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100 years of female MPs: We still have a long way to go

POLITICAL PIONEER: Diane Abbott was the first black woman elected to Parliament

TODAY THE UK has been marking 100 years since women over the age of 21 could become MPs.

The passing of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act on November 21 1918 paved the way for gender equality in the political sphere and the first female MP, Constance Markievicz, was elected in the general election held the same year the act was passed.

But it wasn’t until the 1987 general election, almost 70 years later, that the first black female MP, Diane Abbott, was elected.

Reflecting on the anniversary, Abbott wrote on Twitter: “Celebrating 100 years of women MP's! I’m proud to be a member of a party where women MP's make up 45%. This centenary, we acknowledge all those women who paved the way for us and look ahead to the women MP's of the future.”

A milestone such as this centenary can only be significant in a positive way if there’s been considerable progress on these grounds since the law changed to open political roles to women.

While many improvements have been made – last year saw a record number of female MPs elected, taking the number of women with a seat in the House of Commons at the time to 208 – there is still much to be done. Parliament may have seen two female prime ministers, but the prospect of a black prime minister is still a far way off, according to researchers.

In 2016, a study conducted by statistician, economics and inequalities specialist Dr Faiza Shaheen for the BBC found that a black child is 12 times less likely to become prime minister than a white child.

Around the world, we have seen countries achieve gender parity and make strides in placing more women in parliament. Five of the world’s top 15 countries for the number of women in parliament are located in Africa. Rwanda leads the way with 61 per cent of women in parliament, followed by South Africa with 42.3 per cent.

Such equality in parliament is something that isn’t consistent across political parties in the Commons. In 2017, Labour came closest with 45% of its party being made up female MPs, followed by the SNP with 34 per cent, but the Conservatives trailed behind at 21 per cent.


PASSIONATE: Labour MP for Brent Central Dawn Butler

Among those using today to highlight the need to do more to improve accessibility to politics for women is Labour MP Dawn Butler.

“It's 100 years since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act enabled women to stand to be MPs, but only 491 women have been elected to date. We need action now to tackle structural barriers and the culture. Today let's join together and #AskHerToStand,” she tweeted.

As part of today’s commemorations, women from diverse backgrounds have shadowed their local MPs and attended events and workshops, which all have the aim of encouraging a more diverse range of women to stand for political office.

These activities, all part of #AskHerToStand Day, will hopefully play a part in making women who aren’t well represented in politics consider it as a career option, the government and the parties themselves need to do more to make this a reality. And greater support and protection should be made available to women MPs who are subjected to abuse and violent threats, things Diane Abbott, for example, has endured throughout her political career on the grounds of her gender and her race.

Campaigners are calling on the secretary of state to enforce the Section 106 of the Equality Act so that parties are obliged to publish how many women they put forward as election candidates. Parties could also commit to putting forward a certain percentage – one that better reflects the number of male MP candidates – of women from underrepresented backgrounds for election.

While it’s important to know how much or how little parties are doing to drive change on this issue, it’s also vital to see political parties act – and now.

Earlier this year, The Voice highlighted the black female MPs breaking barriers in parliament. Discover more about them here.

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