Women’S Suffrage Centenary

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:06 pm on 6th February 2018.

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Photo of Amber Rudd Amber Rudd The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women and Equalities 1:06 pm, 6th February 2018

Thank you. It is so useful to be corrected by helpful gentlemen here.

After this palace was rebuilt because of the great fire of 1834, things improved, but not much. There was now a Ladies Gallery above the Speaker’s Chair, but it was high up and there was a row of heavy grilles covering the glass. That was deliberate: it was there to stop the MPs from seeing the women because it was thought that they might distract them. In the Ladies Gallery, you could not see properly, you could not hear properly, and it was hot and uncomfortable. Leading suffragist Millicent Fawcett described the Ladies Gallery as

“a grand place for getting headaches” and said that it was like wearing a giant pair of spectacles that were not designed properly because it was so difficult to see through the grilles. The grilles were both a physical and metaphorical symbol of women’s absolute exclusion from Parliament in the 19th century, so it was no surprise that they became a target during the suffragette movement, with women tying themselves to them in protest.

All around Parliament we can see the marks of the long and arduous struggle for women to win the right to vote and to be heard in Parliament. There is the plate in the crypt chapel that marks the place where suffragette Emily Wilding Davison hid on census night; there is the damaged statue of Viscount Falkland—damaged because a suffragette handcuffed herself to it and was forcibly removed; and the hated grilles are still preserved in Central Lobby.

The fight for women to have a voice and a vote was long and hard, both inside and outside Parliament. Suffragettes were brutally force-fed with tubes: a process so painful that it could cause lifelong injuries and make even the prison wardens cry in horror. Those who dared march in favour of women’s rights were pelted with rotting vegetables, dead rats, rocks and cowpats.

But the struggle was worth it, because on this day 100 years ago an important law was passed that changed the UK forever. On this day a century ago, the Representation of the People Act was passed in Parliament, allowing some women—those over the age of 30, with property—to vote for the very first time. In fact, it was the Home Secretary at the time, Sir George Cave, who was the main sponsor of the Representation of the People Bill, which became the famous 1918 Act. It was also the Home Secretary who moved the crucial clause, clause 4, on franchises for women.

Although women did not get full voting rights until 1928, when a Conservative Government passed the Equal Franchise Act, what happened in 1918 was a major step in the right direction. That February vote paved the way for women to make huge strides forward in politics and in many other spheres of life. That is why it is so important that the determination of the women who fought for our democratic rights is never forgotten.

To help do that, the Government are celebrating this milestone with a special £5 million fund. In November, we announced that £1.2 million of that money is going directly to seven centenary cities and towns in England with a strong suffrage history. Bolton, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, London, Manchester and Nottingham will use that money to strengthen the reach and legacy of the centenary and help inspire a new generation with this story. Leicester unveiled the statue of its local suffragette hero, Alice Hawkins, on Sunday.

In December we opened the small grant scheme so that local groups could bid for money to pay for local events to celebrate the anniversary. Today I am pleased to announce that the large grant scheme is now open, so that local community groups can bid for even bigger projects worth up to £125,000. The rest of the £5 million fund will be used to pay for activities to raise awareness of the importance of democracy for young people, as well as to erect a statue of leading suffragist Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Money will also go to projects specifically designed to increase the number of women in political office, including piloting a programme to inspire young women with opportunities to be leaders in their communities.

The centenary is also a great opportunity to take stock and celebrate all that we have achieved as women. I am proud to be part of the most diverse House of Commons in British history. We have our second female Prime Minister. A third of those attending Cabinet are women, and we have the highest ever number of female MPs. Outside of politics, we have seen so much progress since 1918. More women are in a more diverse range of jobs than ever before and are increasingly at the top of their fields.

But let us not fool ourselves that true equality is a done deal. It is something we must all continue to work for. We know that women still face barriers. The gender pay gap and sexual harassment must be addressed. Women are still more likely to take on the bulk of childcare responsibilities. Only 4% of chief executives of FTSE companies are women, and I am certain that you are more likely to be sitting next to a man than a woman on these Benches—perhaps not in this statement, but generally.

Those of us who have our place here face vile sexist abuse. We have seen a concerted effort both online and offline to destroy the confidence of women who want to be involved in political life. Just last week, we learnt that the Labour leader of Haringey Council had quit over what she called “bullying” and “sexism” by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Ms Abbott receives endless horrible abuse. In fact, she has disgracefully received over half of all the online abuse sent to female politicians. As she has said, it is the sheer volume of hatred that makes it so debilitating, so corrosive and so upsetting. In my constituency of Hastings and Rye, I am often asked by people who come up to me, “How can you bear it—the hate?” I bear it, like other women in this Chamber do, because I know that female voices matter in politics and in life.

But we should not have to bear it. We need to call this sort of behaviour out and make it clear that enough is enough. I know, like the suffragettes and suffragists did, that this House is for everybody, and I hope we can welcome even more women here in the future. I commend this statement to the House.