Votes for women… and seats, parliaments, and politics for women

100 years ago, women first gained the right to vote with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck, celebrates the centenary and looks at what still needs to change.

The celebrations and commemorations are well underway: there are numerous seminars, conferences and workshops; #Votes100 is trending on Twitter; and many of us are donning the colours of the suffragettes (purple, white and green) or the suffragists (green, white and red), and proudly displaying button pins and necklaces.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is 6 February 2018. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification and gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. Whilst we must wait until 2028 to celebrate women getting the vote on the same terms as men, it is definitely time to party – and drink our ‘Equaliteas’.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that November will mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Again, we should celebrate (and who would object to another party?), but here we will need to be more circumspect. If democracy demands women’s enfranchisement there remains more to be done in respect of ‘Seats for Women’. The same is true in terms of realizing ‘Parliaments for Women’ and ‘Politics for Women’.

Seats for Women
The 2017 general election saw 208 women MPs elected to the UK House of Commons, the highest number ever. At 32% of all MPs, Westminster remains far from parity – and the 2% increase last year was paltry: 45% of all Labour MPs are women (119 of 262); the Conservatives saw fall-back, from 70 to 67, flat-lining at 21%. The Liberal Democrats have four women (33%) and the SNP 12 (34%). With political parties acting as the gatekeepers to Westminster, all must do more – political recruitment is best understood as a verb – and some should do more than others. Until then the ‘champagne should be left on ice’.

The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrate this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the number of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.

As one of the two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives have repeatedly resisted the logic of quotas and chosen not to make use of the legislation that permits their use until 2030. In Government, they have also rejected the quota recommendations of the Good Parliament Report and the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Report on Women in Parliament. This isn’t good enough: the Conservatives saw a decline in their number of women MPs in 2017 and stood still in percentage terms. Political change – the upward trajectory of more women in Parliament – does not just happen. Quotas have to be put back on the table in 2018; and at the very least, the Government should commence Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 so that public can hold the parties to account vis-a-vis the selection of parliamentary candidates. Let’s see which MPs sign Bernard Jenkin’s Early Day Motion, and which MPs choose to ignore the most minimal of requirements, namely, candidate diversity data transparency.

Professor Sarah Childs

Parliament for Women
No-one, following the expose of sexual harassment at Westminster, can be under any illusion that Parliament is a gender-equal institution. The Good Parliament Report documented its diversity insensitivities and made 43 recommendations. The Commons Reference Group on Representation Inclusion, established and chaired by Mr Speaker, has been working since autumn 2016 on taking this agenda forward. Only last week the House agreed to the ‘Mother of the House’, Harriet Harman’s motion on baby leave. The Procedure Committee will now undertake an inquiry into how to best implement this. Securing leave for new parent MPs would be a belated, but nonetheless symbolic and substantive rule change that really would be something new to celebrate in 2018. ‘Anti’ mutterings have already been heard, and so attention must be given to the possibility of backlash.

Politics for Women
Our politics should address the concerns and views of women as well as men. Questions of who can act for women, and what acting for women means, is, however, contested in academic circles and amongst MPs. For some, good substantive representation (acting for women) means feminist substantive representation. For some, it means representation by women. But beware not to confuse women’s bodies with feminist minds; women do not come in one political hue; and men make representative claims ‘for women’. Political debate over the ‘good substantive representation’ is to be welcomed. It helps identify what is in the interests of women, has the potential to re-gender parties’ political programmes, and to deliver a better politics for all.

Politics should be something that ordinary women think about and do, ordinarily, as part of their everyday lives. Votes for women in 1918, and more so in 1928, redressed a basic political inequality. Redressing the gendered democratic deficits in respect of seats, political institutions and politics should be the ‘deeds’ of 2018; nice ‘words’ by political parties and by the Government will not suffice. Both should act, and it is not as if there isn’t a ‘shopping bag’ of reforms out there, ready to be picked up…and acted upon.

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Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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