committee’s 2017 report and recommendations. One suggested enacting Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010—that all political parties publish their parliamentary candidates’ diversity data for general elections. Another recommendation was to extend the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, allowing all-women shortlists to be extended beyond the current provision of 2030, and to extend its use to police and crime commissioner elections and mayoral elections. Unfortunately, the Government rejected all the recommendations; I do hope there will be a rethink.
Very few women hold positions of power in all walks of life. Achieving equality for women is still something we are still waiting for and getting impatient about. The more we strive for equality, the more we will provide role models for girls to aspire to. This is achievable but needs government action and working with civil society, such as the Fawcett Society. Tomorrow, the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, the society will launch a campaign, #OurTimeNow, which plans to break down the barriers to gender equality throughout 2018 and beyond. Let us work together towards that aim so that future generations of women will have a life with no barriers to overcome, and life will be better for all.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Vere and Lady Gale, this afternoon.
For me, the story of women’s growing role in politics and other aspects of public life is a story of numbers, because what we do not measure, we cannot manage. So my first number is, of course, 100. It is 100 years since women over 30, with certain property qualifications, got the right to vote. But it would be another 10 years before women got equal voting rights with men, then set at 21, and a further 30 years before non-hereditary women were eligible to enter your Lordships’ House with the Life Peerages Act 1958, when the first four female life Peers took their seats, as the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, has already said. Today, women still comprise only 26% of this place—a poor comparison to the Commons, where we have reached the dizzy heights of 32%.
This improvement in representation was made possible, at least in part, by the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which for the first time enabled all-women shortlists to become a reality. This was conceived and introduced by the Labour Party, which does so much better than other parties, with 45% of women in the Commons, as opposed to Liberal Democrats on 33% and Conservatives on 32%. Others, like my own party, have struggled with the concept of all-women shortlists, but the figures clearly speak for themselves. The notion that it must be the quality of the individual candidate which determines selection has dogged us, and I would that it were not so. The guilt engendered in so many women at the thought that they might be advantaged over men and, Lord forbid, be a token woman, causes them to hold back. If I thought that deliberately choosing a quotient of women would result in any deterioration of quality of representation, I might agree. But when you look at some of the men who represent us, who have no doubts about their entitlement to rule—well, I rest my case. Noble Lords in this House this afternoon are of course exempted—not wishing to get lynched.
Anyway, moving on—my next figure is 1979, which, of course, was the date when we got our first female Prime Minister. Personally, I would feel more inclined to celebrate this milestone if she had encouraged other women to come forward, to use some of the talented women that she had at her disposal. But, sadly, she got to the top and pulled the ladder up behind her, which is a great shame, because the whole point of having representation from all parts of society is to make for better government. We know for a fact that companies with diverse boards thrive and prosper more than boards comprising all men, of the same ethnicity and the same class, from the same school and even belonging to the same club. It is obvious that you get better decisions when you take more views into account, but when you look at one of our ruling political groups today, you see that pattern. I am not saying that men would deliberately discriminate against women, different ethnic groups, disabled people, people from different backgrounds, and so on. They just do not think about us. Out of sight, out of mind. That is why we need to be there, around the table, where the real decisions are made—and role models for us are few and far between.
So my next number is 90%. That represents the percentage of statues in London depicting men. That is clearly unfair to all the female talent that we have to inspire us, and I have my own suggestion for who the next candidate for a plinth should be. I am sure many of us have been approached by Bee Rowlatt, chair of the Mary on the Green campaign, to erect a statue on the green outside Parliament of Mary Wollstonecraft, who fought for women’s suffrage a full century before Millicent Fawcett commended her as the “leader in the battle”. If there is one thing the Minister could agree to today, it could be to take back to her colleagues the request and suggestion that Mary Wollstonecraft be acknowledged in a statue for her trail-blazing work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. I hope that she will give us as favourable an indication as she can in her remarks later.
Women are important in all aspects of public life. We comprise 28% of judges, but only 9% of Supreme Court judges. We are 33% of councillors, but only 17% of council leaders. There is a deficit—a talent deficit—and, in these challenging times, I would respectfully suggest we need all the talent that we can get. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, what we do not measure we cannot manage. The EHRC is calling for Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to be enacted. That section requires political parties to publish candidate diversity data. Bringing the facts into the cold light of day has a wonderful effect on behaviour. The gender pay gap reporting rules come into force this year. As I speak, large companies are scurrying around looking at their gender pay gaps and trying to put in place systems to ensure that they do not get shown up in the same way again. The shaming effect of having one’s less-than-commendable statistics published for all to see would give political parties the incentive they need to revise and reform the way they choose their candidates.
My final number is 276. A postcard with that number printed on it arrived on my desk last year, and it took me a while to work out what it meant. It is my number; my place in the history of women elected to the British Parliament. In 2005, when I was elected, only 275 women had preceded me. Today, progress has speeded up but even so it will, apparently, take another nine elections before we achieve parity with the men. I want to see parity in my lifetime, but if I die before it happens I will jolly well come back and haunt these corridors until we have fair and equal representation of all the talents in this potentially great country of ours.
My Lords, we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act tomorrow. I take this opportunity to reflect briefly on one element of how it all came about. Much of the focus over the coming year will be on the suffragettes, the suffragists, the Pankhursts, the Fawcetts and other brave women who courageously campaigned in this cause. However, I should like to spare a moment to think about one group of people who may not get the attention they deserve: the men who introduced the legislation and made it happen, and one man in particular. Although there was a growing groundswell of support for women’s suffrage before the First World War, the contentious issue of the parliamentary campaign was not whether women should be able to vote, but how many. All the political parties were anxious about extending the franchise because of how it would affect them.
Willoughby Dickinson was a Liberal MP—later a Labour Member of this House—who dedicated his entire parliamentary career to winning women the vote. According to the Vote 100 historian in Parliament, he was the only MP with a perfect voting record on women’s suffrage. He introduced the first Bill of the 1906 Parliament and reintroduced it every year until the outbreak of war. He called for equal pay for women in 1903, secured financial support for the masses of women who were left widowed by the war and protected the rights of women who were married to foreign citizens imprisoned during the war. He was a crucial member of the Speaker’s Conference, chaired in 1916-17 by the grandfather of the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, the recommendations of which finally led to the Act which we celebrate tomorrow.
Through his years of parliamentary campaigning, Dickinson had the franchise knowledge, the cross-party contacts and the experience of suffrage debates to produce a solution to the deadlock. He emerged as the conference’s deal breaker, winning a majority of one vote by suggesting that age be used as the discriminatory barrier. Millicent Fawcett’s NUWSS wrote to him, saying:
“We all know that a very large part of the great triumph of this week was due to your personal efforts … we always felt that you were our true champion in the House of Commons”.
He wrote in his diary:
“The House of Commons passed the third reading of the Representation of the People Act without one protest. The greatest measure of reform since 1832 ... It is ten and a half years since I first introduced my Women’s Suffrage Bill and now at last I see something done. I feel as if I had not lived in vain”.
For him, this campaign was not merely matter of justice; he was also motivated by the fact that his sister, an eminent doctor who worked behind the lines in Serbia during the war, could not vote while he could. How proud he must have been to see his daughter, my grandmother, take her seat in 1937 as the 33rd ever woman MP, and how proud I am of them both today. I hope they would be pleased that I have taken on their fight, which today we still need to win.
Therefore, although we can celebrate the fact that 489 women MPs have been elected since they were able to stand in 1918, compared, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said, to the 4,503 men over that same period, there is still much to be done. Today, one-third of MPs are women—better, but by no means good enough. Noble Lords will be aware that, thanks to all-women shortlists, the Labour Party has already reached 45% and is committed to a target of 50%.
When we went into the election in May last year with 70 Conservative women MPs—up from 17 in 2005, when Theresa May and I founded Women2Win—and with 30 candidates in good target seats, I felt pretty confident. The polls showed us winning most, if not all of those and, looking ahead to the election beyond that, we were confident that a substantial number of old, white men would pack it in and women candidates would be in a good position to get selected for many of those retirement seats—job done. I, too, could retire. But it was not to be. Not a single one of those target seats was won by a woman, and the additional challenge we were not expecting is the 30 ex-MPs who may be looking to return to Parliament at the next election. In addition to not winning those target seats, many Conservative women candidates received disproportionately vicious abuse, online and in the constituencies. Resilient they may be, but the whole experience had been far from joyous for many and, as the results became clear, I could hardly bear to crawl out from under the duvet.
But here we are, and having picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves down, we are ready to support the next generation of talented women. I am today delighted to welcome Women2Win’s new co-chair, Mark Harper, former Chief Whip in another place. For us in the Conservative Party our pipeline remains challenging, so if any of your Lordships know someone you think would make a good MP, please encourage her to step up and start the journey. If she is a Conservative, please send her our way. The #AskHerToStand campaign needs to be supported by all who care about diversity of experience in Parliament.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to deal with the issue of abuse, and I understand that she will spell out her plans in greater detail tomorrow. No one standing for public office should be treated with anything but respect. It is an honourable thing to aspire to represent one’s community, and women in particular should be encouraged rather than bullied. We should never allow our public discourse to become toxified, and we should stand for decency and tolerance. I urge the Labour Party to sign a similar behavioural pledge to the one we are committed to. We also need to be aware of the barriers that women who want to work in Parliament still face, including working between multiple locations, balancing caring responsibilities with long and demanding working hours, and ensuring their financial stability while pursuing election.
Even today people sometimes ask me, “Why does it matter if there are more women in Parliament?”. Conservatives are, sadly, at 21%, Labour is at 45% and Parliament at 32%. It matters because women are different. Their life experiences are not the same as men’s. They are neither superior, nor inferior, but different, and that difference has to be better reflected here in Parliament.
My Lords, I am pleased to be part of this debate, in which across the Benches of the House we recall an historic event and remember some of the brave and foresighted women who made change happen.
Opposition to women’s suffrage came, of course, from all quarters. The Labour and trade union movement did not much like the idea because these women were upper class, posh, and most likely to side with the Tories if they came into the House. Equally, the concept of feminism was neither universally popular nor widely understood. Rebecca West is quoted as saying:
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat”.
We have been there. Then there were those women who felt the whole argument had nothing much to do with them: women with no money, too many children and no independence. It is no wonder that people said at the time that the coming of electricity was a greater liberator than the suffrage.
However, the point of increased representation or participation in either Parliament or public life generally was about more than the numbers; it was to bring about change and to bring a different perspective to the debate, with different experiences being brought to the table. That was the high intention but change was a long time coming.
