Quick facts

Qualitative facts

1.  Electoral system and party system and their impact on women

2.  History of Women's suffrage

3.  Legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision-making
   a.  Infrastructure responsible for EO
   b.  Women's participation in politics as a governmental objective and strategy
   c.  Actions initiated to promote women's participation in politics

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

Europäische Datenbank: Frauen in Führungspositionen

Report from the United Kingdom by our transnational partners
Penny Spelling and Liz Bavidge

Quick facts
Women in Politics:
Women's suffrage active: 1918 with restrictions, 1928 restrictions lifted
Women's suffrage passive: 1918 with restrictions, 1928 restrictions lifted
1st Women in parliament: 1919-1945 Viscountess Nancy Astor
1st Women in government: 1929-1931 Margaret Bondfield,
Ministry for Labour (in the Cabinet),
1979-1990 first female Prime Minister
1st Ministry on women's issues: 1976 Commission for Equal Opportunities created by Parliament as expert body
% women in national Parliament: 17,1% (2000)
% women in national Government: 35,3% (2000)
Electoral System:
Majority: House of Commons:
659 M.P.s; elected by plurality vote from single-seat counties and boroughs (England 529, Scotland 72, Wales 40, Northern Ireland 18)
House of Lords:
575 life peers, 91 hereditary peers and 25 bishops. Total 691. (as at 5 June 2000).
Quota Law:  
Party Quota: No quota system.
% women with secondary degree: not available
% women with degree in higher education: 52,6% (1997)
% women in senior management: not available
Women's employment rates:
Full time: 44,4% (1998)
Part-time: 44,8% (1998)
Activity rate: 67,9% (1998)
Unemployment: 5,5% (1998)
*sources: Employment in Europe 1999 and Schlüsselzahlen zum Bildungswesen in der Europäischen Union, Amt für amtliche Veröffentlichungen der Europäischen Gemeinschaft 1997, Luxemburg; European Database - Women in Decision-Making and data by transnational experts.

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Qualitative facts

1. Electoral system and party system and their impact on women

In the United Kingdom there is franchise at eighteen for all citizens. There are three main political parties in England with the addition of nationalist parties in each of the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is one vote per person in the Westminster elections in single member constituencies, and the winner is decided on a simple majority. The situation is different in the devolved parliaments, with a range of systems specifically aimed at securing more seats for women.
The Westminster parliamentary system has not resulted in many seats for women since historically, women are not selected as candidates in a high percentage of constituencies and there is a large number of 'safe seats' where the voting pattern is well - established and static. The lack of women candidates is caused largely by the attitude of local political party selection committees (of all parties), who have traditionally failed to respond to encouragement to select women. There is also a lack of women seeking election, and women cite the working conditions of the Westminster parliament as a major barrier. The Labour party, before the 1997 election, created women- only shortlists, subsequently deemed to be illegal, and this had a strong impact on the election of women candidates. At this election, the number of women Members of Parliament increased to 18% (121).Note : the system of representation at the Wales Assembly and the Scottish Parliament is different and was established with the aim of increasing the number of women members. This was achieved.

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2. History of Women's suffrage

Women gained the vote in two stages; women over the age of 30 in 1918,and all women over the age of 21 in 1928. The vote was gained as a result of active and committed campaigning by women's organisations and dedicated groups, and strengthened by the recognition of the significant effort of women in the United Kingdom in working in factories and hospitals during the war of 1914 - 1918. Not all women agreed that women should have the vote and so campaigns were initiated by women's organisations such as the National Council of Women of Great Britain, to encourage women to take up their right to vote.

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3. Legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision-making

There is no legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision - making. The UK does not have a written constitution and recent governments have resisted any proposals to have quotas. There are 2 pieces of legislation which relate to equal opportunities in employment, education and the provision of goods and services, and equal pay. This legislation also established the Equal Opportunities Commission, which is a statutory body with responsibility for monitoring and promoting the implementation of the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act. This legislation dates from the 1970s and has inconsistencies and also does not relate to other legislation. The Equal Opportunities Commission has reported to the current Government and proposed changes to rationalise and update the equality legislation, but their proposals have not been acted on. Recent governments have worked to improve the equality of careers in the civil service for example, and have set targets for increasing the number of women in senior posts, but with limited success.

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a. Infrastructure responsible for EO

Until the current government, the main bodies with responsibility for gender equality were the Equal Opportunities Commission established in 1976, and the Women's National Commission, established in 1969, to be an independent advisory body to the government on women's issues. The constitution and membership of the Women's National Commission was determined by the Executive committee and consisted of nominated representatives of 50 major national women's non-governmental organisations and up to 100 associated organisations. The membership elected a Chair, who shared the role with a designated minister. Policy was agreed by plenary meetings, achieving an important consensus of organisations representing up to 8 million women. In 1999, the Women's National Commission was restructured, to have a Government- appointed Chair, who receives a salary, supported by an appointed steering group. The membership was extended to include local and regional organisations as well as national ones.
The Conservative government created a Minister for Women who also had a brief in the Department for Education and Employment. The Secretary of State in that department established a Working Group on Women's Interests which included advisors selected by the Secretary of State. This group appeared to be informal, and there was no transparency about its workings. In addition, a Cabinet Sub - Committee on Women's Issues was established, bringing together ministers from different departments, but the activities of this committee were confidential.
The current Government set up a Minister for Women at Cabinet level (who was Secretary of State for Social Security), a Minister for Women who was unpaid, and a Women's Unit, based at the Department of Social Security. This structure has been amended to move the Women's Unit to the Cabinet Office, and change the Ministers for Women, who each have other major responsibilities.
While there has been an ' in principle' commitment to mainstreaming by this Government and the previous one, there is no effective mechanism for achieving this, and no budget or other resources to support any initiatives. The Women's Unit and the Women's National Commission have limited budgets and the budget of the Women's National Commission has been reduced.

