By Nicky Morgan
One of the pleasures of recess is the chance to spend more time out and about in our constituencies. Last week, I spent a great hour with the latest National Citizen Service group in Leicestershire. They were helping to smarten up an education centre used by young people with learning disabilities.
As well as admiring all their hard work, I had the chance to sit down with them and answer some questions about being an MP, current political issues and voting. At that point one of the female participants said: “I’m never going to vote, I don’t understand it all.”
I pointed out that if she held to that view it would be a great shame, because then other people would effectively vote on her behalf, and she might not agree with them. I also said that women had fought very hard to get the vote, and so I feel it is incumbent on all of us to go to the polling station when we have the opportunity to do so.
Next year sees the start of events being held to mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave all men and the first women aged over 30 the vote.
2018 also marks a number of other important democratic anniversaries, including the Life Peerages Act (1958), which allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time; the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act (1928), which gave women electoral equality with men; and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act (1918), which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP.
The first woman to be elected to the Commons was Constance Markievicz, in the general election of 1918. However, she had been in Holloway Prison for Sinn Fein activities during her election and did not take her seat.
Shortly after, Conservative Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor decided to contest the seat vacated by Waldorf Astor, her second husband, in Plymouth Sutton after he was elevated to the peerage. In 1919, she was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons and was an MP until the 1945 election.
I’m used to being the only or one of the few women in many meetings. Sometimes I notice and sometimes I don’t. However, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be the only woman amongst hundreds of male MPs. Astor wasn’t alone for long, because she was joined in 1921 by the new female MP for Louth – and I’m pleased to say that in 2015 and 2017 Louth elected another excellent female MP, Victoria Atkins.
The battle to get the vote for women and then to allow them to stand was hard fought and involved death, hunger strikes, arrests and broken families.
Several years ago, I made a rare Friday afternoon stop in the House of Commons on my way back to Leicestershire. As I got nearer to New Palace Yard I could hear the sound of hooves and was suddenly greeted by a lot women wearing purple, white and green sashes and some rather anciently-dressed policemen on horses. I had stumbled into a scene in the film Suffragette being filmed in Parliament. It was rather wonderful to see.
When I later had the chance to watch the film at a screening in Parliament, I had to laugh when one of the first quotes on screen is from a male MP, in a debate about giving women the vote, who complains that if this particular social norm is breached then it is possible to imagine that women might in due course reach the Cabinet – I was Secretary of State for Education at the time. At the end of the film there is a list showing when various countries granted women the vote. In some places that important leap forward has come, rather shockingly, very recently.
We can sometimes be rather blasé about democracy. I’m sure the young NCS student didn’t mean to take her ability to vote for granted but it is worth reminding people that democracy and fair voting are precious things which many others around the world cannot take for granted.
I am proud to be part of Parliament’s Vote 100 plans and proud to be a female MP. Being an MP is a huge privilege which comes with a lot of responsibility (and, as I know to my own cost recently) a fair amount of abuse. Vote 100, which runs from early 2018 and into 2019, will give all of us a chance to reflect on how far we have come and why the work to encourage talented people of all backgrounds to stand for Parliament is never over.