By Ellie James
It has been exactly 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 came to force, giving all men and some women the vote for the first time. It’s also the centenary of the Parliament Act 1918, which allowed women to become MPs.
A hundred years is a long time, a long time for representation to be a goal not yet fully achieved. As a member of UK Youth Parliament, young women outnumbered the young men on the benches, suggesting there isn’t a lack of confidence, aspiration and ability for young women in politics. Then why does the passion and ambition that I saw in these young women and myself disappear?
The same goes in Westminster – Parliament is meant to be a representative body; such representation and diversity are fundamental to informed policy-making. The link between diversity and improved business performance is clear; the same goes for Westminster. For Parliament to showcase a range of talent, there must be accessible routes into politics for women.
Women are needed to prioritise issues that concern them, specifically sex trafficking, FGM and pregnancy discrimination. Without this, representation is a lie. I, like many others, signed the 50:50 Parliament petition that gained traction during the 2015 election promoting exactly this. Key ideas were outlined in The Good Parliament Report to suggest what is needed to achieve this goal. The motions that resonated with me were the promotion of friendly working conditions and championing of female MPs already in Westminster.
Watching Prime Minister’s Questions, an attractive working environment is hardly presented. Mostly middle-aged, privately educated men jeer at each other in an entirely inaccessible way. Some elements of political life, such as meetings at 10pm, are surely not compatible with family life, for men and women alike.
I have often been asked whether I would like to become an MP. Truthfully, no. The thought of having my personality, personal life and every decision I have ever made criticised by constituents, the media and fellow peers is terrifying. I fear the working environment that I would be entering myself into.
This is a view, unfortunately, held by far too many. If we are to prioritise a 50:50 Parliament, a culture change is needed to allow women to thrive in an environment generally conditioned towards men.
When a female MP is elected nationwide support should recognise the challenges she has faced to get there.
The media’s scrutiny of female MPs often focuses on their clothing rather than their achievements. The entrenched male gaze dictates the agenda, meaning that there is often not enough support for female MPs already in Parliament. Being a woman in politics is tough and I abhor anyone who tells me that it will be easy, anyone who tells me I will not be intimidated by the difficulties that make being a woman in politics difficult.
Nonetheless, much can be done to change the conditions which make encouraging women into politics more likely. With 100 years of legal rights, we now need the cultural change to make representation possible.
Photograph: Phil Dolby via Flickr