“It is a great achievement, a mighty constitutional landmark,” the Guardian declared a century ago. After a campaign that had lasted more than 50 years, that had seen violence and death – as well as the forcefeeding of a thousand suffragettes in prison – women had at last won “the full rights of citizenship”; some women, at least. The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the vote to those women over 30 who owned property or were married to a man who did. At a stroke, 40% of British women were enfranchised. An intellectual revolution rapidly became a political one as Britain absorbed ideas about gender equality and the purpose of political representation.
Political equality was quickly followed by the passage of an equally revolutionary act: allowing women to stand for parliament. While 99 in every 100 candidates at the subsequent general election were men, in 1919 the first woman took her seat in the Commons: Nancy Astor – a Conservative MP who described herself as an “ardent feminist”. Giving women the right to vote had profound effects on the major parties. By the 1920s, Labour women were campaigning to force the party’s male leadership to allow birth control to be dispensed to married women in state-funded maternity centres. Conservative women seemed not to challenge the leadership so much as give their consent. However, with Tory party female membership reaching a million by 1930, their participation was instrumental to Conservative electoral success. For decades women’s voting habits seemed to be more conservative than men’s: an all-male franchise would have put Labour in power from 1945 to 1979. The female vote moved leftwards just as Britain got its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher, however, was no feminist and only appointed one woman to her cabinet, further undermining the Tory purchase on female voters. Today women are just as likely to turn out to vote as men – but crucially women, especially younger women, are now voting Labour in greater numbers than men. At the last election women under 55 were more likely, by some way, to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.
Britain still has a serious democratic deficit: women make up more than half of the population, but less than a third of MPs. While Theresa May is the country’s second female PM, only after a byelection in 2016 did the total number of women ever elected finally exceed the number of men elected at a single election. This raises questions of legitimacy: “who” is present in political institutions directly affects whether they represent the public symbolically and substantively.
The everyday sexism and harassment of women in parliament must be addressed. Appalling online rape and death threats are made with apparent impunity, something that cannot continue, especially given the awful murder of Jo Cox. The inflexibility of parliament’s working practices requires overhaul. Parties themselves are institutionally sexist: the Guardian’s report on the existence of two all-male Freemasons lodges at Westminster only underlines the extent of the problem. The under-representation of women historically has only been addressed by all-women shortlists, which are legal until 2030.
There is also a strong case, as MPs recommended last year, for a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates for each political party. Fines for transgressors might be needed. A century on from recognising that in elections men and women are valued equally, we must recognise that today in politics men and women should be equally valued.