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Gender Equality in Parliament

Gender equality in Parliament has been a big issue this week because Tuesday marked a 100 years since the 1918 Representation of the People Act that gave women the vote for the first time.  It was only a first step and genuine equality was not achieved until 1928. 

The 1918 Act came at the end of the First World War in which a lot of men had been killed and if equality had been established then women electors would have outnumbered the males. So virtually all men over 21 were given the vote, plus those over 19 who had served in the war, but only women over 30 who owned property or was a graduate in a University constituency.

The right to vote did not mean that lots of women were elected to Parliament. The first to be elected in 1918 was Constance Markievicz but she did not take her seat because she was a Sinn Fein member. Nancy Astor was the first woman to sit in the Commons in 1919. Since then 489 others have followed in her footsteps but women continue to be a minority on both Houses. A record 208 women MPs were elected in the 2017 General Election but were still only 32% of Members.  Six of them sit in the Cabinet, including Britain’s second female Prime Minister.

This pattern is mirrored in other UK elective offices. 36% of Scottish MSPs, 42% of Welsh National Assembly Members, 32% of English local authority Councillors and 41% of UK MEPs are women. There are also 206 female Peers, constituting 26% of the House of Lords.

There are actually more women (32.2 million) in Britain today than men (31 million) but this is not just an issue about numbers. The current scandal about abuse of women in Parliament and gender inequality in pay in the BBC and other organisations highlight the lack of justice and respect for women that make it a moral issue. From a Christian perspective, that women and men equally bear the image of God, however blurred that image in each of us is, also makes it a spiritual issue.

Given the agendas of Government and Parliament gender inequality is very much a political issue too. For example, Social Care is currently a hot issue. We have an ageing population, local authority budgets are tight and private care homes are closing in worrying numbers. That means that care for older persons rely increasingly on family and friends. Two-thirds of those carers are women. Family breakdown leads to single parent units and 90% of them are headed by women. It makes sense that those who help to shape public policy on these matters understand the pressures which those women have to cope.

It would be wrong, though, to leave the matter there. An increasing number of women, including those with children, are in full or part time employment and pay taxes.  Their voices on how the nation is governed are as relevant as those of male voters. Is it any surprise that female MPs may bring different perspectives to political debate to those of their male colleagues?  A positive example is the continuing influence of Jo Cox, the former MP for Batley and Spens who was murdered in 2016. One of her personal concerns was that the weakening of social ties has created a disconnected society in which loneliness has “escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic”. (Rachel Reeves MP from a speech to Policy Exchange).

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I addressed gender inequality last week and drew attention to the biblical reasons for thinking this an important issue. I won’t repeat them here but hope that you will be as inspired by them as I am to take gender equality seriously.

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