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After the suffragettes: how women stormed Westminster

100 years ago, the first women got the right to vote - and stand for parliament. So what are the new challenges facing female politicians?

It takes a few minutes to find the right cupboard – tucked in a stairwell behind the elaborate organ in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft, just off Westminster Hall. When the Houses of Parliament are sitting, a small but steady stream of visitors take it in turns to walk into the tiny room. Then they shut the door. That means they can see the brass plaque that was stealthily installed there by the late Labour MP Tony Benn. “In this broom cupboard Emily Wilding Davison hid herself, illegally, during the night of the 1911 census,” it reads. “In this way, she was able to record her address, on the night of that census, as being ‘the House of Commons’, thus making her claim to the same political rights as men.”

Davison did not live to see women have the vote – she was killed after running into the path of the king’s horse and trying to pin a rosette on it during the 1913 Epsom Derby. But as the centenary of that landmark legislation approaches, that simple plaque in a broom cupboard reminds us of both the endurance of the suffragettes, and their non-militant sisters the suffragists, and the sheer variety of tactics they employed.

Davison was not the only suffragette to protest the collection of the census. Across the country, women refused to stay in their homes and be counted – since the political system ignored their voices by denying them the vote, why should they co-operate with the system?

Several hundred gathered at a skating rink not far from the headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) on the Aldwych in central London. The Votes for Women newspaper of 14 April 1911 published a photograph of the gathering – there were speeches and, yes, there was skating – and reported the activities of other refuseniks, who maintained “that they were not persons in the eyes of the law, and that they refused to give the government any information which might lead to more oppressive laws for women being made”.

One group gathered in a private house a few miles outside Edinburgh, where they enjoyed supper, “a political and historical guessing game with prizes, and a whist drive”. A member of the Men’s Political Union wrote on his census form, under the infirmity column: “All wide-awake and fit in body and limb. Votes for women!”

As ever, the relentlessly militant Davison wanted to go further. By the night of the census, she was already on parliament’s index expurgatorius for throwing a hammer through a window of the Lords in 1910 and later hiding in a ventilation shaft overnight in the hope of jumping out and accosting the prime minister.

Her memories of “Black Friday” – which took place on 18 November 1910 – would also have been fresh. Suffragettes had gathered at Caxton Hall in Westminster, hoping to hear about the progress of the first Conciliation Bill, which promised to extend the vote to property-owning women. Instead the then Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, announced that he was dissolving parliament to hold a general election.

The suffragettes were bitterly disappointed. Annie Kenney, a former mill worker – and a rare working-class woman near the top of the Pankhurst-dominated WSPU – compared the response to a “storm-burst”. In her autobiography, Memories of a Militant, she wrote: “All the clouds that had been gathering for weeks suddenly broke, and the downpour was terrific. There was not one of us would not have gone to death at that moment, had Christabel [Pankhurst] so willed it.”

Militant tactics: the suffragettes held regular meetings across Britain. Photo: Archive pics/ Alamy

As Diane Atkinson relates in her new history of the suffragettes, Rise Up Women!, a group then tried to enter parliament to speak to the prime minister. It included: Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU leader; 74-year-old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a surgeon in Britain; the physicist Hertha Ayrton, who won the Hughes Medal for her work on electric lighting but was refused fellowship of the Royal Society; and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of a Sikh maharaja and a god-daughter of Queen Victoria.

Altogether, 300 women assembled near St Stephen’s Entrance, where tourists today enter parliament. They were kept back by a police cordon, and the demonstration soon turned violent. The police sexually assaulted the protestors. Mrs Saul Solomon later wrote to Winston Churchill, then MP for Dundee and president of the board of trade, to complain that she was “gripped by the breasts”. 

One of the main lessons of Atkinson’s book is just how much state violence was inflicted on the suffragettes. Force-feeding, which some hunger-strikers underwent more than 200 times, is today generally regarded as torture. May Billinghurst, a disabled suffragette, was tipped out of her invalid carriage on Black Friday and dumped in the middle of a hostile crowd. The next day’s Daily Mirror published a photograph of 50-year-old Ada Wright lying on the ground after being struck by a policeman.

Emily Davison was one of the 119 people arrested on Black Friday, but she was not imprisoned. This irritated her. She returned the next day to throw a hammer through a Commons window, again, and was jailed for one month.

To the suffragettes and suffragists, the House of Commons was a physical reminder of the structures of power from which they were excluded. As well as the broom cupboard, the building bears other marks of their protests. A statue of Viscount Falkland in St Stephen’s Hall has a broken spur from where an otherwise obscure activist called Marjory Humes chained herself to it on 27 April 1909. When I visit, a group of school pupils are having the story explained to them, with the Commons guide trying to outline why so many women felt violence was a necessary answer to their predicament. (Earlier, trying to find the right statue, I asked an attendant if this was the one with the mangled spur. “Yes, and a 10-year-old child broke off the sword two months ago,” he replied. “The teacher was like, meh.” He shrugged, eloquently.)

