The 100-year fight to get more women into Parliament

A century on from women being allowed to stand for election, hundreds are heading to the Parliament today to inspire them to stand for political office. Chris Burn reports.

Convenor of the Centenary Action Group Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, is part of the campaign to get more women into politics.

Ten days after the First World War had come to an end, Parliament passed a one-page Act with far-reaching consequences. Less than a year after women over 30 and meeting certain property qualifications were granted the vote for the first time, the Qualification of Women Act stated that women could now become MPs from the age of 21, the same as for men.

The passing of the historic Act resulted in 17 women, including the well-known suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, standing in the General Election which was held the following month. But only one actually won her seat – and she did not attend Parliament because of her political beliefs. Countess Constance Markievicz was elected to represent the Dublin constituency of St Patrick’s. But as a member of Sinn Fein, she did not take her seat at the Westminster Parliament.

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The party of Irish republicans continue to abstain from Westminster to this day as they object to swearing a parliamentary oath pledging allegiance to the Queen as head of state.

It meant the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor in December 1919. Astor, an American citizen, won the seat of Plymouth Sutton after her husband vacated it to enter the House of Lords.

But in the 100 years since the Act was passed, there have only been 491 women MPs compared to 4,503 men. In an attempt to address the imbalance, hundreds of women from across the UK have been invited to Westminster today to inspire them to stand for political office.

More than 200 MPs from across political spectrum have invited a women from their constituency to show them the inner workings of Westminster for the Ask Her To Stand event.

Among the Yorkshire MPs taking part are Sheffield Heeley’s Louise Haigh, Colne Valley’s Thelma Walker and Penistone and Stocksbridge representative Angela Smith. But it is also being backed by male MPs including Shipley’s Philip Davies and Wentworth and Dearne’s John Healey.

The invited women will spend time with their MP in the corridors of power seeing first-hand what it means to be a Member of Parliament. They are invited to take part in inspirational workshops, listen to talks, Prime Minister’s Questions, and to get a full picture of an MP’s day.

The event has been organised by campaigners Frances Scott, 50:50 Parliament, Helen Pankhurst and the Centenary Action Group, the Fawcett Society and the Jo Cox Foundation.

Pankhurst, who is the great granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and whose great-aunt was Christabel, one of the first women to stand for election, says: “Citizens and MPs are coming together in a symbolic event, with deeds not words, and this is important. It’s about collectively saying we can do so much better to improve the lack of women in parliament. And we will.”

MP Victoria Atkins, Minister for Women, says: “I am delighted that the Government is able to support this exciting initiative. One of our main aims for this centenary of women winning the right to stand for Parliament is to encourage more women to get more involved in politics. I hope that the women who take part are inspired to take that next step.”

Organiser Frances Scott adds: “On this important democratic centenary, it is heartening to see MPs taking action to inspire women to stand for political office.

“We are all saying ‘Women, your country needs you!’ We need women’s experience and wisdom at Westminster. Today we hope hundreds more women will be inspired to sign up to stand. What a great way to celebrate the day that women could first stand for Parliament. Let’s build a better democracy together.”