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Women’s representation, still a long way to go

23rd Feb 2018
Women’s representation, still a long way to go

Sarah Jane Baines, the first suffragette to be tried by jury (Photo: Women’s Social Political Union)

Yasmin Qureshi MP

100 years ago this month, a motley collection of women, from weavers to aristocrats to teachers, achieved the biggest change in voting rights in British history. In a movement that spanned legal battles to bombings, these women took a stand and won against the government of the most powerful country in the world.

This was truly a case of ordinary people achieving extraordinary things as, armed with an unshakeable belief in equality, they battled in the face of discrimination, abuse and open violence. Sarah Jane Baines was one of many working class women who suffered and fought for her ideals. Having started working in an arms factory at the age of 11, she later was imprisoned 15 times and endured hard labour and forced feeding which left her with lifelong health problems. Her experience of violence was not rare. For instance, Mary Gawthorpe, a teacher who had grown up in poverty and became a passionate advocate for suffrage, suffered numerous violent beatings in the course of her campaigning.

Both women had been born into a system which refused to hear their voices, marginalised first by class and then by law. Transgressing these boundaries, they worked alongside luminaries of the movement such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett to alter the course of British history.

Looking back, the suffragettes and suffragists were heroines who shaped not only their world but also ours. Their refusal to be cowed, their strength in the face of adversity, and their visionary hope for a country in which gender does not limit our opportunities nor define our achievements, continues to inspire those who seek equality.

However, while lauding the achievements of these women, it is worth imagining what they would say if they could survey the landscape today. With an estimated 85,000 women raped in England and Wales each year, it is clear that whilst cases such as Weinstein make the news, this is a much larger problem than lone ‘bad eggs’. In employment, there remains a 14.1% wage gap between men and women, and the World Economic Forum estimates that this will take another 100 years to fully close. Even in Parliament, the issue of access remains stark; whilst there are now a record 208 female MPs, this represents a paltry 32% of the total seats.

It is clear that the journey these brave women started is one we still tread. If anything, this centenary commemoration should remind us that whilst progress may have been great, there remains a long way to go. However, more than anything, this reminds us that, in the words of Emily Wilding Davison, it is ‘deeds, not words’ that will bring about the changes that women deserve.

Yasmin Qureshi is Labour MP for Bolton South East and Shadow Justice Minister

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