Why equal voter turnout has not translated to an equal society

On Tuesday 6 February, we celebrated the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which gave the vote to some, but by no means all, women over the age of 30. The public attention given to the anniversary, alongside the recent decisions to erect statues in London and Manchester to the suffrage campaigners Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst, is testament to the significance of women’s suffrage to the history of British democracy.

The women who gave their energy to the suffrage campaign believed that granting women political equality would lead to their social and economic equality as well. This has only partially proved true. Data from the British Election Survey shows that men and women are nearly equally likely to exercise their franchise. Yet, equal voter turnout has not translated to an equal society.

One of the places in which this persistent inequality is most visible is the political arena itself. When women were first given the vote, many men feared that they would prefer to be represented by female MPs, and that women’s enfranchisement would soon lead to a feminised parliament. A century later, 191 women do sit in parliament, and Britain has its second female prime minister, yet still women constitute just under 30 per cent of MPs. And there is no evidence that women are more likely than men to vote for female candidates.

The Labour Party was so concerned about the comparatively low number of female Labour MPs that it instituted All Women Shortlists (AWS) for candidate selection in several constituencies in 1997, only to see the policy challenged in the courts. The Equality Act now explicitly authorises ‘positive discrimination’ in candidate selection, yet the other parties have shied away from imposing AWS.

The Conservative group Women2Win has argued that, as a first step, the government should implement section 106 of the Equality Act, and compel parties to monitor and disclose the diversity of the applicants who put themselves forward for candidate selection. Such naming-and-shaming tactics, they argue, would encourage their party to more actively recruit candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, including women.

Yet, in order for recruitment efforts to be successful, Westminster needs to become a more attractive space for women. Here, the reality that professional women in all arenas continue to carry an unequal burden of caring responsibilities needs to be taken into account. It is not coincidental that, following the bumper crop of female MPs elected in 1997, the House began a gradual move away from sittings scheduled from 2.30pm to 10.00pm, towards an earlier start and finish to most working days. And just last week parliament voted in favour of a ‘baby leave’ scheme, which would allow new parents to vote by proxy after the birth of their children.

These changes have made politics, in some respects, more female-friendly than many other professions. Despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, equal pay remains for most a distant promise rather than a reality, in no small part because of the sacrifices that women feel compelled to make to achieve work–life balance in the face of employers unsympathetic to flexible working hours and accommodating caring responsibilities.

And, as the recent #metoo campaign has highlighted, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace remains pervasive. This week, as we rightly celebrate the advance represented by the passage of the 1918 act, we should not lose sight of the work that remains to be done to achieve the true sex equality for which the suffragists campaigned.

Dr Laura Beers
Senior Lecturer, Department of History, University of Birmingham