Women in Politics

Girls and staff at school all know that gender equality is a subject that is very close to my heart. I frequently use our chapel time together to remind girls about the opportunities that are available to us as women and girls in society today. It’s really important that we never lose sight of the fact that much of what girls of this generation may well now take for granted was just not the case when their mothers and grandmothers were growing up. And, indeed, there is still a lot more to be done to really take up and build on the opportunities we all now have.  Recently, the role and status of women in our society has very much been on my mind again – this time about the role of women in the world of politics.

Now I know that the whole idea of politics might seem boring to some. Well, a lot of it seemed that way to me too at one time. But politics became much more personal for me when the campaign was on in the 1980s for an Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. If we could go back with a camera to the streets of my home town, Baltimore, around that time you would see me and my sister on marches calling for the Amendment to be made. We really thought that this would be the answer to many of the problems we saw, from inequality between men and women in pay through to an end to violence against women. And indeed we have come a long way. But the Amendment was not passed and it says a lot that we are still waiting for the first woman President. I’m sure we will all be watching with particular interest, how Hilary Clinton’s second shot at being the Democratic candidate for 2016 progresses, but this really is a remarkable and telling state of affairs.

Back in the UK, on the plus side, we now have a record 191 women MPs as a result of the recent election – an increase of 48 over 2010. And we’ve seen a focus from the Prime Minister on getting women into the Cabinet. Indeed, for the time being it seems that women are at the head of most of the UK political parties, at least until the leadership elections take place, and some of these women are making a really substantial impact.

And yet despite this, if we look beyond the leaders and the MPs, we find that around 9 million women did not vote at the 2010 election (the statistics are not yet out for 2015). Part of this will be because of the general disengagement with politics that we see also in men, but another factor is surely that politics is not representative of women and it does not seem to be addressing the most relevant issues for many women. All the research shows that women tend to prioritise the NHS and public services over tax cuts and relations with Europe for instance and, without making any party political judgements, the evidence seems to be that the latter were the real areas of focus in the last election.

And, in fact, if we look back at the representation of women in Parliament, is it really that healthy? The statistics show that the UK is in fact only in 37th place globally for women’s representation, lagging behind not only some European comparators but also many African and Latin American countries. Now, some of this was achieved in other countries by positive discrimination and quotas, which we may have our doubts about, but the message does seem to be that without active intervention progress here is likely to remain relatively slow.

One area where active intervention in recent times has made a difference is in women’s sport. Since the 2012 Olympics coverage has generally improved and just in April we saw the women’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race contested over exactly the same course on the Thames on the same day for the first time. This was reportedly at the insistence of the woman at the top of a key sponsor of the race, Helena Morrissey of Newton Investment Management. So, active intervention can have real impact.

And, back in politics, some of you may have seen that the writer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig has recently taken action by founding a new party called The Women’s Equality Party which is specifically targeting equality between men and women. The goals of The Women’s Equality Party include: equal representation in politics and in the boardroom; equal pay; equality of, and through, education; equal treatment by the media; and an end to violence against women. What’s interesting is that most of this would have sounded very familiar indeed to the teenage me campaigning in downtown Baltimore – and the call for equal pay comes 45 years after the Equal Pay Act.

The fact of the matter is that equality is not something that can simply be won by a few on behalf of the many and enshrined in law. Active intervention and campaigning is almost always needed, as is legal protection for the rights won, but these will not make equality the practical everyday experience of most people. Real equality is something that is still gradually being developed and embedded across all walks of life. What we must do, with the opportunities that we now have, is to promote it positively, but relentlessly, and speak out against abuses wherever we see them.  Through their education at St Mary’s Calne our girls have been given the confidence to speak out and I hope that they will see how important it is for them to use their voices to tackle any issues of gender inequality which they may encounter.