“Women died for your right to vote!”
How many times have you heard someone yell that at any woman who expresses even mild disinterest in the General Election? Maybe you’ve yelled it yourself. It’s true, of course, women did die for other women to have the same voting rights as men. They were also imprisoned and force-fed. When the passive strategies of the suffragists had failed or were seen to be too slow, the suffragettes began disrupting Parliament and marching in costumes and pageantry. They ‘rushed’ Parliament, heckled and attacked MPs and the Prime Minister, broke windows and committed acts of arson. Emily Davison being crushed beneath the horse owned by King George V at the Epsom Derby was a tragedy in the midst of immense suffering endured by many lesser-known women, such as Mary Leigh, Lillian Lenton and Constance Lytton.
So, after all that, women better vote, right?
Wrong. For over 9 million women at the last General Election, 1928 was a long time ago. That’s how many women didn’t vote in 2010 according to research conducted by the House of Commons Library. There’s been a downward trend in voting turnout for woman and men since 1992 but the decline is most pronounced for women and the gap between the numbers of men and women voting has widened. If all those women suddenly decided to vote, they could completely change the outcome of the General Election. But they probably won’t, even if Harriet Harman comes to see them in her pink bus.
Why aren’t women voting then?
Many women think that there’s no point in voting because there’s no-one worth voting for. This isn’t a particularly ‘female’ response, many people are disillusioned by the first past the post system and the proliferation of ‘safe-seats’ for career MPs, but when it comes to perusing the main parties’ manifestos, many issues that impact women are conspicuous in their absence.
Women’s life experiences are different to men’s. Not better or worse, not superior or inferior, just different. Women are more likely to be lone-parents, have part-time jobs, work in low-paid jobs and experience domestic abuse. These issues are often not given priority by the main political parties. Hopefully, not because they don’t care about women’s issues but probably because the predominantly white, male, privileged MPs just don’t think about those things. They don’t impact their day-to-day lives, they have very limited experience of those issues ever so why would they think there are problems that need addressing?
The behavior of male politicians and the mainstream media towards female politicians is an example of how some men in the main political parties do not appreciate how disrespectful their behavior is and how inappropriate the representations of women in the press are. When David Cameron told Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear”, when journalist Tom Newton Dunn criticized Stella Creasey MP for wearing a blue, PVC skirt in the House of Commons, when The Daily Mail comments on female MPs’ clothing choices as they walk down the “Downing Street catwalk”, all these things undermine women and reduce them to their parts, judged on their appearance and then belittled for expressing any point of view, even when it is their job to do so.
How can we expect a group of people who jeer and shout and heckle one another when they are supposed to be representing us to critique their own behavior and make changes? Maybe we can’t. That’s why we need more women to be engaged in politics at a local and national level. Research by Michele L. Swers at Harvard University found that American, female politicians were significantly more likely to vote in favour of policies that were related to women’s issues. In fact, the gender dimension overwhelmed all other variables, including party ideology. There are currently 502 male MPs and 148 female MPs, so the House of Commons is 77% male. That puts us behind Uganda, Sudan and Iraq in terms of gender equality in Parliament. In fact, there are more male MPs today than there have been female MPs ever.
If women are to become more engaged in the political process and start to vote in greater numbers, this needs to change. Women’s issues need to be given their due consideration and women need to be equally represented in local and national politics. The 50:50 Parliament petition asks for a debate on getting gender parity in Parliament, aiming for 50:50, women:men, like life.
This isn’t just something that would be nice to have for the ladies; it’s important, indeed, it’s crucial. In the UK, one in three women will be subjected to sexual or physical violence at the hands of a man during their lifetime and two women are killed by their current or ex partners every week, yet funding for refuges, Rape Crisis centres and all other support networks for women is under threat. It’s clear that the current system isn’t working out well for women. The number of women dying as a result of domestic violence hasn’t changed since 1996. What has to happen to make someone take notice? Women, that’s what has to happen. Women need to get involved, to vote, to participate in local politics, to take their local Council to task on issues of gender equality, to ensure their local MP has their needs firmly on the radar and to never stop demanding that they be heard. The suffragists and suffragettes achieved a great deal for women but they didn’t get it all so the fight must continue.
Women may have died for your right to vote but women will continue to die if you don’t use it.