In the 1940s, women in the Transport and General Workers’ Union held a conference. The general secretary of the day, one Arthur Deakin, was asked why so few women were employed by the union to work as organisers. He replied that every woman had the same opportunity as every man to apply and to be brought forward for interview. Over 40 years later, when I was appointed to work as the national women’s secretary, the union had about 2 million members. There were 400 paid organisers, of whom four, including me, were women. So much for the equal chance. That was an in-your-face example of wishful thinking going nowhere.
When Bill Morris—my noble friend Lord Morris of Handsworth—became deputy general-secretary, he and I introduced a series of positive actions designed to get more women involved in the work of the union and instituted programmes which were important to women, such as the Full-Time Rights for Part-Time Workers campaign. Every region had to employ a women’s organiser and run women-only education and training programmes. These programmes were intended to get women on to the union ladder. After initial separation, they would then join the mixed programmes. “Separate to integrate”, we said.
That brings me to the situation today. As far as I can tell, all and any pieces of legislation or policy designed to improve the position of women in society have been introduced by various Labour Governments. My noble friend Lady Gale has already mentioned some areas of legislation, such as the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, and the Social Chapter was also brought in. It was a wonderful basket of initiatives designed to enable women to participate more fully in the world of work.
I cannot find any such initiatives which have been introduced by a Conservative Government, and therein lies the rub, because just like the situation I have described from all those years ago in the T&G, women’s lives will not improve as compared to those of men unless positive action is taken. In fact, the coalition Government of 2010 actually did away with programmes which were going very well at the time. The Women and Work Sector Pathways Initiative was a programme designed to improve women’s employment skills and was vigorously supported by employers, both financially and practically. It trained or retrained more than 25,000 women, enabling them to move up the ladder or move into work, but it was done away with in a swipe.
That initiative came out of the Women and Work Commission report, presented to the then Prime Minister in February 2004. All 40 of its recommendations were accepted by government and a general programme proceeded, including, for example, looking with employers at ways in which better-quality part-time work could be provided, training programmes, as I have mentioned, and initiatives in schools to get more girls into STEM subjects. I get slightly fed up with discussions on the gender pay gap when there is a pretty clear and well-trodden area of debate as to how to help eliminate it.
I cannot conclude my remarks without quickly mentioning all-women shortlists, which have already been referred to. These were another recognition that there comes a time when softly, softly is simply not enough to bring about the change that is required. However, we will not be defeated. Let us remember the words of Charlotte Whitton, who was the first woman mayor of Ottawa. She said:
“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good”.
Then she said:
“Luckily, this is not difficult”.
My Lords, I rise to speak in this important debate and declare an interest as a woman who, like other noble Baronesses speaking here today, has had a long journey to reach this Chamber. Many of us, as we stand on the summit of life’s mountain looking down at the valley of experience, think, “Who would have thought?”.
In 1966 I started my journey as a lowly clerk in the chief accountant’s office of Barclays Bank, a place dominated by men in grey suits and bowler hats. At that time it was my ambition to become the first black woman bank manager in the country. Sadly, it did not take me long to realise that there is a difference between ambition and fantasy. I did, however, cause uproar when I dared to go to work wearing a trouser suit instead of the obligatory skirt. Many of my female colleagues soon copied me, much to the consternation of our male counterparts.
In 1981, at the height of my career as a regular presenter on BBC children’s programmes, getting pregnant was considered a serious error of judgment. In those days it was almost certain that it would be the end of your career, as you were expected to disappear gracefully, with babe in arms, to a life of wifely domestic servitude. Pregnant women were certainly not to be seen below the waist on television when their pregnancy started to become evident. Fortunately for me I had a visionary producer, Cynthia Felgate, who at one time was in the Guinness book of records for producing the most television programmes in the world. She allowed me to continue working and presenting until I was eight months pregnant. This was unheard of and made national and international news. I was seen by millions of viewers fully pregnant, and once I even stopped mid-dance to declare, “I can feel the baby kicking”—the children watching loved that moment. Other female presenters were grateful for this pivotal moment, because they, too, could become pregnant and carry on working onscreen throughout their pregnancy.
It was around 1968, living through the civil rights movement and the race riots here in Britain, when I started to become conscious that more women’s voices were needed in politics. So I organised political meetings and events for fellow Caribbeans in London who felt excluded from society—something that the legendary Claudia Jones had earlier fought against by establishing the West Indian Gazette and the creation of what we all know now as the Notting Hill Carnival. Because of these influences, over the years I began to speak out more and more: I wrote letters to political leaders and campaigned on issues such as seat belts on school buses, diversity in publishing and in the media, and, for 20 years, for a Minister for Children—until we finally got one. It is such a shame that that position has now been downgraded from a full ministerial post. I hope that the Government will reconsider this change and correct this short-sighted mistake.
There have been many women who have been motivational to others and acted as mentors. One in particular for me was the late inspirational and visionary Marchioness of Lothian—Tony Lothian as she was affectionately known. She influenced thousands of women’s lives. She was a journalist, a writer, a benevolent force for good and the founder of the Women of the Year lunch. She was awarded an OBE for services to women, which she treasured and considered her greatest achievement. She believed in bringing women together from all over the world, from all creeds and classes, and from all social, religious and financial backgrounds. She fought for liberty, peace, fairness and equality.
She set up the Women of the Year lunch to highlight the efforts of women who were changing the world and making a difference and to recognise the contribution that they were making to public and political life. But in 1955, when she decided to celebrate professional women’s achievements with a lunch that would raise funds for the blind, she was told condescendingly that she would be lucky to find 50 women to attend. She found 500 and the lunch has continued to this day, with thousands of women from all walks of life being acknowledged.
Many occupations and professions that were closed to women simply because of their gender are now annually celebrated. Among the guests are pilots, train drivers, engineers and of course Prime Ministers—a position women could only dream about back in 1955, when women were not even elevated to the peerage here in this Chamber. Women leave the lunch feeling that they want to inspire others and to press the reset button for change.
But it is sad to think that, 63 years on, an event such as the Women of the Year lunch is still necessary because that resistant glass ceiling still exists, especially for women of colour who, as they progress up the ladder of society, are often asked, “What are you doing here?”—or they get “the look”. Women of colour know that look. It is the look that says it all. A few years ago, when I put myself forward for a board position, I was told, “Who do you think you are, rising above your station?”
Do not get me wrong: things have slowly changed over the last 100 years and we are gradually reaching a state of equality nirvana. It is great to see so many women now being propelled into high-level positions in public and political life, at local level and here in Parliament. That includes women of colour, too—but not enough.
One of the many challenges that women sometimes have to contend with when they reach new heights is that they are so often judged differently from men and have to work harder to prove themselves. Opportunity is what we all need to make progress, to be all-embracing and not to be tribal, defensive and protective. I always get excited when I see real progress, so I was thrilled that recently two of our public service broadcasters appointed female chief executives. I hope that they are paid equally to their male counterparts.
Many women have banged on the doors of inequality and continually tried to break down barriers. We have been told to shut up or we would never work again, to back off and know our place—but that has never deterred us from fighting for equality and fairness. My mother was a housewife and did not have the chance to have a career in public life, but had she lived in today’s world she would have made it right to the top. She was a determined and remarkable woman. So we must never underestimate the value of women of her generation, who nurtured, guided and influenced their girl children to reach for the sky, and made huge sacrifices in doing so.
We can all personally do our bit to inspire, motivate and pave the way for future generations by encouraging young girls and women to experience environments such as Parliament by inviting them here to visit this Chamber to see for themselves the differences being made by women in public and political life. We need to write books about our personal experiences—or at least keep diaries so that future generations can measure progress.
One of the most extraordinary women of our times is Her Majesty the Queen, a woman dedicated to duty who is a record breaker on several fronts. No other monarch, male or female, has achieved or will ever achieve what she has—at least not in the next 100 years. I am an optimist, so I look forward to the day when matters such as the struggle for equality and lack of diversity are looked on with a degree of bemused nostalgia, and when the contribution of women in Parliament, business and public life in general is regarded as entirely normal. That day is fast approaching and, as I reach the age of 69, I am so pleased, proud and privileged to have lived and worked through an era when huge changes have taken place in women’s rights. I hope that I survive long enough to see the day when sexism, misogyny, gender inequality, sexual harassment and violence against women are consigned to the dustbin of history where they truly belong.
My Lords, I would like to contribute a few historical reflections to a debate that so clearly invites them, as my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington demonstrated so movingly, along with my noble friend Lady Vere, who introduced this debate so powerfully.
My starting point is that posterity is sometimes inclined to give undue credit for great advances in political and public affairs to those who campaigned for them in dramatic and memorable ways. The suffragettes live on vividly in the public mind, immortalised in literature and in film. The bravery and courage they showed in the face of harsh treatment by the authorities will always command widespread admiration. But their militant campaign in the years before the First World War did not mark the vital turning point. One of the objectives of all that is going to be done this year to celebrate the centenary of a great parliamentary reform, and the subsequent if incomplete progress that it made possible, should be to ensure that this achievement is seen in a clearer historical perspective.
What happened 100 years ago represented above all victory for the law-abiding suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, a woman who retained the respect of Gladstone and his Liberal Party after parting from them over Irish home rule and becoming a prominent Liberal Unionist in alliance with the Tory party. She and her supporters, some 50,000 strong and thus far outnumbering the suffragettes, waited a long time for their triumph. It was in 1897 that their effective advocacy of their cause first secured a Commons majority for the principle of women’s suffrage. Legislation did not pass because successive Governments failed to give it priority. Winston Churchill and others opposed it tooth and nail, and opinions differed as to the property and residence requirements which women should meet in order to vote, as my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington mentioned.
When the suffragettes came on the scene, support for women’s suffrage in the Commons slipped. It is hard to argue that law-breaking assisted the cause. Millicent Fawcett never wavered in her opposition to violent methods. It is surely right that her memory should be honoured this year by a statue, the first of a woman to be erected in Parliament Square. I hope that it will stimulate greater interest in her remarkable career, which spanned a period of more than 60 years and encompassed many other causes besides women’s suffrage.
The Conservative Party was prominently associated with the 1918 Act. Its leading politicians dominated Lloyd George’s coalition Government, who were responsible for the legislation. In marking its centenary, Tories today will be deeply conscious that this is also the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928, a more far-reaching measure which gave the vote to all women. It was made possible by the resolve of Stanley Baldwin, the first person to use the phrase “one nation”, which has been incorrectly ascribed to Disraeli. Baldwin as Prime Minister in 1927-28 overcame the strong opposition of his Chancellor, Winston Churchill, who never really reconciled himself to the emergence of women in public life. In 1930 Baldwin, as a leading champion of the right of women to vote, unveiled the well-known statue of Mrs Pankhurst, who had been the Tory candidate for Whitechapel at the time of her death two years earlier.
