100 years after women won the right to vote, there’s still a long way to go

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 17th January 2018

2018 marks one hundred years since a major landmark in the history of our democracy – the first time women in the UK had the right to vote.

The Suffrage movement saw women organise and campaign for their voice to be heard from the mid 1860s. By the 1900s great progress had been made and many politicians had been won over – but the breakthrough required had not been achieved.

The suffrage movement and the wartime role of women resulted in the Representation of the People Act 1918. It gave the right to vote to around 8.5 million women previously disenfranchised.

And while it would be another decade before women under 30 would receive the same right, 1918 was the year the UK set itself on the path to equality.

Yet 100 years later, the journey is still far from complete.

Men and women share the same voting rights – but there are other barriers to parity which remain firmly rooted in the nation’s fabric. We see that in the dire levels of political representation.

Just 32% of MPs and 33% of councillors are women. All six elected Metro Mayors are men, and just 12% of Combined Authority representatives are women.

More locally, the issue is just as bad. Only 4% of local councils in England have a maternity, paternity or parental leave policy for councillors, and four in ten women councillors have experienced sexism from within their own party.

Beyond the numbers, there have been countless stories of women in politics suffering abuse and sexual harassment.

A recent review by the Independent Committee for Standards on Public Life found women politicians are disproportionately the targets of intimidation.

There are still those who feel women do not have the right to give their opinions on political issues and who respond by dishing out a barrage of abuse behind the cloak of anonymity afforded them by social media.

And at Westminster terrible accounts of alleged sexual assaults continue to emerge, not least concerning elected politicians and their behavior towards their own staff.

Just like it was a century ago, action is required to rectify the gender inbalance.

Political institutions need to reflect the citizens they purport to represent. The more diverse their make-up, the less opportunities there are for discrimination. And the more that representation feeds into good policy making for everybody.

That is why, a century on from the landmark Act which first gave women the right to vote, a new coalition of campaigning charities, individuals and women and girls’ rights organisations is demanding action.

Members of the newly-formed Centenary Action Group – convened by Helen Pankhurst, great grand-daughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst – include the Fawcett Society, Oxfam GB, the Electoral Reform Society, Girlguiding UK, National Federation of Women’s Institutes and Amnesty International UK (a full list is below) – and a whole host more. This is a hugely diverse coalition to say that in 2018, parties and politicians must act so that in the centenary of women’s suffrage, we can make real progress.

This year the coalition will be pushing for change and an increase in women’s participation in politics by the breaking-down of those barriers which remain.

A hundred years after many women got the vote, there is still a long way to go. But we can get there: let’s use this symbolic year as an opportunity.

To keep track of the Centenary Action Group’s progress, search for the hashtag #StillMarching on social media. Updates on the group’s work will also be posted on the Electoral Reform Society’s website.

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