By Megan Dyson
2018 marks 100 years since Parliament passed a law which allowed the first women to vote; the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Significantly, it was the first reform act to begin the inclusion of women into the political system. From hunger strikes and arson, to window smashing and stone throwing, the Suffragette’s violence galvanised the rise of women’s political rights and, with ardent momentum, placed them firmly onto the political agenda. At a mere surface level, with Theresa May as our current female Prime Minister, it can easily be assumed that women in the political sphere have come a long way.
Yet, despite larger progress in terms of women’s rights as a whole, it is contentious whether the pinnacle of progression has been reached in terms of the representation of women in politics. In parliament today, for instance, only 32% MPs are female; with the Conservative Party boasting a mere 21% of female MPs. Official UN figures has shown that as of 2014, the UK is 43rd in the world for our representation of female MPs in Parliament. Following the outcome of the 2017 General Election, Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society which campaigns for women’s rights, has claimed that despite a slight increase in the percentage of women in parliament, “the real story is that progress has stalled”; claiming that getting women into politics cannot be subject to party political fortunes. “As we approach the centenary of women first getting the vote in general elections”, Smethers says, “we cannot wait for another nine elections to achieve equality”.
Coupled with this lack of representation of women in Parliament, recent sexual harassment ‘scandals’ prove to hinder the level and extent of veritable progressivity. With several Conservative and Labour MPs accused and investigated over claims of sexual misconduct, there is evidence of a toxic culture encompassing sexual harassment and misogyny, which is endemic amongst Westminster. There have been claims of inappropriate physical contact with female party activists, and a large number of MPs have been referred to their party’s disciplinary committee after media allegations about their conduct. There is also a notable lack of any system for reporting harassment within political parties and MPs’ offices. This comes from claims that victims of sexual harassment have not had their claims investigated properly, with some victims even being encouraged not to report the harassment at all. With statements that ‘a hand on the knee’ does not warrant a complaint, and a lack of anonymity meaning one has to choose between reporting harassment or keeping their job, it is not surprising that many women feel as though staying silent is the best option.
In light of these allegations, Mrs May has called for a “new culture of respect” to be established; “one in which everyone can feel confident that they are working in a safe and secure environment, where complaints can be brought forward without prejudice”. This call for equality within politics rings all too familiar with the demands of the Suffragettes, despite 100 years passed. It seems as though, since the first women were granted enfranchisement, the equality of women in the political arena has not yet been fully achieved.
Photograph: UK Parliament via Flickr