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My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Shields. This annual debate to celebrate International Women’s Day gives us all an opportunity to applaud the successes of women around the world, while recognising the injustices in so many spheres that still prevail today. Every generation has its goals, some ending in failure and some in limited success, while some are a complete triumph.
One of our many achievements, after years of badgering, was the introduction of the independent taxation of women. Prior to this, the income of a woman was added to that of her husband, who then paid tax on the full amount. Obviously, there were problems ahead. Margaret Thatcher saw these problems which many families faced, so legislation followed under which men and women were taxed separately, having their own allowances. Some women had saved a little nest egg to cushion against the possibility of future difficult times. Usually this was unknown to their husbands—for fear of it being known that they were committing an offence—and held in a secret building society account. The change to double tax allowances for a family made for a much more open and healthier tax regime, as well as being a lifeline for some women.
A debate of this nature deserves a few minutes spent on struggles. In 1917, the First World War was in its third year. Men throughout the world were fighting in various operations, but the main battleground was in Europe. Strangely, this gave women worldwide a release from the constraints of the home and the freedom to serve their country and hold important roles in the community. The battle for universal suffrage continued worldwide.
In 1917, Canada passed the Wartime Elections Act, allowing the vote for the wives, widows, mothers and sisters of soldiers serving overseas. This was the first time that women had been allowed to vote at a federal level in Canada. That year also saw the foundation of the Women’s Indian Association, which, two years later, went on to obtain partial suffrage. A god-daughter of Queen Victoria and daughter of the Maharaja of Punjab was a major suffragette, who majored on the idea of “no taxation without representation” to fight her battle. The same year, amidst the fall of the Romanovs, the Russian League for Women’s Equality obtained suffrage for women from the provisional Government and, happily, it survived into the communist era.
British men were stuck in the hell-hole that the trenches had become. Women were not only keeping the home fires burning but developing into a mighty force locally and nationally. Emmeline Pankhurst and all the courageous women who fought the long and hard battle for universal suffrage were upping their fight, and suffering hardship and derision in the process. The international theme for this year, as we have heard, is “Be bold for change”. These women faced a barrage of abuse from those who were happy with the current situation and wanted no change; they were certainly bold women.
As an optimist, I always see a glass half full, and I marvel at successive generations who have continued the fight and gained progress—even if too slowly. But now the pressure is irrepressible, and in all aspects of life women hold positions of seniority. Today, it is difficult to open a newspaper without reading about a woman being appointed to a high-flying position. Last week, the Foreign Secretary appointed a senior envoy to fight sexual discrimination worldwide, and I was particularly pleased to note that the headline did not even refer to her as a woman. On Tuesday, an article predicted that the gender gap was closing and that women graduating from 2020 could be the first to close the gender gap. If this is so, it will indeed be a triumph, even if it has taken decades to achieve.
I believe that pressure must never stop, otherwise we will slip backwards, particularly in some communities where women are seen by men as chattels, treated without respect and, in some cases, with physical violence. There are many unacceptable behaviours that continue in this country that shame our society. Each year in the past Lady Rendell would speak of the horrors of female genital mutilation, bringing public attention to these appalling practices. I pay tribute to her not only for educating me but for campaigning whenever and wherever she could.
So we must be brave and bold and keep our goals at the forefront of our minds. I hope that the warriors of tomorrow have the same vigour as our forebears.