One hundred years ago today, after fifty years of vicious debate and heroic, dramatic and often violent demonstrations, women in the U.K. finally won the right to vote. As we celebrate that momentous occasion and thank those who like Emily Davison literally threw their lives into the cause, it is important to examine what has been done to-date and to consider what more we can do to advance the rights of women, to gain greater equity and improve the number of women in elected office. Ms. Davison’s death at Epsom symbolizes the importance of the movement, but that was simply the beginning of the process, not the end. After all the fighting one hundred years ago, women still are unrepresented in politics and are still fighting for equal rights. As we celebrate the work of the suffragettes, we must ask ourselves what more can we do to achieve greater parity?
The Representation of the People Act, 1918 granted the right to vote to those women who were over thirty years of age and who either owned property themselves or who were married to a man who did. Granting women the right to vote increased the voice of women in the national debate and eventually lead to female representation in elected office. In 1919, the first woman – Nancy Astor – took her seat in the House of Commons.
However, while some progress has been made in the decades since, there is much work yet to be done as the number of women represented in elected office is still appallingly low. The U.K. ranks 39th in the world for representation of elected women officials. Similarly, while women make up slightly more than half the population in Britain, there are still twice the number of men than women at Westminster.
Last week, women around the world marched to show their solidarity for women’s rights and equality. These marches proved the resilience of women and their unwavering ability to throw light on and contest adversity. It is not easy to speak out, nor to fight the status quo; and it is never easy to take a stand and run for elected office. But this must be done. Women must build on the movement that began over one hundred and fifty years ago and reinforce the promotion of women – and parity – in government.
If we don’t collect our courage and strengthen our conviction, then we do a disservice to the likes of Ms. Davison who sacrificed her life so that women in generations to come might have certain rights. Yes, it is important to celebrate the advances that initiated the furtherance of women in politics. However, as we applaud their efforts, their heroic tactics and their accomplishments, we also need to build on their achievements and continue to move forward – one election at a time.
And it’s not as if the groundwork for these necessary changes hasn’t already been laid. Organisations and movements are currently in place for those who care to lend their support and talents which can lead to more women leaders in politics and greater equity. Organisations like @runningstart and @5050parliament that support such campaigns. These groups provide the groundwork and the foundation for women to engage in the political process; to encourage and promote one another, and to lend support for women looking for an entry into politics. 5050parliament notes that since Parliament is meant to be a representative institution it’s time we aim to achieve better gender balance at Westminster.
Similarly, Running Start encourages women to engage in politics at a younger age. The organisation believes that a key element to strengthening and increasing women’s representation in government is to “get women engaged in politics and elected to office earlier in life.” Running Start encourages young women to participate in all aspects of government, including student government, because “with an earlier start in politics, women will climb higher on the leadership ladder, allowing more women to share in the decision-making power of the government. Running Start embraces the notion that we can all be politically active and with their #Ilooklikeapolitician campaign they train and support young women to run for elected office.
Women can and will fight peacefully yet actively; we can and we will launch movements that result in more women running for office, and we must ensure that the women leaders of tomorrow stand on the shoulders of great women today – much like today’s women build on the achievements of Emiline Parkhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Emily Davison and other suffragettes who pushed and prodded so that one day women might have an equal place in government. Have we progressed over the last centenary? Slightly, yes, but there is plenty of work to be done to gain proper equality….one election, one woman at a time.