Celebrating 1918 – #StillMarching in 2018: International Women’s Day Keynote Speech at the Commonwealth Secretariat

by 16th Mar 2018
Helen Pankhurst delivering the International Women’s Day Keynote Speech at the Commonwealth Secretariat Helen Pankhurst delivering the International Women’s Day Keynote Speech at the Commonwealth Secretariat

The International Women’s Day Keynote Speech delivered by Helen Pankhurst at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London on 8 March 2018.

I am delighted to be here today – delighted to follow the Right Honourable Patricia Scotland – who has long been an advocate for women’s rights in the UK.

Also very pleased to share the stage with representatives from countries who are well known for their pioneering journeys towards suffrage and political representation with Rwanda in particular currently leading the way.

Going back in time, in 1911, well before women got the vote in the UK, three eminent Australian women including Mrs Margaret Fisher, the wife of the Australian prime minister, marched in London under a Commonwealth of Australia banner stating: ‘Trust the Women Mother as I Have Done’. Newer democracies were more open to social change than Westminster – the so-called ‘mother of Parliament’.

An Australian visitor to the UK wrote of the experience of another visitor:

“Being in London, she called at the office of the Anti-Suffrage League, curious to know something of their views and methods. Ignorant of her nationality they talked to her kindly, but firmly, on the evils of the woman’s vote and ended thus: – ‘My dear, if you had the vote you would be quite changed. You would be unsexed.’ ‘Do you think so?’ said the Australian. ‘Then, perhaps it will interest you to know that I have had the vote for 15 years.’”

It wasn’t until 1918, a century ago, that women [in the UK] finally gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This landmark came on the back of more than 16,000 petitions, more than 50 years of campaigning, and many, many sacrifices, particularly by the suffragettes, the band of women formed by great grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, including my grandmother Sylvia. There was also a men’s league in support, but Emmeline’s view was that women needed to demand change themselves, that was the only way forward.
The People’s Representation Act of 1918 was but a partial win – only women over 30 with property or a university education could vote. Equal voting rights for all those aged 21 and above were granted only 10 years later. Ironically, the 1918 Act that allowed women to stand didn’t differentiate between men and women on age grounds. We therefore had the absurd situation of women younger than 30 being able to stand for Parliament, but not able to vote!

Much has changed since then, but how far have we really come? This is a question I am always asked, often in the form of “what would Emmeline think of the world today?” …and I’m expected to summarise in a sentence or two. So, in advance of the centenary, I decided to really think about the question and have just published my answer in a book called Deeds Not Words, the Story of Women’s Rights Then and Now.

Just looking at women in politics, we see that at Westminster, in the House of Commons women only make up 32% of the chamber and in the House of Lords it is 26%.

By the way, one of the more horrific quotes from the Lords, which is now by many to be considered the better of the two Chambers in terms of how it treats women, is from Earl Ferrers who in 1957 got up to say: “Why should we encourage women to eat their way, like acid into metal, into positions of trust and responsibility….if we allow women in the House where will this emancipation end?” Where indeed.

In Devolved Administrations female representation is generally a bit higher and within local councils it’s 32%. I’m not very good at Maths, but over 100 years these figures average out to around a 0.30% increase per year. What do we think of that? Is that a high rate of success? Of transformation? What would we feel about 0.30% GDP growth for example?

Moreover, even when women make it into the corridors of power, they are faced with abuse and harassment. According to a recent study by the Young Women’s Trust 89 per cent of women and 58 per cent of men say that sexism still exists in Parliament (the difference in the figure itself telling). A Fawcett Society study revealed that four in 10 women councillors have experienced sexist comments from within their own party, and one in 10 have experienced sexual harassment. This abuse, especially online, disproportionately affects Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women.

Does it have to be this way? Maybe not. Or it could get worse because we have the rise of those who hark back to the past, headed up by some political dinosaurs across the globe. But on the other hand, right now it feels like there is something much more positive in the air.

It might be coincidental, but a hundred years from 1918, it feels like this year is also going to be pivotal. #MeToo, #TimesUp, the gender pay gap related scandals, the President’s Club, the F1 grid girls, mothers on marriage certificates, one issue after another, in the UK and around the world, individual women are speaking out and others are amplifying their voices in solidarity.

Together, there is disruption taking place and the energy is not dissimilar to that brought on by the suffragettes’ sense of ‘enough is enough’. This time it is not a fight for a single Act against one powerful establishment – Parliament – but a forcing of changes in social norms that have continuously undermined women and redefining these so that it is no longer acceptable to allow privilege to rule unchecked.

We must ensure that this moment is global and underpinned and safeguarded by supportive legislation.

Because it is a global story.

Men still dominate. According to an ODI study by Tam O’ Neil, now a colleague at CARE, the proportion of women MPs has doubled over the past 20 years, yet men still account for 77.4% of legislators globally.

Nevertheless, around the world women now have more political power and influence, over more aspects of life, than ever before. We see rising numbers of women in parliaments, cabinets, judiciaries, parties, and public life more generally.

However, presence doesn’t equal influence.

