It’s been almost a century since Nancy Astor took her seat in the House of Commons. Helen Whately, Conservative Vice Chair for Women, reflects on how much further we have to go when it comes to representation.
Picture the scene: it’s the first day of your new job. You can’t avoid the stares of your new colleagues – all 643 of them - and their pinstripes and top hats make even your chosen outfit - a demure black skirt suit and hat – conspicuous.
Add to that the fact many of your colleagues don’t think you, as a woman, should be there, and I imagine that’s similar to how Nancy Astor felt on her first day in Parliament, 99 years ago tomorrow. She later acknowledged their opposition, while recalling her own misgivings of that momentous day, in her maiden speech: “It was almost as difficult for them as it was for the lady MP herself to come in.”
Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat in parliament on 1 December in 1919, following a change in the law a year previously. She remained the lone female voice in parliament for almost two years; a second woman MP finally joined her on the green benches on 22 September 1921.
Fortunately, Parliament looks and sounds rather different today. Just over a third of MPs are women. The way it works has changed - the hours for instance are much more family-friendly, the atmosphere is less stuffy, and the topics we debate reflect today’s society. But still, a century on, only 491 women have become MPs, compared to more than 4,500 men. We may now be able to enter the chamber without anyone batting an eyelid, but there is clearly a long way to go before we can say we’ve really levelled the playing field.
As Vice Chair for Women, I’m working on changing that. This summer, the Conservative Party announced an ambition for 50% of our candidates list to be women. And I’m calling on women across the country to step up and stand. It’s no secret we face particular challenges on our journeys to Parliament, and standing for election can be tough. But it’s worth it because of the difference you can make as an MP - every day you can change someone’s life for the better.
Sometimes that’s helping someone in a crisis, other times it’s seeing a hard fought campaign come to fruition. For years I’ve worked to get hospital A&Es to have mental health teams; one of my best moments as an MP was when the Government announced this as policy for every major hospital in England.
Democracy is stronger when every voice is heard. All MPs bring their own life experiences to the job and, with more women in politics, we’re more likely to tackle things that particularly affect us. Legislation has recently been enacted or is in progress in areas including domestic violence, sexual harassment at work, upskirting, FGM, stalking, forced marriage, and revenge porn, among others.
Research by the Fawcett Society shows 75% of women who tried to become MPs did so because someone asked them. Last week, to coincide with the centenary of the Qualification of Women Act - allowing Nancy Astor to enter parliament in the first place – was the first #AskHertoStand Day.
Unlike a century ago, women were welcomed into Parliament – by male and female MPs alike – to observe what it means to stand for, and hold, political office. In the 24 hours that followed, more than 100 women registered their interest in becoming Conservative MPs. And last weekend, almost 99 years to the day Nancy Astor was elected in Plymouth Sutton, local councillor Rebecca Smith was selected as the Conservative candidate for the seat.
Nancy Astor was a passionate advocate for women’s causes and equal rights throughout her more than 25 years in Parliament – paving the way for women like me. Although I was nervous on my first day as an MP, this would have been nothing compared to the prejudices she had to face every day she walked into the House of Commons.
In this pivotal year for women’s political rights, I hope Nancy’s story will inspire a new generation of women to follow the trail she blazed to Parliament.
Helen Whately is MP for Faversham and Mid Kent and Conservative Vice Chair for Women.
Images: Getty, Supplied