Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art
International Women's Day Lecture 6th March 2013
In this week of International Women’s Day we frequently celebrate the achievements of women who are not parliamentarians and rightly so. Indeed those of us who are here would not be here without them. But tonight I want to share with you a few thoughts on the state of female representation in this (misnamed) mother of parliaments. When I arrived in 1987 we were 41 women amongst 609 men. I described the Commons as a cross between a boy’s public school and a working men’s club – with the worst attributes of both.
It has improved – though only because of the courage and persistence of women – both those elected and those influencing selections in the constituencies.
Even so there is no equality of representation here and often no equal treatment. Frankly this institution is a disgrace.
Caroline may disagree – might even be shocked. She is after all part of the new Conservative women’s intake which took their numbers from 17 in 2005 to 47 today (49 at the 2010 election). And absolutely excellent women they are.
But beware of the myth that this “women business” is sorted. Today’s Conservative women are very visible with the consequence that there appear to be many more women than there actually are. Still fresh in the memory is also the dramatic doubling of women MPs between 1992 and 1997 due to the Labour Party’s use of All Women Shortlists. Less well known is the fact that at the following election numbers fell when the party abandoned this positive action.
This led to my presenting a ten minute rule bill to put positive action on women in parliamentary selections into statute. A measure adopted by the Labour government a year later.
But despite all our best efforts and different forms of positive action by the parties women make up just 22% of today’s parliament. Over the past fifteen years the average rate of increase has been around 1.3%. You can do the maths – that means another 100 years to parity.
Yet already male MPs are complaining that there are talented young men out there not getting a chance!
I recently announced I would stand down in 2015, so naturally we had a discussion about whether the constituency wanted an all women shortlist. One woman wondered aloud whether after having a woman MP for 25 years they should give a man a chance, I had to respond that, before me, the constituency had continuously been represented by men for over a hundred years.
Let me give you a few more figures to remember. In the 95 years since women were allowed to stand for parliament only 367 of us have been elected and that includes the 146 sitting today. Even more shocking only 35 women have ever served in a British Cabinet.
Let me conclude by quoting Professor Joni Lovenduski who said:
“The representation of women in political decision making is vital not because it will necessarily make a difference for women, though it often does, but because justice demands it.”
We cannot wait another hundred years to achieve parity between women and men in this parliament. We need to understand our immediate history and change accordingly but we can also learn from the past and honour the women who came before us.
Which brings me to tonight’s lecture.
I’m delighted to introduce Krista Cowman, Professor of History at Lincoln University. She is a founding member of the Women’s History Network and serves on the editorial board of Women’s History Review. She will also be known to many of you for her part in the campaign to save the Women’s Library. Her latest book Women in British Politics looks at the relationship between women and Parliament from the Court of Queen Mary in the 16th century to the election of Margaret Thatcher. And she demonstrates that women were active political agents long before the campaign for votes. She also looks at the times in history which were not heroic moments of change and progress for women, but which were nevertheless crucial in the progress towards women’s political citizenship.
The topic of her talk this evening, Margot Asquith, highlights what her book demonstrates. That women sought to influence Parliament even when they were not able to vote or become women MPs.