In 1918 the vote was given to female householders over the age of 30, along with the right to stand in parliamentary elections, and one woman was returned to the Commons that December. But Constance Markievicz never took her seat – St Patrick’s in Dublin – because she was an Irish republican. She had only been released from Aylesbury Prison, where she was jailed for her part in the Easter Rising, the year before; by the time of the December election she was back in Holloway Prison. Instead of Westminster, she chose to sit in the Dáil, the parliament of the revolutionary Irish republic.

The first woman to work as an MP was therefore the aristocrat Nancy Astor, a Conservative, whose maiden speech in 1920 on alcohol temperance acknowledged her lonely position. (She remained in the Commons until 1945.) As the representative for Plymouth Sutton, she compared herself to Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, setting off to sea. “I know that it was very difficult for some honourable members to receive the first lady MP into the House,” she said, prompting some shouts of, “Not at all!”

She added: “It was almost as difficult for some of them as it was for the lady MP herself to come in. Honourable members, however, should not be frightened of what Plymouth sends out into the world… I am quite certain that the women of the whole world will not forget that it was the fighting men of Devon who dared to send the first woman to represent women in the Mother of Parliaments.”

Later, Astor sparred with her old friend Winston Churchill. “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge,” he said. Astor is supposed to have observed that he was not handsome enough to have any worries on that score.


Labour's Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott. Photo: Chris McAndrew

After the “flapper election” of 1929 – the first in which women over 21 could vote – the BBC even started a political radio programme for women. Featuring short talks by female MPs, it was, according to BBC director-general Lord Reith, “chiefly for the benefit of housewives but covering also a large mixed audience of shift-workers, unemployed, invalids, etcetera”. Trying to convince Nancy Astor to come on the show, a BBC producer wrote to her saying that “we are plunging into a new experiment this autumn by having a woman MP to give a simple explanatory talk on the week in parliament every Wednesday morning at 10.45 – the time we find most busy working women can listen best, when they have their cup of tea.”

Originally called The Week in Parliament, it eventually transformed into The Week in Westminster, a show I now present. Men were allowed on from 1931 and now the struggle is to stop them dominating: no surprise, when two-thirds of MPs and three-quarters of accredited parliamentary lobby correspondents today are men.

The female sanctuary offered by The Week in Parliament was a rare one. From the start, women struggled to make their mark in a building designed by men, for men. Lord Redesdale, the father of the Mitford sisters, opposed the introduction of female peers to the House of Lords because he was worried that they would commandeer the nearest lavatories. Even now, disabled MPs and peers find getting around their workplace a struggle, because there are limits to the adaptations that can be made to a listed building.

One persistent problem has been that women who join a boys’ club find it hard to resist gaining status by trying to be one of the boys. Before the 1997 election, and the New Labour landslide, which brought in 101 female Labour MPs (out of 120 women in the Commons) in a single burst of bright jackets and bob haircuts, women were always aware of being part of a tiny minority.

In her book Westminster Women, Linda McDougall records some of the less-than-sisterly behaviour of the early pioneers.Even in the 1980s, Labour MP Audrey Wise told her, women could never be in groups of more than two or three without men passing comment, and without them assuming they were being talked about. “The very, very masculine atmosphere” of the House, Conservative MP Teresa Gorman said, meant that men set the rules and the tone, and her own party in particular could only deal with women as “nannies, grannies and, er, girlfriends, putting it politely”. And as Margaret Thatcher notoriously said before the 1979 election: “I did not get here by being a strident female.”

First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Kieran Dodds

Slowly, though, things have begun to change. The arrival of a 32-year-old woman in a red velvet maternity dress in 1982 was a quiet landmark. Harriet Harman had been elected as Labour MP for Peckham in a by-election a few days earlier.

“I was expecting to come in with other women,” she told me last year, when her memoir, A Woman’s Work, was released. “And then it was me, pushing open that enormous door. You know the doors to the House of Commons, opposite the speaker? They are so huge and heavy… it was like the women’s movement was this irresistible force, but meeting the implacable object of the House of Commons.”

When I visited Harman recently in her office in Portcullis House, she reminded me that she had an advantage that today’s new female MPs do not – a whole movement behind her, with all its thinking and awareness-building done, and only in need of power. Harman has just finished digitising her archive – more than 30 years of newspaper clippings, often brutally dismissive (“I threw away the really awful ones,” she said, leaving me slightly aghast), and reports to her local party. It’s a reminder what a slog the struggle has been: a cutting from 1982 mentions Harman’s desire to get a crèche in the House, after fellow Labour MP Ann Taylor had to take her two-month-old son into the Strangers’ Bar. “Some members are angry that so much money has been spent on a smart new gymnasium, yet nothing has been set aside for a crèche,” Taylor told the Daily Express. “There are 22 women in the House but there are also plenty of men with young children and working wives.” After this, it took until 2010 for a nursery to be offered at Westminster, and even then there was grumbling about the closure of Bellamy’s Bar to make way.

The same year, Harman won a battle with Hansard to be referred to as Ms, rather than Miss or Mrs, in official transcripts. Reporting this, the Daily Mail noted that it was “a request in which former Labour MP Maureen Colquhoun, a self-confessed lesbian who lost her Northampton North seat in 1979, failed”.

