Centenary of women’s suffrage a ‘missed opportunity’ unless barriers to political participation are removed, say campaigners

Posted on the 17th January 2018

A new coalition of campaigning charities, individuals and women and girls’ rights organisations has today issued a challenge to government and political parties – to make the 2018 centenary of the first women’s votes in the UK a year for actively encouraging women’s political participation.

But they warn that unless government and parties set clear targets, adopt an action plan and act to remove barriers to women’s political participation, the centenary of women’s votes could be a “missed opportunity,” and our politics will “fail to be relevant to women’s lives”.

Members of the newly-formed Centenary Action Group warn that the lack of action so far towards increasing women’s participation in politics suggests this year’s important anniversary, to highlight one hundred years since the vote was first granted to women in the UK, could fail to deliver any real change.

Nearly 30 leading organisations, MPs and activists have released a statement to coincide with the launch [see signatories below]:

“Increasing the number of women in Parliament is not only a matter of basic human rights and equality, but is also necessary at a time when voter participation is low, and politics is reaching a crisis of credibility.

“Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse, especially on social media, partly because they speak up but also simply because they are women. This discourages women from participating in political debate.

“From the work undertaken towards women’s political participation the world over, there is clear evidence that the more diverse the decision makers are, the more widely power is spread – and the less room there is for abuse and discrimination. It also makes it more likely that decisions made will benefit everyone, including the most marginalised women and girls in the UK and beyond.

“Increasing women’s participation in politics is critical. It is a central tenet of the UN Global Goals (Goal 5). All countries are aiming for these goals, but most countries, including the UK, are still falling short. In the centenary year of women winning the right to vote, it’s time for action.”

Commenting on the launch of the group, Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said:

“There is great emphasis on women coming forward to stand but what we won’t stand for is the adverse political system and culture they are walking into. Systems and culture have to change. Unless they do, we risk the 2018 centenary’s being a missed opportunity. Our system of politics is failing to be relevant to women’s lives, actively putting them off.

“We know now that sexual harassment is commonplace in local and national politics; we see sexist attitudes driving the way women are treated in the council chamber and in the House of Commons. Lack of entitlement to maternity or paternity leave, means our elected representatives are far from being offered a modern workplace.”

Helen Pankhurst, Advisor with CARE International and Great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, said:

“In my work I see the need for more women in politics the world over. In the UK, the challenge is that one hundred years on, women are still facing intimidation and violence for wanting to be involved in politics, and to influence decisions that affect their lives. The elections in 2017 saw the worst abuse of women MPs and candidates on record. We cannot wait another hundred years for this to end!”

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“For democracy in the UK to be effective, it needs political institutions which are representative of all its citizens. Currently, there are still too many barriers to women’s political participation, from institutional sexism and misogyny to a lack of support within parties themselves.

“The fact that fewer than a third of Members of Parliament and councilors are women is holding back our progress. We need widescale reform of our political institutions to change that. The problems of under-representation stem from factors which can be fixed – if there is the will to change.

“Parties and politicians must urgently commit to removing barriers to participation. But more than that – they should be taking immediate action to ensure we have a truly representative democracy. In the centenary of the first votes for women, this is an opportunity that must not be missed.”

Girlguiding advocate Sophie, 20, said: 

“The centenary year is really important to women and girls. As well as allowing us to celebrate the successes achieved in the past century for women’s democracy, we can use the anniversary to look at what still needs to be done to engage girls and women in politics.

“Girlguiding is calling for equal representation for women in politics and an improved political education system so girls and young women feel engaged in a key part of society. As an organisation, we work hard to engage all young women in politics, from our Girls Matter campaign to our voter registration push during the 2017 General Election.”

Frances Scott of 50:50 Parliament, said:

“One hundred years after women won the right to vote the lack of women at Westminster is a democratic disgrace. The fight for political equality continues.

“Men still outnumber women by more than 2:1 in Parliament, it can hardly claim to be a representative institution when the majority of the population is so under-represented.

“Only 12 extra women were elected to Westminster at the last election, at this rate it will take over 50 years for women to gain equal representation. This is too long to wait!

“If our Parliamentary systems and democratic processes are inaccessible or unattractive to women then they need to change. 50:50 is taking action to attract women to Westminster with our #AskHerToStand campaign. We hope that Parliament and the political parties will respond by welcoming women into the corridors of power and onto those green and red benches.”

The Centenary Action Group has launched with the hashtag ‘#StillMarching’ on social media.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, Fawcett Society
Laurie Lee, CEO, CARE International
Frances Scott, 50:50 Parliament
Nikki van der Gaag, Director of Women’s Rights & Gender Justice, Oxfam GB
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society
Julia Bentley, Chief Executive, Girlguiding UK
Lynne Stubbings, Chair, National Federation of Women’s Institutes
Amnesty International UK
Women for Refugee Women
Caroline Haworth, Chief Executive, Womankind Worldwide
Labour Women’s Network
Jess Phillips MP, Chair, Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party
Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader, Green Party
Liz Saville Roberts, Westminster Leader, Plaid Cymru
Angela Crawley MP, SNP Westminster Spokesperson on Equalities, Women and Children
ActionAid UK
Women’s March London
Alexandra Runswick, Director, Unlock Democracy
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director, UK Women’s Budget Group
Artichoke Trust
Professor Sarah Childs, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Sumita Mukherjee, University of Bristol
Irene Cockroft, SuffrageArts 
Dr J Kay Richmond, Chairman, UK Programme Action Committee, Soroptimist International
Zero Tolerance
Talat Yaqoob, Chair, Women 50:50

Further comments from signatories:

Dr J Kay Richmond, Chairman of the UK Programme Action Committee, Soroptimist International, said:  

“As soroptimists we strive to improve the position of women at all levels of society, through education, enablement and empowerment. We do this through raising awareness, advocacy and action.  

