Along with many others, I have just returned from the polling station after exercising my democratic right to vote. I took my kids with me as they were very excited about the election. I think my daughter was a little underwhelmed when she realised that there are no flashing lights or dancers, just some disappointing pieces of paper and a few wonky looking booths.
Despite my willingness to vote because yes yes, women died for my right to vote and all that, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed myself. Whether I put a cross next to Labour or Conservative or decide to push the boat out and vote Green, the number of female MPs will remain woefully low. When I think back to those feisty Suffragettes, the women who chained themselves to statues in St Stephen’s hall, risked starvation, imprisonment and death, to fight so hard for women’s voices to be heard, I can’t help thinking they would be disappointed at how little progress we have actually made.
My excellent local Women’s Centre have been very active in the run-up to the election, publishing a Woman’s Manifesto which they presented to the main political parties for comment. The Conservative party candidate’s response to the suggestion that perhaps women were under-represented in formal politics, was to suggest that quotas weren’t a good idea as she wants “those chosen to represent the city to be chosen because they are right for the job, not because of their gender”. I find this answer astonishing, not only because it comes from a woman who must be amazingly blind to the sexism inherent in the parliamentary system, but also because it suggests that men are somehow better at politics than women. That’s right, politics is currently dominated by men, not because they are chosen because of their gender, oh no, but rather because it just so happens that in 77% of cases, they are more ‘right for the job’ than a woman would have been.
I understand that quotas are controversial because of this dominant view that they are somehow unfair to men. The fact that women have been underrepresented in parliament since its inception seems to be of little concern. Optimistic views that we will have equal representation in Parliament in time because of some mystical democratic mechanism have proven false. If progress towards equality in Parliament progresses at a similar pace, we will have to wait another 100 years until we have a 50:50 parliament. This problem is not restricted to the UK – only 3 countries in the world have equal or higher representation of women to men in their legislative bodies. Countries that have introduced quotas fare better in terms of more equal representation but the UK comes in at a very poor 57th in the league table of gender equality in parliament.
Research shows that women are generally more active at a community level than men, but their input drops off as their participation in politics becomes more formal. Women tend to be the ones out campaigning and organising locally but rarely make it to Westminster and when they do, they have a high drop-out rate. It seems that whereas women might set up a committee, men often become the chair and are better at turning local issues into political capital. If women do become involved in formal politics, the sexist culture in the media and within the Palace of Westminster is against them from the very start. An All Party Parliamentary Group on women’s representation recently called for a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bad behaviour in the chambers following numerous reports of women being subjected to schoolboy level jeers and taunts from their male counterparts, including cries of “melons, melons!” whenever they dare to speak. And I’m sure we’ve all seen that footage of David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to “Calm down dear”.
Better representation of women in politics is therefore not just about introducing quotas, it’s about challenging societal perceptions that men are simply ‘better at politics’ than women. It’s about encouraging women to speak out and be heard because their voice matters too. It’s about showing our daughters that they can aspire to be more than passive Princesses and mermaids and making sure our sons see them as their equals. I am sick of living in a society with such a shocking democratic deficit and it was with a heavy heart that I put my cross next to my local incumbent male MP. Men are not better at politics – they’ve fucked the economy up and taken us to war. They’re busy dismantling the welfare state and cutting the funding to Refuges whilst ignoring the epidemic of violence against women and girls. I’m not saying that women would make a better job of it (Margaret Thatcher, yes, I know) but at least give us a chance to fuck it all up in the same way. Maybe then I’d feel that my vote was actually worth something.