For far too long, women MPs remained few in number. Some leading Tories were not content with that state of affairs. They included Sir George Younger, the great-great-grandfather of my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie. As chairman of the Conservative Party in 1921, he explained that:
“I have tried my very best to get certain constituencies to accept a lady candidate”,
adding that one constituency chairman,
“wrote back saying I had given him the shock of his life”.
It is important to remember that by this point many women were already involved in public life as members of locally elected bodies. Women had been given the right to vote for and to serve on many of them in 1869. They proved especially successful in winning election to school boards and Poor Law boards. After 1907, all local authorities were open to them.
Furthermore, the Tory party itself had provided significant roles for women since the 1880s. About 1 million of them worked with great commitment in the Primrose League, the largest voluntary mass movement Britain had yet seen, often taking charge of a branch, of which there were some 2,300 in all. After 1918 the party swiftly created an elaborate organisation of its own throughout the country. It provided many opportunities for women. I got to know well one of the first women constituency agents as she approached her 100th birthday, which was duly celebrated here in the Lords with Margaret Thatcher. She would have made a fine MP, but found fulfilment in another political sphere.
Tory women in Parliament during those early years regarded themselves as part of a wider movement within and beyond the party. Nancy Astor became a national celebrity with her exuberant feminist views. “I married beneath me”, she declared, “All women do”. Katharine Atholl was admired for her diligence as a junior Education Minister, later exhibiting great independence of spirit as a supporter of the republican cause in Spain. Mavis Tate worked with women in other parties on campaigns for equal rights. They and others were all resourceful pioneers.
Baldwin once said that Conservatives must be capable of,
“continuous adaptation to the ever-changing facts of social life”.
But as Conservatives have adapted over the years they have held firmly to the principle on which Margaret Thatcher, the greatest of all Conservative women, insisted: merit should determine the positions women occupy in public life, just as it should for men.
My Lords, I am delighted to join this already spirited and good-humoured debate—how could it be otherwise, when we have so much in common and so much to celebrate? I will take a rather oblique look at the occasion. I will do so by virtue of the suffragette colours: violet, white and green. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is in her person acknowledging those colours, which at one point were supposed to stand for, “Give women votes”, but apparently that is apocryphal. These three colours are still worn in girls’ schools around the country on the occasion of their founders’ days. My daughter went to Camden, which was founded by Ms Beale, one of the great suffragists. The suffragists set the tone for a policy that would have to intensify with the suffragettes.
There are still women marching in the streets of this city wearing the suffragette colours. They are proud to do so. They use the suffragist methods. They are, of course, the WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality. The occasion of their protest was a good one, because the whole idea was that equality of pension age was overdue in fairness to men, which is something, of course, that they acknowledge. But the decision was a wrong one. It was implemented incorrectly. Steve Webb, the Minister of State at the time, told us so. He said that,
“we had to make a difficult decision”,
and that, two months later, they realised that,
“the implications of what we were doing … were very different from what we thought … so that’s a decision that we got wrong”.
That wrong decision affects 3.8 million women. Their failing was to be born in the early 1950s.
WASPI’s campaigning reflects much of the suffragist movement. It has more than 140 local branches across the UK. It has a grant from the Rowntree Reform Trust to further political campaigning. It has the support of UNISON. It delivers petitions. Last October, 100 MPs petitioned on its behalf, many of them, of course, women. It has had petitions signed around the country. Some 193,000 people signed the last one. It has had five debates in Parliament. It has had the intervention of the ombudsman to speed up the Government’s response to its requests. The most recent Motion on this, moved by the SNP in November last year, passed in the Commons by 288 votes to zero. The DUP voted for the WASPI women, and five Tory rebels voted for them too. This is not yesterday’s event, nor 100 years ago; it is a living campaign that has adopted and respects the methods of the suffragettes. In the most recent debate, introduced by Ian Blackwood, it was said that these women are guilty of nothing; they simply had the misfortune of being born female in the 1950s. This House knows that being born female is no answer to anything. The WASPI women are today’s heirs of the suffragettes.
My Lords, I welcome this most timely debate in what I hope will be a historic, transformational year in addressing the barriers to women entering public life. I take great strength from the number of dedicated and inspirational noble Baronesses who are speaking today from all sides of the House. I also thank the noble Lords who have stood up to be counted, for we need your help; we will not win through alone but by getting men to understand that parity of female representation will create a better society for us all. Before I go further, I must declare my interests as honorary vice-president of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, co-chair of the APPG on Women, Peace and Security and a member of other organisations specialising in women’s issues, as set out in the register.
We have already heard many statistics about women in Parliament but some are worth repeating. A total of 489 women have been elected to the Commons since 1918. At the general election last year, 208 women MPs were elected: 32% of all MPs and a record high. Prior to 1987 women had never made up more than 5% of MPs. Women were not allowed into the House of Lords until 40 years after 1918, and as of last July we make up only 26% of its Members. There can be no doubt that progress has been made in the last 100 years, and not just in Parliament—look across our judiciary, clergy, Armed Forces, police and many other areas—but it is not enough. While 32% of MPs might be our all-time high, this ranks us only 39th in the world for women’s representation in Parliament: the Nordic countries and Rwanda lead the pack. Last year’s general election broke the 200 barrier for the first time, but the Fawcett Society highlights that this represents only a 2% increase on the last election. If the UK improves by only this much at each election, we will not see equal representation in the other place until 2062—almost another 50 years.
I am proud of and commend the hard work of Women2Win, the Conservative Women’s Association and the #AskHerToStand campaign within my own party, seeking reform, encouraging and supporting women candidates to put themselves forward, helping them along the bumpy road of politics. Each political party needs to take responsibility to review, reform and enact changes, but we must make sure that the system and the process as a whole are much more welcoming. Women still shoulder the burden for most of the caring responsibilities in the home, and thus the demands of political and business life can impose an enormous strain on relationships. Research published in 2013 found that 45% of female MPs did not have children, compared with 28% of male MPs: there is clearly a motherhood gap in Parliament that needs to be considered as part of the gender gap.
Today, I believe it is the terrible abuse that women are exposed to, both campaigning and online, that is making them turn away. Just look at some of the responses my noble friend Baroness Jenkin got for speaking out the other day. Just look at the findings of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report on intimidation in public life, which found that women, especially Conservative and BAME women, received the greatest amount of abuse. Even in the 21st century, women seem intrinsically less confident than men and therefore need much more support and encouragement. We need to keep looking at how our culture and education systems continue to reinforce this lack of confidence down the generations.
There is not enough public recognition that women’s lives often have a different shape to men’s. Many take time out in the childrearing years, but this is sometimes misinterpreted as lack of dedication in the very male workplace. When they have children at home, many do not wish to work the long hours demanded by City firms, which make their employees sign out of the EU working directive. Thus they do not get promoted, or choose to leave the industry. Some women choose to return to the workplace when their children are older but often it is hard for them to get employed in a job that matches their ability.
We know that having women involved in the policy conversation and in decision-making positions makes a difference, as many issues impact differently on women, who are, after all, about 50% of the population. I know from my experience of international women’s issues in developing, conflict and post-conflict countries how important it is to have women around the peace table and to have gender-focused humanitarian relief, such as women and children safe spaces in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. In the business world, female entrepreneurs and businesswomen support growth and stability through diversity. One need look only at the work of the 30% Club on getting women into boardrooms here in the UK or how female-led microfinance and SMEs form the backbone of individuals’, families’ and communities’ paths out of poverty across the globe.
I welcome this debate. It is an excellent forum to discuss and exchange ideas, as there is still much further to go. I ask my noble friend the Minister: what action do the Government plan to take this year to further the cause? We talk smugly about how the UK is leading on gender equality across the world, yet we have never nominated a woman to serve on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Doing this would demonstrate that the UK is serious about gender and wishes to highlight the work of this important body. Through support to UN Women, the UK could work with it to help evaluate the effectiveness of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It is, after all, the second biggest annual meeting at the UN, yet we hear nothing about it. Surely this is a missed opportunity. As the Fawcett Society has asked, when will Section 106 of the Equality Act, requiring political parties to collect and report monitoring data, commence?
At a time when trust in public figures is low, surely it is a no-brainer that removing barriers to enable more women to enter Parliament and participate in public life will benefit our country and, critically, help us achieve goal 5 of the UN sustainable development goals. After all, we should never forget Mrs Thatcher’s famous words:
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, to commemorate the fact that 100 years ago tomorrow certain women in the United Kingdom were enabled to vote: women over 30 who either owned property or were married to men who owned property—so no woman on either side of my family would have been able to vote; they had to wait another 10 years. Indeed, seeing my noble friend Lady Gale at the Dispatch Box today reminded me that, in 1978, she and I were at a reception in 10 Downing Street where we commemorated the 50th anniversary of universal female suffrage. As my late right honourable friend Tony Benn used to say, when you reach the age of 50 you realise that a century is not a very long time.
As the 168th woman elected to the House of Commons, in 1992, I am conscious of the fact that in those days there were more men called John in the House of Commons than women MPs. In the very first vote of that Parliament, we voted for the Speaker and I voted for my noble friend Lady Boothroyd. In the Division Lobby, I saw the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell. She and I were friends. We saw each other and I said, “Tessa!”, and she said, “Jean!”, and we gave each other a hug. We were overlooked by two gentlemen whom the Conservatives used to refer to as knights of the shires—they used to call them the Sir Bufton Tuftons—and one nudged the other and said, “Look at this: the place is filling up with women!”. I also want to say how fortunate I was to have Barbara Wootton as a friend—the first woman to sit on that Woolsack and the first woman life Peer. She was absolutely a model for us all.
I want to spend most of my speech on a woman whom I knew when I was the women’s organiser for the Labour Party in the south-west region, based in Bristol, from 1976. She was coy about her age, but she was in her 80s and she was one of the last surviving suffragettes. Her name was Jessie Stephen. She was a Scot, the eldest of 11 children. Her father was a tailor. She left school at 14 and went into domestic service. She realised in no time that it was drudgery from dawn to dusk and it was isolating. She had a half-day off every week. She said to me, “During my afternoons off, I would go around Glasgow putting incendiary devices into post boxes”. She was a suffragette. Although I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, said from the Government Front Bench, the suffragettes needed the suffragists and the suffragists needed the suffragettes, and I do not make a distinction.