The positive trend in women’s access to political power is uneven in that women may have more access to and presence within some political institutions, but they are making fewer gains in the positions or sectors with the most power.

For example, men continue to be over-represented in cabinets overall and in the most sought after portfolios, such as finance and defence, in political parties and political party leaderships and in the top jobs in the legislature.

The result is a sense of not belonging. As one lawyer said to me:

“When I first started here, I had a real feeling of being an imposter. I laugh about it now, but at the time I literally used to die a little inside every time someone spoke to me, and it does come back every now and again, for example if I go to a meeting and there are very few women, but all the men seem to know each other. I have to tell myself that I am supposed to be there and that people aren’t looking at me wondering if I’ve walked into the wrong room by mistake.”

Women are also making less headway in leadership positions in local government, eg globally making up around 5% of mayors.

Prejudice and sexism are one reason why women’s presence does not equate to genuine political influence in a straightforward way. Even when women hold formal political positions and power, discrimination can mean that women do not have the same authority or opportunities for career progression as their male counterparts. Lesley Abdella, who campaigned for women to enter the political space, used to talk about the challenges of cultural attitudes and institutional procedures which she called ‘The Six Cs’: Culture, Cronyism, Candidate selection processes, Cash, Chronic lack of time and Confidence. Another problem which is far from going away has been the media portrayal of women in the public sphere and the role of social media.

However, the main recurring challenge that is truly global – and arguably something that is worse now than 100 years ago – is violence against women and girls (VAWG). The impact of VAWG on women across the board is something that really stuck out in the research for my book. There is one chapter dedicated to Violence but all the others were infected by it. The chapters on Politics, Money/Work, Identity and Culture were all ‘infected’ by women’s experiences of violence.

A global study of women MPs found that 82% experienced psychological violence. Among them, 44% said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their parliamentary terms, including threats to kidnap or kill their children.

We need a more radical rethink to stop all this. One initiative that at CARE we are convinced would be powerful is the creation of a comprehensive and integrated international framework addressing violence and harassment in the workplace.

85 governments have already expressed their views about a proposed ILO convention (the ILO ‘Yellow report’ published 7 March 2018 reflects initial responses). I sincerely hope that Commonwealth countries will now come together to commit their collective support and that this issue can be pushed forward at the Commonwealth Heads of Government this April. So far 17 out of the 53 Commonwealth members have signified approval, the number of African countries numerically leading the way. The annual meeting of the International Labour Organisation, where a draft convention and recommendation will be tabled soon after, in May/June, presents us with a political window of opportunity that we really must seize.

Finally, returning to the past – more than a century ago campaigners were not, despite what some people think, just straight, middle class, middle-aged and white women in London. Sarah Parker Remond was an African American who spent some time in the UK and she is thought to be the only black signatory to the 1866 petition brought to Parliament by John Stuart Mill – the symbolic starting point to organised suffrage activism.

There were very wealthy and very poor suffragettes. Constance Lytton, an aristocrat, dressed up as a poor woman giving her name as Jane Warton and then exposed the different treatment she got from prison and those force-feeding her when she was known as an aristocrat as compared to when they thought she was a commoner.

Others linked the rights of women with issues of ethnic identity and specific vulnerabilities including Constance Markievicz campaigning for Irish Independence, on Indian issues Sophia Duleep Singh and Lolita Roy, May Billinghurst who campaigned in her wheelchair, and, amongst many others, the composer Ethel Smyth was openly gay. The fire and zeal was for feminist change, but these were connected to other causes. The very young and the very old were involved and finally the campaign took part up and down the country and was intricately linked with similar fights around the globe.

But these wider and more complex linkages between women’s rights are often forgotten. In fact, it was – to use a modern word – early attempts at intersectional thinking. The understanding of the importance of intersectionality is today, more critical than ever.

Whilst suffrage efforts have accomplished great things, 1.2 billion women of the Commonwealth remain under-represented in political processes. As we move forward in the UK and across the Commonwealth we need our politicians to be as diverse and reflective of our societies as possible and also for our procedures to be transparent. We are at our strongest when the voices of those most representing the marginalised and silenced amongst us are centre stage and in the corridors of power.

This year is critical because of that sense that something is afoot, but it will take more than a year. Again from my book, Mitch suggested to me:

“Change can sometimes be of the elastic band kind. You take the strain and stretch forward for progress. You begin to see real change, new motivations, a future. And then you ease the pressure – you tire, you’re moved to a new post, vital funding is cut. And the elastic band does what it does best, snaps back to its original shape. You just can’t let up the pressure, can’t relax, can’t ever believe the job is done. And that’s the mistake feminists and feminist institutions make, believing that an issue is solved, and it’s OK to take your eye off the ball.”

Which is why I am calling for a decade of action to 2028 – the centenary of equal franchise. The dates vary across the Commonwealth, but it is up to our generation to use this moment for sustained pressure so that, dinosaurs or no dinosaurs, there is no going back. Let’s hope that future generations have as much to thank us for as we have those that came before us.

This speech was delivered by Helen Pankhurst at the Commonwealth Secretariat on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018.

Helen Pankhurst

Helen Pankhurst is CARE International UK's Special Adviser on Gender Equality.