Dolly Theis is the Co-Founder of 50:50 Parliament’s #AskHerToStand Campaign. She is completing her PhD at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit and contested Vauxhall in the 2017 general election.
Today marks 102 years since Parliament passed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. Thanks to a Conservative, Lord Robert Cecil, who introduced the Act, women in Britain had finally won the right to become Members of Parliament for the first time. The Act is remarkable, not only for what it did, but it is the shortest British statute at just 27 words long. Us women do not need many words to make stuff happen. As Thatcher said, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
Regarding women in Parliament, we Conservatives have a lot to be proud of.
First woman MP to take her seat in Parliament
It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. Nancy Astor won her Plymouth Sutton seat in a by-election in December 1919 and served as MP until 1945 when she stood down. Her husband, Waldorf Astor, had also been an MP and worked hard to advocate for the admission of women to the House of Lords during the 1920s. (Countess Constance Markievicz was technically the first women elected, but as a member of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party she did not take her seat in Parliament.)
First women Leader of the House of Lords
It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman Leader of the House of Lords. Baroness Janet Young served as the first woman Leader between 1981 and 1983. Unfortunately, it was another Conservative woman, Margaret Thatcher, who asked her to stand down from the position, writing in her memoirs that Baroness Young “had turned out not to have the presence to lead the Lords effectively and she was perhaps too consistent an advocate of caution on all occasions.” That is not to say they did not have great respect for one another.
When Baroness Young died in 2002, Lady Thatcher said:
“Janet Young was not only a good friend but she was one of the most courageous and effective woman politicians of her generation. She devoted her whole life to public service, and public life is diminished by her loss.”
First woman Prime Minister
It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher requires no introduction. She made history, not only for being the first British woman Prime Minister, but for many other reasons too. I believe she will remain up there as one of the most highly cited Prime Ministers in British history and being the first woman Prime Minister was far from what was defining about her. However, it is no less important. It paved the way for women and girls around the country to not only dream of becoming Prime Minister one day, but to know that that is an achievable dream.
In fact, ALL women Prime Ministers
It was another Conservative woman who became Britain’s second woman Prime Minister. Theresa May won the Conservative Party leadership contest in 2016 (beating another woman, Andrea Leadsom MP, who was the other candidate in the final two) and became Prime Minister in July that year.
First woman Leader of the Scottish Conservatives
I imagine many of you will be expecting me to write about Ruth Davidson here. In fact, Ruth was the second woman leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Annabel Goldie was the first, serving as Leader from 2005 to 2011, when Ruth then took over. However, Ruth was the first woman Scottish politician to be a panellist on BBC One’s ‘Have I Got News for You’ show, so that’s a pretty big deal.
Women in Cabinet
Theresa May’s government was one of two in history to have the most women in cabinet positions at one time: eight (the other being under Gordon Brown). Other cabinet firsts include Dame Cheryl Gillan who became the first woman Secretary of State for Wales in 2010 and Liz Truss who became the first Lord Chancellor in 2016. The numbers are still pretty bad though. Only 45 women have been appointed to cabinet positions since 1929 and currently, only six out of the 25 members who attend cabinet are women.
The new intake is full to the brim with talented women MPs and I have many predictions about where many will end up, but for now, I put my money on Claire Coutinho becoming the first woman Chancellor.
Much to be proud of, but we still have a lot of work to do
As proud as we should feel of the above, we are still lagging woefully behind the other major political parties in terms of women MPs. While we have 24 per cent women MPs, Labour has 51 per cent, SNP has 33 per cent and the Liberal Democrats have 64 per cent women MPs. Yes, some parties have reached this with mechanisms the Conservatives are unlikely to adopt, such as all women shortlists, but that does not mean we should sit back and do nothing. With just 24 per cent we need to more than double this to reach proper representation.
To ensure we make this meaningful rather than a tick box exercise where we end up scrambling to find women, any women, to stand at the last minute, we must start early. We need to be reaching out to top women who may not be ready now, but they could at least begin learning about the process of becoming a candidate and building up relevant skills. We must ensure our candidates process develops candidates to the highest possible level and does not let top women slip through the net. We cannot have a truly meritocratic system that elects the best of both men and women, if women are not in the selection pool in the first place. Outreach is key and it is easier said than done. When was the last time you asked an incredible woman you know to stand for election? I mean seriously ask her.
Well, today could not be a more perfect day. Send an incredible woman you know this link right now and tell her that 50:50 Parliament is here to support her. Or are YOU a woman reading this and interested in politics? Well, of course you are interested in politics. You wouldn’t be reading this if you were not! I am asking YOU to stand. Whether you’re ready to stand now or you’re curious to find out what getting more involved entails, 50:50 Parliament helps women at every stage. There is no expectation for you to know anything about standing either. More often than not, we find that women will assume they need to have all sorts of political knowledge and experience under their belt before they can even get involved. It is not true! We just want passionate women, keen to have a positive impact.
Now what are you waiting for? Click the link, sign up to stand and let’s work together to achieve a Parliament full of the very best men and women MPs.