Deep in the heart of the Houses of Parliament sits a tiny broom cupboard. On the night of the 1911 Census it concealed Emily Wilding Davison, hidden there for 46 hours sustained only by ‘meat lozenges and lime juice’ so that her address could be recorded as the House of Commons and she could claim the same political rights as men. Today marks one hundred years since women won the right to vote and they now no longer need to break the law to exercise their rights; it is of course a female Prime Minister who will bear witness to the centenary celebrations. Joining Theresa May in positions of political power are the female First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland and the women currently leading the DUP, Scottish Conservatives, Green Party and Plaid Cymru. In the House of Commons sit over 200 female MPs, elected to Parliament in record-breaking numbers last year.
In 1919, a year on from the passing of The Representation of the People Act, just two women had arrived in Parliament: an Irish revolutionary who refused to take her seat, and a society heiress taking her husband’s place after he moved to the House of Lords. The story of gender equality a hundred years later feels equally complex. Although the media celebrated ‘historic’ numbers of women MPs elected in 2017, the proportion of female MPs grew only 2%, still well over 100 short of equal representation. Only in 2015 did the total number of female MPs in history, 454, surpass the number of male MPs in a single parliament.
While there have been numerous steps towards gender equality to celebrate over the past 100 years, it seems that much remains to be done. Over recent months the spotlight has swung from Harvey Weinstein, to online abuse faced by female politicians, to the gender pay gap at the BBC. Each new revelation throws into sharp relief the grim reality often faced by women, whether they work in Hollywood or Holyrood. For many women, achieving sexual empowerment has been an equal, if not greater priority than receiving political rights: recent ComRes research indicates that women over 65 in particular view the development and availability of the contraceptive pill as more important than the vote. But every new outrage – most recently the FT’s expose of harassment at the all-male President’s Club dinner – suggests that sexual inequality continues to be a reality in women’s lives.
Yet a lack of equality can often take a less headline-grabbing form. A recent ComRes poll for the BBC found that nearly three-quarters of women feel that men and women aren’t treated equally in society, chiming with ComRes research for BBC Radio 5 Live just over a year ago in which 84% of women agreed that it was harder for women to have a successful career and raise a family.
Inequality in the workplace is a particular problem for younger women. Earlier ComRes research for the Young Women’s Trust found that male apprentices report being paid an hourly rate of around a pound more than female apprentices, amounting to an annual difference of nearly £2000. Despite apparent progress, evidence suggests that the many government policies have a hidden gendered impact, borne out by the rising number of women living in poverty relative to men since 2010. Beyond simple injustice, gender inequality is increasingly seen as harmful to economic growth. Equality matters because societies in which men and women are equal are not only fairer, but also more productive, and better for business.
But gender should matter to politicians as well as policy-makers. The impact of gender on voting intention was sidelined last year as age differences took centre stage following reports of an electoral ‘youthquake’. Leaving aside the fact that 2017 didn’t necessarily represent the breakthrough for youth engagement that many suggested, newly-released British Election study data highlights several reasons why it is important not to dismiss the influence of gender on voting behaviour. For one, BES data suggests that while age was the greatest demographic differentiator in vote choice, gender played an important role within this: younger women were more Labour-leaning than young men.
BES also confirms that there was little difference in turnout between men and women. Although polls often show that women are less likely to be sure of their vote choice, this does not mean that they are any less likely to turn out to vote - in fact, undecided female voters can often have a significant impact. In 2017, Labour was especially adept at winning the support of undecided voters through their election campaign, contributing to their better-than-expected result. As there were greater numbers of undecided women, ultimately it was women who formed the major proportion of Labour gains.
In 1918 jubilation was tempered by the reality of the Representation of the People Act; working class and younger women would not receive the vote for another ten years. Now, as then, while there are grounds for optimism, gender equality remains some way off. Evidence suggests that globally the gender gap is widening rather than shrinking, and will take another 100 years to close. While the victories of the last 100 years - enfranchisement, equal pay - should be celebrated, both politicians and policymakers might do well to remember that it is not yet time to dismiss gender as inconsequential. Women may no longer have to smuggle themselves into the spaces of political power like Emily Davison, but inequality still endures.