At the age of 17, Jessie founded the Scottish Domestic Workers’ Union and was its general secretary well into the 1920s. She saw in me, she said, a reawakening on some of the things on which she had fought in her life, issues which she thought had become dormant in the 1950s and 1960s—the issues that we were concerned about then included access to jobs, abortion, rape, childcare—and it pleased her no end. She used to reminisce with me on the fight for women’s suffrage. She talked about the Cat and Mouse Acts and about helping to organise suffragette meetings. I loved to hear, more than once, about how she helped to carry a big wicker laundry basket into meetings during the time of the Cat and Mouse Acts. The police on the door would say “What’s in that basket?”, and the organisers would carry it as if it contained what they said it contained—bunting—but it actually contained Mrs Pankhurst. They would take her to the back of the hall and find a room. When the meeting opened, Mrs Pankhurst would appear and the police would try to rush the platform, but there was a phalanx of women like Jessie on the front of the platform whom they had to negotiate while Mrs Pankhurst was spirited away out the back.
Jessie joined the Labour Party and stood for the council in Bermondsey in 1919, as shown in the Daily Express of 30 October of that year which recorded how many serving women were delighted to find that one of them was standing for election. She became celebrated on the lecture circuit of the United States and Canada, and when she had to dash back for an election the Liverpool Echo recorded that she had come back from a lecture tour. She was a woman whom people knew. When she was in Portsmouth, she stood as a Labour candidate and reduced the Conservative majority from 18,000 to 5,000. Although there were other speakers on the platform, when she finished speaking most of the audience would leave with her for her next meeting. She became the first woman president of the Bristol Trades Council in 100 years, which was no mean feat in a city characterised by industrial workers and dockers.
Jessie also turned her hand to journalism. The title of one her articles particularly amused me. It is: “After the Wedding: Why Should Wives not Continue to Work?”. It was written in 1920. The 4 October 1919 edition of John Bull put her down as one of the world’s most powerful women.
Jessie was a parliamentary candidate three times—of course, she stood in seats that were not usually winnable. I understand that because, when I was a women’s organiser in 1979, I persuaded some women to stand for election in the south-west of England. None of them could have won, but one of my male colleagues in another region—who is now departed from us—said, “Who’s that woman in Bristol persuading women to stand for Parliament”, as if it was an offence when nobody complained about him conducting shortlists that were all men.
This was the wellspring of reminiscence and experience in that little house in Bedminster, Bristol, which so impressed me, and I am pleased to say that Bristol City Council has recognised Jessie’s worth and there is a plaque on the wall of her house in Chessel Street, Bedminster, recording when she lived there. She wrote her autobiography and bequeathed her papers to me, as she thought of me as a kind of daughter, but because of a misunderstanding her sister burnt them the day after the funeral. Noble Lords can imagine the distress I felt about that. But I discovered that her trade union had a copy of her autobiography and some of her papers, photographs and press cuttings, and I have deposited them in the Bristol reference library.
In June 1979, the National Conference of Labour Women was in Felixstowe, and I was told that Jessie was ill and had gone to hospital. She died on 4 June, and it is recorded that her last words were, “You’ll have to change my tablets; I am going to a women’s conference”. The point of all this is that we stand on the shoulders of women like Jessie: women who nobody has ever heard of but who mean so much to us. I wanted to record here and now that, without people such as Jessie Stephen, we would have waited even longer for some of the privileges that we rely on today.
My Lords, women’s involvement in public life and particularly in government did not begin 100 years ago. Women had some limited franchise prior to the great leap forward achieved by the Act of 1918. Women were allowed to stand for election to the newly created school boards in 1870, to district and parish councils in 1893 and finally to county councils in 1907.
This gradual progress of enabling women to take on responsible roles was, as can be seen, in areas where women were deemed to have some practical knowledge. Women could contribute to social reform—and they did. That perspective came to define women’s involvement in government at all levels for a hundred years. The generally accepted view, though, was that women did not have the experience or, indeed, even the brain power for the big issues of government: taxation, defence, foreign affairs. I think it is questionable as to how far society has rid itself of that prejudice.
Women in the Liberal Party had long been advocates of women’s suffrage. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Women’s Liberal Federation was formally committed to equal pay, to equality in divorce laws and in access to all areas of employment, and of course to women’s right to vote on an equal basis to men. Sadly, some of the most senior men holding power in the Liberal Party opposed women’s suffrage. The male tribal preserve was to be protected.
Some senior Liberals did, however, publicly advocate votes for women. Notable among them was Sir John Simon, who was at the time Liberal MP for my home area of the Spen Valley in Yorkshire. Eventually, the pressure from the many mainly women’s groups for the vote, combined with the catastrophe that was the First World War, broke down the barriers, and the coalition Government under the Liberal Lloyd George in 1918 passed the Act giving, as we have heard, only some women over 30 the vote.
I now turn to the achievements of Liberal women in the last century in local government and some in central government—first, local government, where things can really be changed. The renowned Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had a trio of firsts in public life, as the first woman to sit on a school board, the first woman to be qualified as a doctor and the first woman to become a mayor of a local council—a true trail-blazer for women.
Another woman I want to draw the attention of your Lordships’ House to is somebody who is not really well known, Gertrude Elsie Taylor. She was elected to Batley Borough Council in 1927. Many of your Lordships will not know Batley, but it is a male preserve. It is a woollen mill town—actually, a heavy woollen mill town—and not the sort of place where a woman would easily succeed in public life, but Gertrude Taylor did. She became the mayor of Batley in 1932.
These women across the country laid the foundations for all of us who have been elected to local councils, and the Liberal women who were elected to Parliament in those early years are equally to be recognised. Margaret Wintringham, who in 1924 became only the second woman MP, was elected to Louth in Lincolnshire despite advocating many feminist causes. Margaret Ashton fought every election as a Liberal from 1918 to 1935 as well as by-elections in 1937 and 1944, in an era when standing as a Liberal and standing as a woman were not particularly to be acknowledged. She gets a special mention for flying the Liberal flag in an era when that was not easy to do so.
Despite this early success and 100 years of the acceptance in principle that women could and should be able to vote and hold high office, there is much that needs to change. Men still dominate both government and local government. Women are often still rarely elected to leadership roles of councils or, indeed, as metro mayors. For instance, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and I were the first women to be leaders of our respective Yorkshire councils. The sad fact is that the same cultural fault-line runs through our society as 100 years ago, be it in business or government, wherever major decisions are being taken.
Despite the best endeavours of many people and the clear progress that has been made, women are still not involved on an equal basis with men when it comes to significant decision-making. Women need to be fully engaged in the discussions prior to the formal decision-making. In my experience, that is often not the case. Until there is equal representation from all parts of society at the early stage of decision-making, in business, in government or in any other part of public life, then inequality will persist.
So let us celebrate the tremendous achievement of those campaigning women over 100 years ago. Laurels we must grant in abundance to the many women who campaigned for the right to vote, but we women today should remember that laurels are not there to be rested on.
My Lords, I thank the Government for giving time to this historic debate and to my noble friend Lady Vere for opening it so eloquently. If my mother had still been alive, she would have been 102 years old today. She was born in 1916 into a world where women were not allowed to vote, and born to a mother who, although she was poor and worked in a cotton mill, was highly political. It would be 1928 before my grandmother and all other women over the age of 21 had the vote, but she celebrated, as do we, the vote given to some 6 million eligible women after many years of struggle and sacrifice. We should not forget that the Representation of the People Act 1918 also widened the franchise for men, and it had in it proposals for proportional representation. As the Manchester Guardian headline on 7 February 1918 read: “Reform Bill Passed: Women’s Vote Won … Alternative Vote Definitely Rejected”.
My grandmother may not have got the vote in 1918 but that did not stop her keen interest in politics. Over the years, due to deaths and remarriage, she ended up the mother and stepmother to 14 children. By any measure she lived in poverty but she and her family had a wealth of love and generosity, and no matter how many mouths my granny had to feed there was always something left for someone else in the street who might not be well or had lost a loved one. People came to her for advice and help with their children and even with the birth of their children. She was simply a one-woman welfare state—and she was a staunch Tory.
I mention this to highlight the countless women over the years who, had their circumstances been different, would have made a significant contribution to public and national life, and I join the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, in paying tribute to them. That is why those of us who have been lucky to play our part have a responsibility to do all we can to motivate and support women to take the opportunities afforded to them.
I doubt there is one woman in your Lordships’ House today who would be here without the championship of other women. As the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, said, we stand on shoulders. I know that I would not be here without my noble friend Lady Seccombe—like many women in the Conservative Party, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to her—although I might not have had the benefit of her support without Barbara Porter. Barbara was chairman of the Bolton West Conservative Association, and she sent me off on a cold and foggy November weekend—with great reluctance on my part, it has to be said—to a training session for women in West Bromwich, which turned out to be the catalyst for all that followed. I owe her heartfelt thanks for pushing me out of my comfort zone.
It was that weekend that subsequently led me to stand for Parliament in Oldham in the 1992 general election, and to meet someone else who encouraged me to persevere. I have never subscribed to the view that unless you share the same politics, you cannot share friendship. So it was that I met and came to like my opponent in that election, Bryan Davies, now the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. He was so kind to me at the count, where I inevitably lost. In his speech, he thanked me for a good campaign and said that he hoped that I would get to Parliament, just not in Oldham. If only all politics was like that.
The advances made by women over the past 100 years would never have happened without the help of enlightened men, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington. I am sure her great-grandfather would have been very proud of everything she does today. I know that my work as vice-chairman for candidates would have been that much harder without the wise counsel of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who was dedicated to getting more women into Parliament. After all, we had no shortage of young men beating a path to our door looking to fill in that awkward gap between leaving university and becoming Prime Minister. I am delighted that my honourable friend Kemi Badenoch now has the role of vice-chairman for candidates. I know she will do it brilliantly and I wish her well.
History will rightly praise David Cameron for the way he changed the face of the Conservative Party, but if it had not been for the drive and determination of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith, with his resolve that the party must look and sound more like the country it wished to represent, and attract more women and ethnic-minority candidates, all the exciting progress my party has made would have been that much harder to achieve. The progress we have made from 2005 to today is in large part down to the wonderful Women2Win, which I had the pleasure of co-chairing for a short time. It was formed after the 2005 election when, although we had far more talented women on our candidates list, many of whom are now in the Commons or your Lordships’ House, serving as Ministers and members of the Cabinet—some of them are sitting not far away from me now—we had not made the electoral breakthrough that we needed to make a significant difference.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, who is not in her place, that she is plain wrong when it comes to the Prime Minister’s support of women. The founders of Women2Win—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington—both knew that it would not be easy, but they threw everything into searching for new talent and then training and nurturing that talent, and our party and Parliament are much the richer for their efforts.