In 2016, a bittersweet landmark was reached in the Commons. The number of women ever elected reached 455 – the same as the number of men then sitting as MPs. It is embarrassing that it took 98 years for this to happen, and yet even pessimists have to admit that something does feel different in parliament these days.

Politics increasingly passes the Bechdel test – the formula coined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to assess the representation of women in film. (Are there two named speaking parts for women? Do the women talk to each other? And is it about something other than a man?) The Bechdel test attempts to capture something beyond raw numbers, instead focusing on relationships. That’s vital: finally women in politics don’t succeed only if they can adapt themselves to a boys’ club. Their alliances and negotiations with other women matter too.


Scottish Conservatives leader, Ruth Davidson. Photo: Kieran Dodds

Unlike Margaret Thatcher – who promoted only one woman to her cabinet in 11 years as prime minister, and faced endless rival male heads of state and opposition leaders – Theresa May needs to talk to powerful women to get things done. Many of her toughest negotiations are with other female leaders: Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, Angela Merkel in Germany. She beat Andrea Leadsom for the leadership of her party; her possible successors include Amber Rudd and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives. In Labour, which under Jeremy Corbyn has a gender-balanced shadow cabinet, there is a general acceptance that it would be profoundly embarrassing if the next leader were not a woman. The names most often mentioned are Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry.

That said, don’t cancel feminism just yet. Female politicians still face dismissive press coverage – the Daily Mail, which has always been friendly to May, nonetheless reported her visit to meet Sturgeon by emphasising how great their legs looked in the official photo. “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” screamed the front page.

It felt like an echo of another era – the early press clippings on Harman carry an unmistakeable undertone that she is surprisingly attractive for a women’s libber. Here again, though, something has changed. Although May’s press team refused to comment on the Mail article, presumably afraid of angering such a powerful supporter, Sturgeon had no such reservations. “Brexit may risk taking Britain back to the early 1970s, but there is no need for coverage of events to lead the way,” her spokesman crisply told the media.

Just as significantly, Ruth Davidson mocked the cover with a picture of her own legs submerged in an outdoor hot tub. “Apparently, some mild interest in politicians’ legs today; here are mine,” she tweeted. “They’re a bit short. But with a lovely Aboyne vista here.”

Whether they choose to react with condemnation or flippancy, women in politics increasingly don’t have to stay silent about sexism for fear of not being taken seriously: they know that plenty of commentators, and voters, will be on their side.

If sexist commentary is receding, though, another menace is rising. All politicians have to navigate their way through online and offline abuse, but women are often singled out, and the language used about them is often nakedly misogynistic.

On 11 January, the Tory peer Anne Jenkin broke more new ground by using the c-word for the first time in the Upper House. She told her fellow peers: “During the election campaign in June, the Ealing Central and Acton Conservative candidate was met daily outside her home by a large group of Momentum and Labour activists yelling at her, and I quote, and please my Lords forgive the unparliamentary language, and block your ears if you are sensitive or easily offended, ‘fucking Tory c***’.”

She added: “My Lords, this young woman has a young child. How can this be acceptable and how does this not deter other mothers from stepping up?”


Liberal Democrats deputy leader, Jo Swinson. Photo: Chris McAndrew

Meanwhile, research showed that shadow home secretary Diane Abbott received 45 per cent of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs during the 2017 election campaign. “It’s highly racialised and it’s also gendered because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man,” Abbott said at the time. “I’m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician.” Her colleague Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, observed: “On a practical level, the violent stuff and the death threats are just very time-consuming.”

For women in politics or reporting on it, just doing their job carries risks. Some female MPs carry panic buttons; many have had extra locks or security apparatus installed at their homes or constituency offices. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, had to take a bodyguard to last year’s Labour party conference in Brighton because of threats against her.

Several times over the past few years I’ve asked a female MP how she is, only to receive the answer: “Oh, I’ve just been dealing with another death threat.”

The effect can’t be underestimated, although MPs are often reluctant to talk about abuse, either for fear of seeming “weak” or because they know large sections of the public will simply respond with a variation on “but you deserve it”. One might think the shrug-it-off snowflake sections of the press would show more sympathy since the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist, but no such luck.

Looking back, there will never again be another thunderclap like that of 1918 in British politics. Thanks to the enfranchisement of younger men alongside the first women, the electorate tripled. The fight for the vote united women from all backgrounds, even though histories have tended to concentrate on the charismatic, sometimes dictatorial Pankhursts. Now, the inequalities affecting women are more diffuse, and their solutions are inevitably more partisan.

What is undeniable is that the centre ground has shifted. We have a Conservative prime minister who calls herself a feminist; an SNP leader and First Minister who speaks regularly about her desire to be a role model to girls; and a deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, who is pregnant with her second child (and watched her partner, Duncan Hames, become the first MP to take a baby through the division lobby).

The Labour Party, although it still hasn’t had a female leader, has enough talented women MPs that it would be no trouble to assemble a kick-ass, all-female shadow cabinet.

Women on top? Not quite. But a century after the first women got the vote, we are more powerful than ever. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power