“We welcome a time when equality has been achieved everywhere but in order to do this everyone will need to apply the principle of equity – making resources available to those in greatest need. Without appropriate representation at all levels this will not be achieved. 

“Let us ensure that the next 100 years will see gender equality achieved everywhere so that we can all reach our full potential.” 

Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, said: 

“The Centenary is a moment of celebration and a time to reflect on the great strides made towards gender equality. However, while politicians and those in power celebrate the Centenary they must not just pay lip service to the principle of equal representation; we need urgent action from politicians, not overtures. 

“The lack of diversity in parliament is a canary in the mine shaft. It is symptomatic of a system that inherently benefits the status quo and cedes overwhelmingly disproportionate power to white men from privileged backgrounds. 

“It is not just women who are underrepresented, but also members of minority communities. Political parties are well placed to make immediate headway towards increasing the number of women and minorities, and yet they have not. 

“Let the Centenary therefore be both a celebration of how far we’ve come but also the impetus for going the final distance.” 

Caroline Haworth, Chief Executive of Womankind Worldwide, said: 

“As we mark a hundred years of suffrage in the UK, we can be inspired by the strong and persistent women around the world who are being elected at local and national levels, from Nepal to Zimbabwe to Kenya.  

“Like women in the UK who for a hundred years have faced down violence, intimidation, peer pressure and gender norms to make it into elected positions, our international sisters are the changemakers the world needs – in this remarkable year, let’s stand with them”. 

Nikki van der Gaag, Director of Women’s Rights & Gender Justice, Oxfam GB said: 

“It is shocking that 100 years on from winning the vote in the UK, women still face discrimination, sexism and violence – just because they are women.  

“Oxfam’s work with women and women’s organisations all over the world has shown us that having more women in positions of power – whether in parliament or on local councils – is key to ending poverty and inequality, and to promoting a fairer and more just world for everyone. It is long past time for women take their place at the tables of power.” 

Lucy Wake, Advocacy Officer of Amnesty International UK, said: 

“Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse, especially on social media, partly just because they speak up, but also simply because they are women. This is a human rights issue. It stops women from freely entering political discussions.” 

Lynne Stubbings, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, said: 

“WI members are clear that more women are needed in leadership positions in our society. But progress has been slow. 2018 marks a hundred years since the first votes for women, yet women today remain hugely under-represented in all areas of public life. 

“69% of WI members feel they have not very much or no influence over the country as a whole. Women told us that hurdles such as work/life balance concerns, barriers to getting involved in political parties and the perception that politics is an ‘old boys’ club’ discouraged them from getting involved.” 


Notes to Editors

About the Action Group – Helen Pankhurst, Advisor with CARE International and Great Grand-daughter of Emmeline, convened the Centenary Action Group in October 2017 in order to maximise opportunities for cross sector and cross party collaboration throughout 2018.

Since then, the Group has grown to include more than 70 individuals from a diverse range of UK and international organisations. Together, Centenary Action Group members are working to increase women’s political participation and address the barriers of harassment and violence against women leaders.

Figures on women in politics – Last year the Women and Equalities Select Committee Inquiry made a number of findings and recommendations which would address the lack of women’s representation in parliament but to date government has failed to act on any of them. Currently –

  • 32% of MPs are women – the UK parliament ranks 39th currently in the world for women’s representation.
  • In Scotland 35% of MSPs are women – at its highest point in 2003 this figure only reached 40%
  • 33% of councillors and just 17% of council leaders are women
  • In the last local election in Scotland, there were 21 wards in Scotland with only men on the ballot paper
  • All six elected Metro Mayors are men and just 12% of Combined Authority representatives are women.
  • In 2014, the Girlguiding’s Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 67% of girls aged 11-21 said there aren’t enough female MPs and 63% thought girls’ voices would be listened to more attentively if there were more female MPs
  • Only 4% of local councils in England have a maternity, paternity or parental leave policy for councillors
  • Four in ten women councillors have experienced sexist comments from within their own party, and a third from council colleagues; one in ten have experienced sexual harassment
  • Half of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women councillors experienced racism and sexism; half of disabled women councillors experienced multiple discrimination; Scotland has never had a woman of colour in Parliament

Read more press releases...

Campaigners call for parties to back ‘vital’ Senedd reforms

Electoral Reform Society Cymru throws weight behind official Committee on Senedd Reform findings: “Now is the time to act to level up Welsh democracy”. Statement from the Electoral Reform Society Cymru – Thursday 10th September...

Posted 10 Sep 2020