Of course, it started before 2005 for the Prime Minister, who in her previous position as the first woman chairman of the Conservative Party pioneered a number of radical initiatives to shake up the selection process for candidates. That included the first-ever open primary, in Warrington South in November 2003, which resulted in a woman candidate for the Conservatives. She never shied away from facing down complacency and prejudice, and I am therefore not at all surprised that the Prime Minister will use this historic centenary, when we celebrate the bravery of those who fought so hard for the extension of women’s rights, to highlight the pressure and abuse facing women—and many men—today as they exercise their freedom to express their political views, which some would seek to deny them.
In 2002, I was interviewed by Simon Mayo on Radio 5 Live about how the Conservative Party was going to attract more women. I was asked the inevitable question about all-women shortlists, and I was just about to give my stock Conservative answer when I decided to say something different: “Whatever your views on all-women shortlists, you cannot deny the impact they made”—and, they did. The numbers could no longer be ignored and it meant that the rest of us, in our own way, had to step up our game. We have come a long way since 2005, but in the words of the trailer on Channel 4 for its all-girls special of “The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds” to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage: “A lot has changed, but we are not there yet”.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, who has always worked hard to promote women in her party, and it is a delight to take part in this unique debate. I am much encouraged by the many activities and events that Parliament and the Government have so far planned for this exciting anniversary year.
I can remember talking to my grandmother, Sarah Ryan, about how proud she was of her first chance, in 1918, to vote and how she got quite irritated with my grandfather, who thought she might not know how to, and tried to come in with her to show her. The Representation of the People Act 1918, it could be argued, was the most significant piece of legislation for women in the history of our country, as it opened the door to our democratic participation. After so many years of reasoned debate and persuasion falling on deaf male ears, the civil disobedience and imprisonment of the suffragettes and then the war years when the banners were swapped for spanners in the arms factories of the First World War, in 1918 women started—I realise it was only a start—pushing open the door towards full parliamentary participation.
The Representation of the People Act, of course, as my noble friend Lady Corston said, was only for women who had access to or owned property, and only for women over the age of 30. How patronising. But it was thrilling anyway for millions of women such as my grandmother. So, along with the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which gave women the right to stand for election to the House of Commons for the first time, the long lists of firsts began. Countess Markievicz of Sinn Fein was the first woman to be elected to Parliament—but refused, in that Sinn Fein tradition, to take her seat. Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat, as the result of her husband’s by-election in Plymouth Sutton in 1919. Plymouth is a city I love and grew up in, and I can remember my mother saying how she had met Nancy Astor, and how she had been “quite a character”. In 1921 Margaret Wintringham became the first Liberal woman MP, and the first Labour women MPs were elected in the 1923 general election—Margaret Bondfield, Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence.
The first time women and men had equal voting rights came in 1928, with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. We are the beneficiaries of the Life Peerages Act 1958, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, in her spirited introduction. It saw the creation of peerages for women for the first time. By the end of 1958 there were 884 male Peers and four women Peers. We have come a long way—but not far enough.
As we know, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman Prime Minister in 1979, nearly 40 years ago. Baroness Young became the first female Leader of the House of Lords in 1981—a popular practice now on both sides of the House. Betty Boothroyd was our first woman Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992. The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, is very much an active Member of your Lordships’ House and was on her feet yet again last week, making a powerful intervention on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Of course, another very important first for us was my noble friend Lady Hayman becoming the first woman Lord Speaker in 2006.
To tack back a bit, by 1945 the total number of female MPs elected since 1918 had increased to 77. Here in the Lords in 1963 there was legislation to enable the first woman hereditary Peer to take her seat—and so Baroness Strange, who I had the pleasure of knowing, and who was a great campaigner for widows’ pension rights, became the first to take her seat. Of course, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, remains a very active Peer today. No female hereditary Peer in her own right has ever been admitted to the House through the hereditary by-elections—another reason to see the back of them.
In graph 1, available to us in the House of Lords Library’s excellent briefing for this debate, we see that the pivotal year for a significant increase in women’s numbers in Parliament was 1997, when Labour won the general election and increased hugely the number of women elected—the result of all-women shortlists, as noble Lords have said, and other promotional activities within the Labour Party to see more women in Parliament. That is a very good reason to keep all-women shortlists going beyond their sell-by date of 2030, as called for by my noble friend Lady Gale in her excellent introduction.
The 1997 election saw 13 Conservative women elected, 101 Labour women elected and three Lib Dem women elected. That was the year when the force of scale really mattered for the first time in women’s influence in the Commons—although, of course, there had been many very important individual women’s contributions up to that point. I remember very clearly and worked with the redoubtable Baroness Barbara Castle, for instance. At the moment, I am writing a piece about a terrific Birmingham MP of the 1970s called Doris Fisher. So, yes, in all parties there were many significant individuals, but I believe that 1997 marked a turning point in the influence and political heft as far as women were concerned—and so began another round of firsts. Margaret Beckett was the first woman Foreign Secretary in 2006. The first female Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was appointed in 2007, and the first female Attorney-General, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland—and here in your Lordships’ House in 2015 the first female Bishop, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester. Of course, we look forward to welcoming our first female Black Rod, Sarah Clarke, very shortly.
So we have come a long way, here in the mother of Parliaments, but we must not forget the many hundreds of women councillors, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and MEPs, who represent people so well locally and internationally—although, unfortunately, our MEPs will soon be gone. Although we have come a long way, the place of women in the modern body politic is a complex one. We share the general lack of trust and disillusion meted out to most politicians, but we are picked out for particularly vicious abuse and vitriol on social media and elsewhere. At its most extreme, we witnessed the terrible death of Jo Cox MP. We have seen women MPs standing up for other women, in the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, and that must continue.
The legislation that women MPs have worked on down the decades on equal pay, access to justice and maternity leave, and against violence against women, has without doubt helped improve women and girls’ lives in this country—but the pace of change and of cultural change has often been glacial. But that, as we know, is no reason to give up. In education we must continue to be vigilant to guard against any cultural or religious restrictions placed on girls’ lives. On pay, we have only to look at the current fight to close the pay gap at the BBC to realise that there is so much more to do. My own bugbear is the effect of Brexit on women’s rights—and so the fight goes on. There is much to celebrate in this anniversary year, but much to make us all even more determined than ever not to give up the fight. As Barbara Castle would say, “Keep the faith”.
My Lords, this debate has been a pleasure and it has been entertaining. One cannot often say that about debates in your Lordships’ House. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, who outlined the progress that has been made, but also said that progress has been glacial. I do not want to bring the mood down too far but would like to outline some of the problems that society still has in this regard.
I am sure all your Lordships know that society is still extremely unequal as regards women’s place in it. Therefore, we still have a long way to go. I wish to make some suggestions about how we can speed up that process. A lot of noble Lords have quoted people. I should like to quote Theresa May, who said:
“There are women who gave up their lives to have the right to vote in this country and people who yearn, across the world, to have this freedom and so we should use it”.
That is absolutely true. We are incredibly lucky that we have got as far as we have here. However, if we really valued the vote, we would make sure that elections were fair and not stitched up by an archaic voting system. We need a system of proportional representation for both Houses of Parliament. In bodies where that is used, more women are elected. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said, in the National Assembly for Wales, just over two-fifths—42%—of Members are women. In the Scottish Parliament, just over one-third—35%—of Members are women. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, 30% of Members are women. Following the 2014 European Parliament elections, women account for 41% of UK MEPs. An elected second Chamber using a system of fair votes would transform this House, where only a quarter of the Peers are women. We keep talking of the figure of 489 women who have been elected to the other place so far, but we should remember that they would still not fill all the available seats. We are still hugely unrepresented. The Green Party parliamentarians are 100% women, but there are only two of us.
Whatever your take on the results of the European Union referendum, where every single vote counted, wherever it was cast, it showed that if you give people a say and give them a vote that means something. They can be very political indeed, as citizens who feel that they can be genuine agents for change or not. Here in the UK, we no longer have agents of the state arresting women and torturing them by force-feeding. However, we have undercover police invading the lives of innocent women and using them in a systematic attempt to get information about campaigners. Those women were lied to and there were even children born of those liaisons. The “spy cops” case is once again in the High Court. At 9 am today, I stood outside the High Court protesting about the case in which the Met is blocking every move it possibly can to hide the identities of the police officers involved. The Met still refuses to see the illegality of its position and its actions.
We also have example after example of online trolls hounding and abusing women—and it seems mostly to happen to women. Anonymous rape and death threats are not pleasant and must be taken very seriously. In America, the #MeToo campaign has highlighted the systematic abuse of women by powerful men, including their President, condemned by his own boastful words.
Here in the UK, we had the Presidents Club fiasco last month, showing that the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns are vital for us here as well. Over the weekend, there were reports of the Freemasons here in Parliament: journalists, parliamentarians and staff—a male bastion of privilege and cosy, women-excluding creepiness that I cannot imagine. Freemasonry records show New Welcome Lodge, set up for MPs, Peers and parliamentary staff, and Gallery Lodge, for the political press corps. Both remain active, according to the Guardian. Apparently, New Welcome Lodge has about 30 to 40 members, of whom only around four are understood to be MPs, while none is a Peer. Well done, gentlemen.
The WASPI women are another classic case of inequality and injustice that we ought to be discussing more.
In 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst said that the vote would create equality for women. We know now that that is not the case, but it opened up the possibility of equality, if women choose to make their self-interest a priority on issues such as pay and childcare. It says a lot about the society that we live in that it still has to be mostly women who speak out on those issues.
When we talk about women’s equality, there is always the Thatcher and May question: is it not great to see women in positions of power? Strong women have emerged in recent years and they have had to struggle against the odds in their parties, though not in the Green Party, obviously. Having Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP, however, does not make it a force for liberal politics and feminism. It is not a bad thing to have different types of people, but I would like young women to be inspired by different role models, such as, for example, Caroline Lucas—who would be a much better Prime Minister than Theresa May—Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, or Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru. There are 10 male Peers speaking in this debate and I congratulate them on standing up today. I shall listen carefully to what they have to say. It is obvious that we women cannot do it all on our own; it is incredibly important that we have the support of men.
I close with a last word from the Local Government Association, whose Be a Councillor campaign,
“works with councils, political parties, individuals and talent-spotters to encourage more people to stand as local councillors. It is important that local government reflects the communities it represents”—
I cannot emphasise that enough—
“and the Be A Councillor campaign includes a focus on encouraging woman and under-represented groups to engage with and enter politics”.
However far we have come, we still have a long way to go. Things such as this debate will enable us to see a more equal society.
