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Celebrating the role of women in public life

23rd Feb 2018
Celebrating the role of women in public life

‘The disgraceful scene in the House’, Daily Graphic, 1906 (Image: Parliamentary Art)

Baroness Manzoor CBE

100 years ago our Parliament building looked much like it does today – but the members of Parliament looked very different. Most noticeably there were no women here because women weren’t allowed to vote or stand for election. The Representation of the People Act and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act are the laws that changed all of that.

These Acts gave the first women the right to vote and stand for election and they received Royal Assent 1918 – 100 years ago this year. As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage it is right to remember the heroic campaigns of the women who brought about this change and paved the way for basic equality between men and women.

The struggle for votes for women started long before 1918. The first petition was launched in 1832 and brave women from different cultural, social and political backgrounds continued to make their case throughout the 19th century. Progress was slow and the fight continued into the 1900s led by Millicent Fawcett, Head of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

The label ‘suffragettes’ was given to the more extreme campaigners for women’s votes, supported by the Pankhurst family and the Women’s Social and Political Union. Fed up with the lack of progress being made, they took radical action, including chaining themselves to railings and statues and going on hunger strikes, to raise awareness of their campaign.

One of the suffragettes central to this mission was the Indian Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who was often seen distributing suffragette newspapers outside her apartment at Hampton Court. Like other women, she took huge risks to herself and her loved ones and on one occasion was forcibly ejected from the Parliamentary Estate alongside Emmeline Pankhurst. The suffragettes were prepared to risk their lives to achieve their aims.

Representation of women in public life has come a long way since 1918, but progress has not gone far enough. Since 1918, 4,801 men have been elected to Parliament and only 489 women – and of those women – only a small proportion has been from an ethnic minority background. Inspired by the courage of our brave Indian Princess, the campaign to improve ethnic minority representation in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords must go on!

I am pleased that the Fawcett Society has launched the #OurTimeNow campaign which aims to break down the barriers of gender inequality throughout 2018 and beyond. I urge women, and particularly ethnic minority women, to get behind this campaign. We must make our voices heard if we want to make a difference to the lives of women in our communities. I put this challenge to you all – the suffragettes did it, and so can we.

Baroness Manzoor CBE is Conservative Peer in the House of Lords

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