Ahead of the centenary of the first women in the UK being able to stand for election, female politicians from around the globe are coming together in Westminster.
In November 1918, millions of women in the UK had enjoyed the right to vote for nine months. The Representation of the People Act had been passed in February that year after decades of suffragist and suffragette activism, extending voting rights to all property-owning women over the age of 30.
Frustratingly, however, women were still unable to cast a ballot for anyone who had experienced first-hand what it was like to be a woman in post-Edwardian Britain. Despite some women being able to vote, all women were denied the right to stand for election as MPs. As a result, British politics was even more male, pale and stale than it is today.
That all changed on 21 November 1918, when the UK government passed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. This landmark piece of legislation gave women over 21 the right to run for political office for the first time – meaning that, incredibly, women could legally stand for election before they were allowed to vote. The Act changed the face of British politics forever, and paved the way for hundreds of inspiring female MPs in the century to come.
Ahead of the UK marking the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act later this month, 120 inspiring female MPs from 86 countries across the globe have gathered in Westminster for the first ever Women MPs of the World Conference. The special event is being held in the House of Commons chamber, where the politicians will celebrate their achievements, discuss how to increase women’s visibility in politics, and further empower female parliamentarians.
In attendance at the one-day conference are remarkable politicians including Lana Prlić, a young Bosnian MP who has campaigned against nationalism and ethnic segregation; Bassma Kodmani, a member of the pro-democracy Syrian opposition who has been an outspoken voice against dictator Bashar al-Assad; and Gambian MP Ya Kumba Jaiteh, who is pushing for 50% female representation in her party’s parliament and cabinet.
At a reception at Downing Street on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Theresa May said that “a woman’s place is in elected office”. More women in parliament “means a greater voice speaking out on issues that affect women, certainly,” she said.
“It also means a greater focus on preventing gender-based violence, on girls’ education, on childcare and on women’s health.”
However, May emphasised that having more women in power is good for everyone – not just women. “A parliament where women are a rare sight is a parliament working with one hand tied behind its back; a more representative parliament leads to better decision making, better politics and ultimately better government,” she said.
“After all, if half the population is systematically excluded from politics then you’re excluding half the talent.”
While female politicians should celebrate “how far we have come” in the last 100 years, the Prime Minister said, there is “still a long way to go” before true gender equality exists in politics in the UK and around the world. She pointed out that “women make up half the world’s population but barely a quarter of its nationally elected representatives.
“If we want to see that improve in our lifetimes, then it’s not enough to simply stand by and wait for change to happen. We have to make it happen.”
In the UK, less than a third of current MPs are women, and male politicians make up more than 80% of May’s cabinet. Overall, Britain has had just 456 female MPs since 1918 – only two more than the number of male MPs currently sitting in the Commons.
In many countries including Kenya, Afghanistan and Peru, female political candidates still face frightening levels of physical violence. And around the world, the gendered online abuse of women politicians is rife.
May acknowledged that it’s not enough to simply call on more women to stand for election; political systems also have to change if women are to be welcomed everywhere.
“Getting elected is only half the battle,” she said. “We also have to make the system work once we are a part of it – and doing so in what is often a male-dominated and male-oriented environment is not always easy.”
The Prime Minister praised Labour MP Harriet Harman, who backed the Women MPs of the World Conference, as a politician who had spent 36 years “battling to make Parliament a better, more accessible workplace for women”.
Ultimately, May said she hoped that more girls and women around the world would aspire to being a member of parliament, which she described as “the best job in the world”.
“In the words of the great British suffragist Millicent Fawcett, whose statue took its rightful place in Parliament Square this year: ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’,” the Prime Minister said.
“So regardless of affiliation or ideology, let’s all work together, let’s learn from each other, let’s build the networks that will allow us to succeed.
“And let’s make sure women and girls know that whatever their views, whatever their party, whatever others may say, a woman’s place is in elected office.”
Theresa May has given her support to Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, which aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here.
Images: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor, Getty Images