My Lords, I decided to speak in this debate because it is important for some males to contribute. I have one or two things to say and, as has been referred to, the second woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was returned for Louth, in a by-election in 1921, following the death of her husband, Tom.
The first of my two points is to draw attention to the somewhat anomalous wording of the Motion. The Representation of the People Act was enacted in 1918. Women have been able to stand for election to the House of Commons since 1918. However, they have not been able to stand for election by virtue of that Act. The qualifying age for election to public office is dealt with in separate legislation from that governing the franchise, and the Representation of the People Act left unchanged the ineligibility of women to stand for election to the House of Commons. It was eight months after the Act received Royal Assent that the House of Commons approved, by 274 votes to 25, the Motion:
“That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that a Bill be passed forthwith making women eligible as Members of Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/1918; col. 785.]
The Bill to give effect to this wish had one clause and received Royal Assent the following month, on 21 November. As there was no reference to age in the measure, the minimum qualifying age was deemed the same as that for men: 21. The omission appears not to have been an oversight, as the implication was acknowledged when the Act was going through the Commons. There was no real opposition to letting women stand at the age of 21. The reason the franchise was restricted to women aged 30 and over was to ensure that women remained in a minority in the electorate in the immediate post-war period. That reasoning, of course, was irrelevant to the qualifying age for election to the House of Commons.
Thus, we should be acknowledging in the Motion the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. That was the measure that enabled women to enter the House of Commons. As we know—it has already been touched on—it did not exactly open the floodgates to women being elected as MPs. This brings me to my second point. There may not have been quantity in numbers but there was quality. Some of the women elected to Parliament in the inter-war years made a significant contribution to the nation’s politics. The House of Commons may not have seemed a conducive environment for the few women MPs elected in this period. Some, though, did take to it, and with effect. Nancy Astor was obviously high-profile and capable of giving as good as she got. However, she did not achieve as much as some other women MPs.
Three years ago, I gave the Speaker’s Lecture on Eleanor Rathbone, the independent MP for the Combined English Universities from 1929 until her untimely death in 1946. She was the first woman to be elected as an independent and remains the only woman to have served as an independent MP throughout her parliamentary career. She knew how to use Parliament to get what she wanted, and she enjoyed it. When the House got a little unruly, she confessed to Mary Stocks that she,
“rather liked the House when it is in this rollicking mood, though I suppose it would shock a serious critic of Parliament”.
She knew how to use procedure and how to pursue Ministers, not just in the Chamber but in the Corridor. As Harold Nicolson recalled, she would stalk through the corridors, weighed down with her papers, to waylay Ministers, who in time became to view her approaching figure with some trepidation. As Susan Pedersen wrote of her:
“She was, simply, implacable; and, since she was well-placed, impossible to shut up, and immune from party discipline, officials and ministers had no alternative but to deal with her. But when they did so, they often found, to their surprise, that she was neither fanatical nor impractical, but flexible, imaginative and terrifyingly good on the details”.
Her achievements were remarkable. She is credited with getting family allowances introduced—the Family Allowances Act was enacted shortly before she died—but she did much else beside. She was amazingly prescient in recognising the dangers posed by Nazi Germany. Six weeks after Hitler became German Chancellor, she was on her feet in the House, warning of the dangers. She fought hard for refugees: with three other MPs, she set up a Parliamentary Committee on Refugees. She fought to improve the condition of women in India. She became a champion for the creation of what became the State of Israel. She demonstrated real stamina in pursuing her goals—all the more remarkable for the fact that she was first elected to the House of Commons at the age of 57. According to one of her biographers, she was the most significant woman in British politics in the first half of the 20th century. As I said in my lecture, one can identify a “look at me” politician, driven by ego, and an “I want to get things done” politician, driven by values. The two types are not mutually exclusive, but Eleanor Rathbone was a pristine example of the latter.
Rathbone was thus distinctive, though she was not unique in being a female MP who made a mark in the inter-war years. She worked with the Conservative MP, the Duchess of Atholl, to evacuate some 4,000 children from Spain during the civil war. The duchess resigned her seat in 1938 to fight a by-election in opposition to the Government’s policy on appeasement. On the Labour side, there were politicians such as “Red” Ellen Wilkinson and, of course, Margaret Bondfield, who was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet.
They all deserve credit for demonstrating that women could do just as good a job as men in the House of Commons, if not better. Rathbone has been described as an early Margaret Thatcher. It would probably be more accurate to describe Margaret Thatcher as a latter-day Eleanor Rathbone. They were very different in many ways, although both were products of Somerville College, Oxford, and both demonstrated what women could achieve in the House of Commons.
As has been emphasised, the return of women MPs has been slow—indeed, for decades glacial—but one should not lose sight of what the few who were returned in those early years contributed to public life and in a not necessarily congenial institutional setting. This is a great opportunity to draw attention to all that they did.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, for her very kind remarks about our election contest. When I expressed the hope that we would meet in the Chamber in due course, I had assumed that it would be at the other end. Never once, when we met in discussion over the political position of the nation, did I conceive that either she or I would be present in this Chamber.
I too want to concentrate my remarks mainly on one woman. When I first entered the Commons in 1974, there were three women in the Cabinet: Barbara Castle, Judith Hart—the Minister for Overseas Development—and Shirley Williams. Although it might be going a little far to say that they were household names, certainly for anyone with the remotest interest in politics those women made a big impact. Many of my male colleagues rejoice in that but we recognise that we have an awfully long way to go to produce anything like fairness towards women. Undoubtedly the big step forward was having all-women shortlists in the 1997 election. I have met enough men who have objected to those shortlists; nevertheless, their efficacy is undoubted. If we are to make significant progress towards anything like equality of representation of the sexes in the House of Commons, other parties also have to think along those progressive lines.
This debate commemorates the achievement of the vote for women in 1918 and we all salute the contributors to that cause. Some names are very well known. Those of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia drop off the tongues of anyone remotely interested in such history, but I want to concentrate on someone who I think deserves similar recognition but gets infinitely less. Her name is Annie Kenney. She was brought up in Oldham, the town which I had the privilege to represent in the Commons some time ago. She started off as a mill girl in one of over 400 mills which Oldham—the cotton king of England—boasted of at that time. Annie always bore the scars of that work. Just as miners often have the tips of fingers chopped off through the dangers of their work, women mill workers lost fingers through controlling the bobbins on looms in the factories, and Annie suffered from that handicap. It is about the only handicap that she ever recognised because, my goodness, she was a woman of considerable spirit.
There is presently a proposal to erect a statue of Annie in Parliament Square in Oldham. It is a very fine square. On one side of it is Oldham’s war memorial, quite a wonderful piece of sculpture and deservedly so, because Oldham lost its sons at the Battle of Loos in 1916. In those terrible times, the young men of a whole ward could be wiped out by the carnage on the Western Front. On the other side of the square is a magnificent example of 19th-century civic architecture: the town hall, complete with the requisite Doric columns. It also has a blue plaque, which states that Winston Churchill addressed the people of Oldham there on his election—his first election—as a Member of Parliament. It is a prestigious location, and I will now give the reasons why I think Annie Kenney should be commemorated there.
Annie listened to Sylvia Pankhurst at a meeting of the Oldham Clarion in 1905, and immediately struck up a political relationship with Sylvia. There was no doubt at all that Annie was born of very strong stuff indeed. She was certainly a militant suffragette; the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, paid tribute to them, while disavowing their effectiveness in the long run. She was alongside Sylvia when the first political meeting was disrupted by the suffragettes. Sir Edward Grey was one of the speakers, and Winston Churchill another, so it was a fairly star cast to upset, but the suffragettes had no inhibitions about that. As a result, Annie spent three days in jail. Subsequent to that, following further disruptions carried out by the militants, she suffered force-feeding in prison after being arrested and was a victim of that outrageous cat and mouse Act, whereby women were released until they were fit enough to be returned to prison, where they were treated just as cruelly as they had been in the past.
The militant suffragette campaign was suspended in 1914, and of course Annie was a patriot: not for her any question of reservation about participating in the war. It was the job of men to go to war and it was the job of women to fill the places that the men had vacated and play their full part in sustaining the war effort, which Annie did as ably as she could. At the end of the war, Asquith was long gone, and Lloyd George had been convinced, partly through the militancy of the suffragette movement before the war, that the vote had to be granted to women. So although I accept that of course wartime changed a great deal in British politics, and although I accept that the militant aspect of the suffragette movement will always arouse some degree of controversy, there is no doubt that it played its part. By far the most important part was the war effort and the fact that women were able to demonstrate that they were the equal of men in sustaining production at home. But it was inevitably the element of challenge laid down by women—a determination that they would be satisfied—that helped to convince the political establishment of the time, all of whom were male, of course.
I hope and expect that a statue will be constructed over this next year. I hope that Annie Kenney will be recognised for the outstanding Oldhamer, subject and woman that she was. Tremendous courage was needed to sustain these activities over many years, and we should do nothing else but give due praise to the women who did so.
My Lords, I am humbled to take part in this important debate on the role of women in public life and their increase in representation in Parliament, both in this Chamber and in the other place. We have already heard how hard-won the battle was for all women in the United Kingdom to be allowed to vote and to play their part in electing the Government, and about their selfless struggle to gain equality. I wonder how those women would have viewed the progress that has been achieved in the past 100 years. On the ballot paper, a woman’s vote is still worth exactly the same as that of a man, but there is still a significant underrepresentation, as we have heard, of women in Parliament. In this Chamber, the percentage of women Members seems to be stuck fairly stubbornly at 25%. Although there is a higher percentage of women on these Benches than there is on the Benches of the other major parties, I do not think that 33% is yet good enough. Of course, as we have heard, in the other place, only 32% of Members are women.
If we look at the position of women in the rest of our society we see that there is no equality. There are whole swathes of society where women are barely represented. According to Fortune magazine, there is a greater chance of being a CEO of a FTSE 100 company if you are called David or Stephen than if you are a woman. I guess being called Mike means that I would never have made it big in the world of business. Perhaps I should have called my daughter David or Stephen.
The representation of women on the boards of major companies is pitiful. The Women in Sport survey found that half of the 68 bodies funded by Sport England and UK Sport have fewer than 30% of women as non-executive directors—a percentage that is now a precondition for receiving public funding. The small number of women is reflected in the tiny coverage of women’s sport in our national newspapers, although both the BBC and Sky deserve praise for increasing the coverage of women’s sport.
