Celebrating the progress made for gender inequality by the generations before us should not make us complacent about empowering women, writes Rosie Corrigan
There are a handful of moments in your life that you will never forget. The weather, the temperature of the day, what you wore, and how you felt are all seared into the memory.
For me, I will never forget 5 May 2011. It was a mild, bright day. I crossed the road from St Mary’s church on Gowthorpe in Selby, where we had held my mother’s funeral earlier that day, and I walked towards the local High School. I was 18 years old, and on my way to cast the first vote of my life: for myself.
During my walk, I felt a strange concoction of grief and pride. I thought of the many women who had paved the way for my short walk that afternoon. I thought of Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, and Josephine Butler. I thought of Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle. And I thought of my mum.
I would be lying if I told you I did not notice that the act of voting was disappointingly unceremonious. The stony silent school room, the blunted pencil scratching against the paper, the plain and unimposing ballot box. It was not glamorous. But that simple act, in a seemingly uninspiring room, is powerful. It is so powerful that just 100 years ago, people vehemently opposed my right – and that of any woman – to do it. It is an act that brave, angry, persistent women were prepared to fight and give everything for.
It was a fight that lasted decades and saw countless ‘unladylike’ women across the country speak out and act up. And it is a fight that I am proud to say had its roots firmly in the north of England, not least because Emmeline Pankhurst established the Women’s Social and Political Union at her home in Manchester, in 1903.
But while 2018 marks the centenary of some women being given the right to vote, it was not until 1928 that women were given the vote on equal terms to men. Ninety years on, progress has indeed been made. The 1970s saw the introduction of the Equal Pay and the Sex Discrimination Acts. It also saw women being given the right to open a bank account in their own name. The nineties saw rape in marriage become outlawed, and even in the past two years we have seen Theresa May become our second female prime minister. Yet deep inequalities remain, and people in positions of power bear little resemblance to the make-up of our diverse society. We live in a world in which the president of the United States (which, incidentally, has never been a woman) will not describe himself as a feminist.
Scroll forward to today, and despite comprising half of the population, women make up just 32 per cent of members of parliament, and that is a record high. The percentage of female members of the House of Lords is even lower, at just 26 per cent, and two of the main political parties – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have never had a permanent female leader. Local government too mirrors a woeful picture of women’s representation. IPPR’s report Power to the People: Tackling the Gender Imbalance in Combined Authorities and Local Government explains concisely the barriers to women in local government, which results in women making up just 33 per cent of local authority councillors. Perhaps most frustratingly of all, recent positive democratic reforms have not resulted in more representative politicians. Every single metro mayor has so far been a man and this is unlikely to change in the forthcoming Sheffield mayoral election, given that at the time of writing all of the candidates are men. Surely, in 2018, political parties should step up and address this. The North of Tyne mayoral election in 2019 provides the next opportunity for political parties to select a female candidate. Or perhaps, if a ‘One Yorkshire’ deal is agreed, the most powerful metro mayor of all, covering the largest region, could be a woman.
Being complacent about empowering women, and in particular young women, should not be an option.
My first vote ended in my election as councillor for the Selby West ward, and I went on to become the United Kingdom’s youngest female mayor at the age of 21. Ironically, I was 22 before I could cast my first vote in a general election, and some are even unable to vote in a general election until they are 23.
This is just one reason why I believe that lowering the voting age to 16 is important. Doing so would mean that the latest someone could cast their first vote in a general election, would be 21. It would also allow young people, many of whom care passionately about politics, to have a stronger democratic voice. The Scottish independence referendum demonstrated that 16 and 17-year-olds actually had a higher turnout than 18 to 24-year-olds, and that 97 per cent said that they would go on to vote in the future. Early involvement in the democratic system for both women and men will create a more democratically active and engaged population, which can only be positive.
The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is a time to celebrate the pioneering women who worked to make our country a more equal place, but it is also a time to reflect, to pick up the baton and redouble our efforts for equality. I will always cast my vote because I owe it to those women who came before me, but we all owe it to those who come after us to fight inequality wherever we find it, not least in our democratic institutions and processes. And we have a long way to go.
Rosie Corrigan is media and campaigns manager at IPPR North. She tweets @Rosie_Corrigan
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