It is an honour and a privilege to speak in this debate about International Women’s Day, a privilege that few women across the world are yet able to enjoy. I congratulate our determined and passionate colleague Jess Phillips on securing this debate and on continuing her great mission in this House.
I am proud to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor as MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Mabel Philipson, who was only the fourth woman to be elected to this place—she was first elected in 1923. I am only the 378th woman ever to be elected to this House, of a total of 456. I very much hope that the number increases sharply in the years to come, and we all have a part to play in encouraging women who are already passionate about their families, their businesses, their communities and their country to play their part in shaping the future of our nation by standing for election to this place. Our latest arrival, No. 456, my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison, is a walking example of that, and she is the woman who took us across the line—the total number of women ever elected to this House is now greater than the number of men currently serving in this Parliament.
I shall focus my remarks on the women who serve in our armed forces, often in unsung roles. They work just as hard as their male counterparts, and often harder. Many of us civilians are perhaps unaware of the huge strides that women have made in their crucial roles protecting our nation. We are perhaps already aware of the vital part that women played, through necessity, during the great war and the second world war, when women stepped up, ably and with great passion, to take on the roles left vacant by the men who had gone off to war.
During the first world war, 100,000 women served in the uniformed services, primarily as nurses but with few officially close to combat. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed in 1917—100 years ago—and provided women with jobs as telephonists, clerks and chauffeurs. The Women’s Royal Naval Service was created in the same year and saw women taking on domestic work within the Navy, freeing up men for combat roles. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was formed a year later, with women working as drivers, cooks and record keepers.
Beyond the uniformed services, women took on a range of roles left vacant by the men who had left for war. From working in munitions factories to driving trains, women rose up to fulfil what had been seen as “male” roles. Of course, many of those women were forced out of their job once the surviving men returned to the UK, but their ability to take on such roles demonstrated to society how capable women are and what a valuable resource they are to our economy. Just a year after the end of the war, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender.
Women have played an integral role in our armed forces for a century, but what of their role today? As of October 2016, there are 15,380 women serving in our armed forces, making up just over 10% of the total across the three services, with more women serving in the RAF than in the Army and Navy. That represents an increase of three percentage points over the past decade, but there is clearly much more to do. Just as we need more women serving in this place, the talent of women to serve and defend our nation must be harnessed more effectively.
The value of having more women in our armed forces extends beyond their individual contributions. The female of the species brings a different perspective to the challenges of war fighting and peacekeeping in the modern age. The presence of women during peacekeeping operations brings an opportunity to gain access and insight to local communities that is simply not permissible for our male military personnel.
As they serve, women are quietly proving that they are an invaluable asset to our nation, from Royal Navy officers Captain Ellie Ablett, recently promoted to command HMS Raleigh, and Commander Eleanor Stack, who has taken command of HMS Duncan—one of our Type 45 destroyers and which I had the privilege to inspect last year—to Commodore Inga Kennedy, the most senior female officer in the Royal Navy; Major General Susan Ridge, our most senior female Army officer; Brigadier Sharon Nesmith, who was the first woman to command a brigade of 5,000 soldiers; and Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West, the most senior woman in the RAF. Those women, and the 15,000 serving across our three armed services, are an inspiration to girls and women today who, when pondering their future career choices, can be inspired by the leadership of those amazing women in their leading roles in the armed forces.
The future of our nation’s great asset, the finest armed forces in the world, is safe in the hands of its women and men, and I look forward to continuing my efforts to encourage more young women to study maths and the sciences and then to take up careers as engineers, medics and musicians, pilots and navigators, submariners and logisticians, linguists and intelligence officers. Those are all rewarding career choices both within the armed forces and as civilians with the extra military skillset of personal self-discipline, commitment and passion for a chosen trade.
This time next year I hope to be able to report that the statistics for women in our political networks and our armed forces have continued to grow, and I also hope to report that my recent application to join the Royal Naval Reserve has been accepted. I encourage other colleagues to consider applying too.