Just as 100 years ago the tectonic plates of history were finally shifted by those remarkable campaigning women, the plates are now shifting again. The row over the gender pay gap at the BBC is now moving into other areas of public life. The denigration of women, whether at a rich men’s dinner cloaked in fundraising for charity or some working men’s clubs, or the appalling sight of scantily dressed women having to publicise a boxing tournament or Formula 1 race, is not acceptable any more. It is heartening that the public are universally clamouring for this change.
It is through education that the esteem and self-esteem of women must be started. In primary and secondary schools we need to ensure that there is parity of opportunity for men and women and that stereotypes are challenged. That must continue into apprenticeships, further education and higher education to ensure that we have strong role models. It is a pity that our school curriculum and GCSE and A-level syllabuses are so strongly weighted towards men.
I want to talk about two important women, one of whom has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. However, you do not always have to be famous to make a change to your community and society. I start with Eleanor Rathbone, the Liverpool campaigner and independent MP for Combined English Universities. One of her first speeches in this Parliament was on preventing female genital mutilation. She joined the British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council to support human rights and was, as we have heard, outspoken on appeasement. She co-founded the Liverpool Women’s Citizen Association to promote women’s involvement in political affairs and was president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship—the renamed National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
In Liverpool, Eleanor Rathbone formed the 1918 Club for women, reputedly the oldest women’s club still meeting, which of course celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Our Lord Speaker has kindly agreed to host a reception for its members in her honour. It is important that we remember and celebrate the thousands of remarkable women like Eleanor Rathbone.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, women from all walks of life have brought about change. I think of my mother. She was German and a refugee fleeing from the invading Russians. She ended up in Liverpool, the city that was the most heavily bombed place in the UK outside London. She did not speak a word of English and was 24 years old. That woman managed to survive, to run a business, to bring up a family and to live happily ever after. When my father suggested that my mother might like to return to Germany, she said, “No, my home is in Liverpool now”. There are millions of women like that who do remarkable things every single day.
We recognise the contribution that women have made. Currently there is an excellent exhibition in Portcullis House, a raft of events planned in Parliament for this year, and a celebration in the year-long Women and Power project organised by the National Trust. Of course we must remember that before 1918 it was not only women who did not have the vote, it was also non-householders. They included men living with their parents, working as servants, serving as soldiers and the homeless. Without the women’s suffrage movement I wonder whether universal suffrage would have been extended to men as well.
We must all take responsibility for challenging the underrepresentation of women wherever we come across it. We must use the correct term to describe occupations because language is important. It is not acceptable to talk about “firemen” and so on. I know that some people will say, “What’s in a name?”, but actually it is important for us and for our children growing up. Parliament should become a beacon of women’s rights and opportunities, not just in the Chambers but in the number of female officers, staff, researchers and interns we employ. It is about equal pay and equal opportunities.
Two weeks ago I met a group of women who are campaigning for more women to be employed in the construction industry. As a result of that meeting I put down a Question for Written Answer, and yesterday I received a reply from the Minister telling me that practical steps are being developed, including the Be Fair framework. As I walked to the Chamber earlier, I looked at all the scaffolding around Parliament, and I wondered how many women we employ from the construction industry on our own building. I would bet that actually there are none, but we could be a beacon and ensure that women in the construction industry are employed here in Parliament itself.
In conclusion, I should say that I was very nervous about speaking in this debate, but I am glad that I have. Without being patronising, I have been genuinely inspired by Members’ contributions, and I thank them for that. As I have said, much needs to be done to reach the nirvana talked about by my noble friend Lady Benjamin, but with women like her and others in this Chamber, it will be achieved.
Although much of the focus of this debate is on the representation of women in Parliament, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that we should reflect on the role of women in local politics, both in the suffrage campaign and in the present day. In this centenary year, it is worth remembering that local government led the way for women’s rights. Women could vote in local elections nearly 50 years before they won the right to vote in parliamentary elections. They stood for election as local councillors and Poor Law guardians, and used their positions to fight for better conditions for their local communities. The Women’s Local Government Society and the LGA have worked to identify 100 suffrage pioneers who were active in the campaign for votes and went on to use the extended rights to citizenship in a positive way locally. The suffrage pioneer campaign will be launched tomorrow, on 6 February.
My home city of Bradford was at the heart of the women’s suffrage campaign. A rally held in 1908 at Shipley Glen, close to where I live, was attended by crowds of 100,000 people. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned Margaret Wintringham in her list of able women. She was born in Keighley, which is part of Bradford, and she took her seat in 1921. She was the third woman, rather than the second, to be elected as a Member of Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, told us that Lady Astor was the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat. We note that she was a Conservative. The second was Countess Markievicz, who represented Sinn Fein and never took her seat, while Margaret Wintringham was a Liberal. That shows us that the suffragette movement encompassed women of all political persuasions, and we should learn from that as a way of doing things that deliver. We all have something to offer and no one has a monopoly over all knowledge and virtues.
I have really enjoyed hearing about the inspirations that other Members and women have referred to in their lives, and I particularly liked the description by my noble friend Lady Morris of her mother and grandmother. I was fortunate in that both my mother and grandmother ran their own businesses, which was absolutely unheard of in their generation. Moreover, the Primrose League, which has been mentioned, featured large in my family history. But I must say something positive about how the encouragement and inspiration to do things in political life came from the male in my life—my father. He died in 2001, aged 96. He had always been very encouraging of women. He had only brothers and no sons, just me. He was determined that whatever I wanted to do, I should be encouraged in that. He encouraged me to take a deep interest in politics, and he employed women on occasions when many others would not have done. He gave them responsibilities and always regarded them as intellectual equals. I am very lucky in that, and I thank the male Members of the House who have taken part in this debate because we appreciate that not all men have negative views about the rights and role of women. Long may we encourage them to play their part in bringing forward even more opportunities for women.
This centenary celebration must not only be a time for looking backwards; we must look forwards and find practical ways of encouraging more women to serve their communities as local councillors. The lack of parental leave and pension contributions can act as barriers to standing as a councillor, and in particular to taking on the responsibilities of a cabinet member and needing to give up full-time employment. The intimidation of people in public life, which affects both men and women, is also a barrier to standing for public office.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life recently published a report on intimidation. It recommended that the Government should bring forward legislation abolishing the requirement that those standing to become local councillors should publish their home addresses on ballot papers. This is a recommendation that I would encourage the Government to look at closely, having personally suffered harassment in the past and unwelcome intrusions into my family’s lives when I was the first woman leader of Bradford Metropolitan Council. I know that some men suffer intimidation, but I doubt that male leaders both before and after me in Bradford council were on the receiving end of so much unwarranted treatment.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned, the Be a Councillor campaign is a very helpful way of getting underrepresented groups to engage with and enter politics. It has recently formed a network of women councillors, which can help and advise those who are thinking about standing for election. I encourage all noble Lords to support it. In closing, I ask whether the Minister could update us on any further plans to increase women’s representation nationally and locally in political and public office, given the work that both central and local government are doing to invest in the Be a Councillor campaign.
My Lords, I am so glad that we have this opportunity to celebrate the huge breakthrough that took place in 1918 when women first got the vote. It was a really great leap for womankind and another victory in the struggle for equality, but it is important to remember that none of it happened because the powers that be gladly decided to share power. It had to be extracted from them, like pulling teeth. Power is never given away readily. It was the product of monumental struggle—a visceral, gut-wrenching struggle.
The demands for suffrage had started long before 1918. As someone mentioned, they probably started when Mary Wollstonecraft started arguing about the rights of women at the end of the 18th century, but during the 19th century there was that great struggle by women fighting for property rights. The Married Women’s Property Act created a seismic shift in the status of women, albeit middle-class women. Having your own money and your own property is a liberation for women, as we now know so well and as women have realised.
Women did not want to be seen as the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were demanding access to education, the universities, medical schools and the legal profession, just like their brothers. They brought cases to court—I say this as a lawyer, because it is a piece of history that really is shocking. The women argued that the law was neutral. It said that “any person” suitably qualified could enter university, become a city councillor, study to be a doctor or enter the Inns of Court, so why not them, if they were suitably qualified? But the judges, intellectually honest to a man, said that the word “person” did not apply to women. Male exclusivity won the day. It was only by persistent pursuit of cases through the courts and challenges to the ruling bodies and institutions that the rules were eventually changed.
The rights to higher education, to enter the professions and to vote were achieved only after a traumatic and painful set of battles in which women were vilified, humiliated, battered, beaten, imprisoned and force-fed, and in which they lost their lives. So when women today are trolled, abused online, stalked and humiliated, or sexually violated and hurt, it is not new and we are right to ask: have we come far enough? It is shameful that after 100 years we have not yet achieved real equality.
The whole issue is about the position of women. Many wonderful women—we have heard tributes paid to so many remarkable women—took part in struggles. It should be a source of pride to us that we have had so many wonderful women in Parliament. Some noble Baronesses here now were women in the Commons. They have held high office. We have had wonderful women in the senior judiciary and in all our institutions. Although we have had all those good women who have enriched our society, improved it, brought their gifts into the public arena and defied scorn to fight for equality and a better society, there is still a huge “BUT”, which has to be written in capital letters and spoken very loudly: we still have a long journey ahead.
We have tried to do it the nice way. We have tried to make nice. We have listened to our elders who used to tell us not to rock the boat. I heard it said to me so many times. Happily, many of us in this House did not listen, but we made a mistake in believing what we were told—that by asking for equal pay, equality, equal treatment and just laws somehow equality would automatically follow. We packaged our demands according to the male template. We adjusted our demands to the male norm. Unfortunately, we followed the stories about the law’s neutrality and blindness to gender and that we get there on merit. We have to ask ourselves: who is deciding what is meritorious? Who decides the values that will be attributed to the roles that should be available to women as well as men? Treating as equal those who are not equal does not create equality.
We have to look at the deeper structures of our society, which I regret to say are still coded male. That is why we have to change the structural engineering of our society if we want real change. It is why it has to go beyond the numbers game that we are talking about today. We have to look at the economic structures that keep women in low-paid jobs and caring jobs, which are so undervalued and never get the resources they deserve. Women are supposed still to have almost exclusive responsibility for children or elderly parents and to look after the home. That is still going on all too often.
I have played my part. I have been an activist in the law. I have written on the law’s failings for more than 40 years. In fact, I have devised many of the reforms that have been introduced by women parliamentarians into the legal sphere. Women in Parliament have collaborated with women practitioners such as me. We have tweaked and amended the law, and passed new Acts of Parliament. But I ask noble Lords these questions: have the changes delivered justice in rape cases? Are we seeing domestic violence ending? Did our changes to the law stop Jimmy Savile or any of those others? Did it prevent the church scandals, the Rotherham scandal or scandals in any other cities, or have we continued to see the normalisation of violence towards women? Do women get equal pay? We have just had the BBC matter, but we know, when we look right down the line to the low-paid jobs, the ordinary factory jobs, the secretarial jobs and the jobs inside our companies, that there is not equal pay. Have we removed sexual harassment from the workplace? What does #MeToo tell us? How can it be that prominent businessmen still feel able to hold men-only sleazy events?