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b. Women's participation in politics as a governmental objective and strategy

The current government has a stated commitment to listening to women and ran a series of roadshows to establish the views of women on policy issues. Incidentally, this was intended to increase the women's vote. There is no governmental objective to encourage women to take an active part in politics. Each national political party has the intention to increase women's participation in politics, but no clear statement of what they will do to achieve this.

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c. Actions initiated to promote women's participation in politics

The Equal Opportunities Commission produces statistics annually from government sources, which include the participation in politics of women and men. The Fawcett Society which campaigns for equality between women and men, actively promotes women's participation in politics, as does the 300 group, which seeks to encourage and support any women who wish to stand for parliament, aiming for 50% female members of parliament. Neither group is government funded. Each national political party has a women's organisation, though their remit is not necessarily to increase the number of women of their party in parliament.
The Liberal Democrat party arranged that there would be a 'zipping' system to alternate men and women on their candidate lists for the last European elections and this resulted in more women being elected as did the proportional representation electoral system.
A range of academic institutions has done research into the participation of women in politics at local and national level, from which it is clear that the current situation will not change unless there is some form of positive action.
While the votes of women are now recognised as a significant factor in determining political success, there is no coherent initiative, or consistent strategy to encourage women to take up an active role in politics. The last 2 governments have stated their intention to raise the percentage of women who have public appointments (and therefore the possibility to influence political decision- making) and some progress has been made towards these targets.
However, women are not being appointed to well - paid roles as Chairs of important public bodies in as great a proportion as men.

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Portrait: Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

[ Emmeline Pankhurst ]
'We women suffragists have a great mission - the greatest mission the world has ever known. It is to free half the human race, and through that freedom to save the rest.'
Emmeline Pankhurst, Speech in 'Votes for Women', 25 October 1912

These fighting words were hardly to be expected from a woman whose early life epitomised the correctness and conformity of the Victorian era. Emmeline Goulden was born in Manchester in 1858 and grew up in a household dominated by her father. A self-made man, he had started work as an office boy and risen to factory owner. When she was fourteen, Emmeline was sent to Paris for her education. On her return, she was courted by Richard Pankhurst, a brilliant lawyer, twenty years her senior. Richard Pankhurst was a devoted supporter of liberal causes and drafted pioneering legislation giving women independent control of their finances. Undoubtedly, he greatly influenced the woman who was later to lead a violent battle for women's suffrage. Nevertheless, when she married at 20, Emmeline settled into the role for which she had been groomed, that of dutiful wife. She managed the household and bore five children. Her two sons died.

Her husband's interest in liberal causes and reform had led Emmeline for a time to join the progressive socialist Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party. She had also held office as a Poor Law Guardian and school governor, experiences that brought home to her the very subordinate position of women. In 1889, she and a group of women friends decided to form a Women's Franchise League that aimed to help secure the vote for women.

That year Richard died suddenly and Emmeline was left to continue raising her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, with no private means. The Pankhurst women, however, were to become a formidable band. Initially thrown by her husband's death, Emmeline's political interest was reawakened by her eldest daughter, Christabel. Dissatisfied with the political parties' lack of interest in women's suffrage, in 1903 the Pankhursts formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The young Christabel proved herself an excellent strategist and Sylvia, an artist, designed the WSPU logo and created banners, costumes and badges in the suffrage livery: white, purple and green.

After all the years of condescension and unwillingness to take women seriously, WSPU called on the Government to take immediate action to extend the franchise to women. To show that it really meant business this time, WSPU reinforced its demands with a rapidly escalating strategy of direct action. Members stormed the Parliament and disrupted meetings, organised huge marches, smashed windows, set fire to post boxes and empty buildings, and famously chained themselves to the railings outside the Houses of Parliament. Some felt this behaviour merely fuelled misogynistic beliefs in women's hysteria. The Government reacted with arrests and imprisonment. Emmeline Pankhurst first went to prison in 1908. She and other women went on hunger strike and endured violent forced feeding. Eventually they were released, only to be re-arrested when their health recovered, a procedure known as a 'Cat and Mouse' sentence.

Emmeline described WSPU as 'simply a suffrage army in the field'. This army successfully adopted a French Revolutionary sense of crowd management, public spectacle and symbolic ceremony. Women newly released from prison were drawn triumphantly through the streets in a flower-decked wagon. WSPU staged elaborate allegorical pageants and torchlight processions, with Emmeline proudly at the helm (when not in prison). During this time, she also managed to give a lecture tour in the States. The young Rebecca West described hearing her speak. 'Trembling like a reed, she lifted up her hoarse, sweet voice on the platform, but the reed was of steel and it was tremendous.

In 1914 the violence came to an end when WSPU reluctantly accepted the Government's 'Conciliation Bill' that gave the vote to women - but excluded working class women. In 1918, this was amended to give all women over 30 the right to vote. In the year she died, 1928, women were finally given the vote on the same terms as men.

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