In 1866, at the age of 19, Millicent Fawcett collected signatures on a petition for women’s votes – a petition she was too young to sign herself. She was ridiculed, told there was no need for women to vote, they could leave that to the men, their constitutions wouldn’t cope with it.
At the same time as fighting for voting rights, women were fighting for their property rights, rights over their children in divorce and access to Higher Education. It was an enormous mountain to climb. Yet they persisted, and 62 years after that petition, they succeeded in winning equal voting rights – and many other battles on the way.
This year we celebrate a great milestone to equal franchise with the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act – an act which secured voting rights for 8.5 million women over 30 who met a property qualification.
But what are the challenges that remain?
Women are still under-represented in positions of power. Just 32% of MPs are women, and 33% of local councillors. The corporate world, powerful institutions in the media, the judiciary, emerging industries such as technology – all of them are male-dominated. This matters, because until we achieve equal power, we will not see the fundamentals of women’s lives change.
At the same time the gender pay gap remains constant: it has not shifted for 3 years. Women disproportionately do low paid, often part-time work and they see their work under-valued simply because it is women who do it. Unpaid caring work (also not valued) is still overwhelmingly done by women. This prevents women from progressing in the workplace and ensures old gender norms persist.
As Fawcett’s recent law review concluded, violence against women and girls is endemic in our society. Half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work, 64% of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places, and 1 in 5 women aged over 16 have experienced sexual assault. Online abuse and ‘revenge porn’ are widespread and 2 women each week are murdered by a partner or former partner. Some argue that we cannot compare serious offences with something like online abuse. But the truth is this is a continuum, and they are all connected by misogyny.
So we must seize the opportunity presented by this centenary year to drive change. We want to see our parliament, local government and political parties transformed. Harriet Harman’s recent baby leave victory in the Commons was a good start, but we need all the parties to address sexual harassment in parliament – and commit to an independent process with meaningful sanctions. We need Section 106 of the Equality Act to be commenced, requiring the parties to monitor diversity, with clear targets set for women’s representation and we need local government that works for women with many similar changes implemented there too.
We must transform work, making flexibility the norm, strengthen the law against discrimination, including multiple discrimination and harassment, and give fathers a more generous period of paid leave.
Finally, we have to make misogyny a hate crime. Unless we face up to the scale of the problem in our society and what underpins and connects it all, we won’t see meaningful change. It feels as if we have rather a lot to do. But we stand on the shoulders of giants and, just as they did, we will succeed.
Sam Smethers is Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society
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