So why do women suffer so much misogyny on the internet and social media—trolling, stalking and revenge porn? I am afraid it means we have to look at the attitudes that underpin the way our society works. Women who have succeeded have often had to play the game by male rules. That method has delivered for some with great success, but not for most. Sometimes those confident older women who have enjoyed success are very hard on women coming up behind them. It takes a lot of courage for young women who are being exploited, harassed or abused at work to speak out about what is taking place. Older women should be supporting younger women, not disparaging them, when they take their confidence into their hands.
We do not have equality. Young women are saying, “Enough: everyday sexism has to stop”. They want equality and I am on their side, as I know most people in this House are. I want quotas and all-women shortlists because I have lost patience. I thought that the world would have changed by the time I got to the great age that I now am. It has been too long a-coming. I say to you all: we tried doing it the nice way and now we are going to have to kick down the barn doors.
Yes, let us celebrate the wondrous women who went before. We do walk in their shoes. Let us chalk up every gain, victory and position that is taken. But now I say to you men: you have to make this your business too.
My Lords, women’s empowerment and gender equality are all at the heart of my work and what I strive to achieve as an advocate for women and girls’ rights across the globe. These rights that we are celebrating today have been hard won and are still being hard won the world over as progress continues to move at a snail’s pace. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and is acknowledged as the leader in the battle for votes. Here in this House, female participation, through life Peerages, took a further 40 years after the 1918 Act to achieve.
Globally, the latest figures from the UN show that only 11 women are serving as head of state and 12 as head of government. The figures also show that, globally, there are 38 states in which women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower Houses, including four Chambers with no women at all. One country that particularly stands out is Rwanda, where women have won 63.8% of seats in the lower House, the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. Figures from the IPU show that globally the UK is ranked 39th for female participation in Parliament. While we are not that far in front of Afghanistan, in 55th place, we are faring much better than the USA, in 99th place; but our closer neighbour, Germany, is in a similar position, in 45th place. France has bucked the trend and recently achieved over 40% of female Members in its last elections.
What can be seen from all these statistics is that the mainly slow, grinding process of increasing women’s participation in political life is not achieving a lot; as Helen Lewis said in a recent article:
“It is embarrassing that it took 98 years”,
until 2016, for the total number of women ever elected to our Parliament—to date, 455—to reach the same number as male MPs sitting at present. It is something that we, as a developed nation, should be leading the way on. We should be setting an example on the world stage that we truly believe in equality in political life.
Women make up nearly half of the world’s population, yet very few are actively involved in the decisions that affect their lives. Each country is different, with different needs and different priorities, but what is not so different is the lack of women in political life. If Rwanda can increase women’s participation, so can we. We must seriously look at what it is that prevents women partaking in politics in this country and do something about it. Is it the issue of work/life balance? Is it the awful abuse we see meted out? Is it parity of pay stopping women achieving these aims? Is it lack of interest? Is it all of these things and more? Do we know the answer to these questions? It is only by knowing what is stopping women getting into politics that we can seek to address the problem.
Just as the UN has the HeForShe campaign, we too can encourage more men to get on board with the idea, so that it is not a fight for gender equality but a collaboration, a working together so that we can achieve it. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that there are only 10 men participating in today’s debate and three times more noble Baronesses. It should not be like that; we should be at least equal. The UN has also asked everyone to “step it up” with its “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” campaign. But how can we possibly help women to achieve in other walks of life if we do not have enough women in Parliament too? We should be stepping it up, but ahead of 2030, and making it a challenge for the next general election.
My Lords, I have found it very interesting to hear how families have been behind many of us here today. I pay tribute to my mother, who was behind me every step. She loved elections and came canvassing with me even when she was 92, in the year she died. I also pay tribute to the many husbands, because I feel that for a certain generation, one had to have your husband behind you and they did wonderful work in supporting us.
Today I feel like a parent in 1918 reading her son’s school report: “A little progress, but could do so much better”. 1918 was indeed a milestone, when all men over 21 and some women were enfranchised. These were privileged women who owned property: had I been about at that time, I should have been livid if I had not qualified. This was at a time when women had been not only keeping the home fires burning but keeping the country going—running businesses and farms, nursing sick and broken men returning from the front, as well as upholding their family responsibilities and keeping life on as even a keel as possible.
I understand from the House of Lords Library that the number of men who qualified at that time was 12,913,000, while 8,417,000 women became eligible to vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, the age qualification for women was to ensure that they did not form the majority of the electorate. How disgraceful. I must not be curmudgeonly and grumpy, but I feel for those women who did not qualify. They had been struggling for four long years and were rejected in this savage way.
I find it strange that in 1918, although women were not allowed to vote, they were allowed to stand as candidates. Dame Christabel Pankhurst, as she became, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, stood in the rough, tough area of Smethwick in the West Midlands. Elections were fought in large gatherings in those days, and she was subjected to oranges laced with razor blades being thrown at her. You had to be brave and courageous to be a candidate then.
Throughout my life, I have always felt that we needed more women in every sphere of public life, not only to balance the numbers or for equality reasons but because I feel that the country is missing out on so much talent. My role as a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party was to find women and encourage them to take the plunge, to promote them whenever and wherever I could. I think we can say that we made modest gains, but I congratulate my noble friend Lady Jenkin and other colleagues who, with the wholehearted support of the Prime Minister, are succeeding in so many ways. Women bring a different perspective to issues, and now many who were given the chance are thriving. Today it is much more normal for the best applicant to be appointed, male or female, and long may it be so. However, we must not forget that there is always more to do.
I pay tribute to those courageous women who, at huge cost to themselves, blazed the trail. Therefore, there is every reason to celebrate the enormous change that has taken place and I do so enthusiastically, but I hope that in 2028, in 10 years’ time, there will be a remarkable celebration for the day that all women became entitled to vote. I will not be here, but I hope that those who will be will have a very good party.
My Lords, what a great pleasure it is to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. In her quiet and undemonstrative way—although she was not all that quiet just then—she is a real champion for the role of women in society and I pay public tribute to her. It is right that we pay tribute to the women—and men—who campaigned for votes which we too often take for granted.
When you look at the serried ranks of the establishment at the time, those campaigners faced formidable barriers. No one has mentioned Lord Curzon yet—the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is nodding. He was co-president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage immediately before the Act. In 1914 he warned this House that suffrage would,
“unquestionably weaken our prestige and influence throughout the world”,
and that women lacked the “balance of mind” to use the vote. Even a social reformer such as Octavia Hill, who helped establish social housing in Britain and was one of the founders of the National Trust, believing in the right to clean air and open spaces, was anti-suffrage. She thought that there would be,
“a serious loss to our country … if women entered … political life”.
Those who campaigned against such odds are a role model and an inspiration.
I suspect that I would have had to wait a further decade before being enfranchised, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said, because only those with property qualifications benefited in 1918. The majority of the working classes were excluded. It may sound cynical, but I suspect the vote was granted to women only because ex-servicemen over 19 and other men over 21 were given it, and leaving women out would have been seen as unnecessarily provocative.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to make any direct links between enfranchisement and prosperity or equality. That is not to diminish the importance of the vote. In my trade union days, I visited Pinochet’s Chile, the former South West Africa—now Namibia—and apartheid South Africa to support trade unions and visit political prisoners. People died for democracy in those countries, just as they did here. I know how important it is to be able peacefully to vote a Government out of office. When I first joined the campaign trail for equal rights for women in the 1960s we had the Ford women workers as our inspiration. I thought we would have made more progress, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, in achieving equal pay and pension rights, better representation for women, and protection against sexual harassment and domestic violence. Of course I was idealistic. In some areas the absence of real progress is appalling: an estimated 54,000 maternity sackings; two women killed every week in domestic violence incidents; and women still dependent on men, in England at least, for the payment of their benefits.
We had a debate quite recently, as has already been mentioned, about the WASPI women: women who lost out on their expectations of a state pension because they were too young for one system and too old for the new one, after also being discriminated against in occupational pensions all their working lives. They call themselves Women Against State Pension Inequality. Now we learn that thousands of military spouses are also losing out on their state pension if they reached pension age before 6 April 2016, whereas those reaching retirement age after that date will be able to claim credits equivalent to a year’s national insurance for any year they were abroad since 1975. Those who reached pension age before 6 April 2016 will be entitled to only 60% of their husband’s pension. As one military wife has said, it was frowned on for wives to work:
“Even throughout the 1980s, women had to live on the base. I had to look after the 100 or so families on the base”.
She was expected to be hostess and welfare adviser, all unpaid. She cannot claim credit for her six years abroad serving her country in an unpaid capacity and she will now receive a reduced state pension. I believe this is a betrayal of some of the military wives in the same way as WASPI women were betrayed.
Anniversaries such as this give us the opportunity to reflect on whether we have made a contribution to society—what inspired us about the suffrage movement—but also how far we still have to go. I was the seventh woman president of the TUC in the 132 years of its history. My noble friend Lady Prosser was the sixth. She was a role model for many of us. Margaret Bondfield, who has already been mentioned, would have been the first president of the TUC in 1923 but she left to take a post in government. It was left for Anne Loughlin of the Tailors and Garment Workers’ Union to become the first woman TUC president in 1943—75 years after its founding. However, since 2000 there have been eight women TUC presidents, including my noble friend Lady Drake—three in the past three years—and a woman general secretary, Frances O’Grady, for the first time. We made a slow start but we are now catching up. I represented low-paid workers, mainly women, in my trade union and was extremely proud to be appointed to the first Low Pay Commission in 1997. So far I am the only woman to have been chair of ACAS.
I learned from the women campaigners before me that you need determination, patience, a great deal of gritting of teeth and an understanding that there are different ways of working. My noble friend Lady Prosser put part-time workers centre-stage in the trade union movement and I was privileged to move acceptance of the part-time workers directive in the European TUC, which at the time quietly believed that only full-time work was respectable. As an aside, a Canadian-style deal with the EU after Brexit will end up with ILO minimum standards and the current protections for part-time workers, paid annual holidays, parental leave, and the protection of working conditions if your company is taken over by another will not be there. I promise that anyone who tries to remove those protections will have quite a job on their hands.
In conclusion, the campaigns are still needed, whether it is on the gender pay gap or protecting workers’ rights—people’s rights—after exiting the EU. There is still much to do.