As people across the globe celebrate International Women’s Day, Associate Professor Sonja Tiernan reflects on how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to achieve equality in Great Britain.
The United Nations provides the most apt assessment of International Women’s Day, stating it is ‘a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities’.
Arguably, the most significant advancement for women across Britain and Ireland in the 20th century was earned 100 years ago. In 1918, some women were finally granted votes in general elections and became entitled to stand for election to parliament. This year we celebrate the extraordinary women who achieved this advancement. The first woman elected to the House of Commons, Countess Markievicz, was imprisoned in Holloway when she received her letter of invitation to attend the opening of sessions from newly elected post-war Prime Minister Lloyd George.
Markievicz was an Irish nationalist as well as a suffragist and was imprisoned for her role in the fight for Irish independence. Markievicz later became the first Irish Cabinet Minister when Ireland gained independence from Britain, the second woman in Europe to hold such a position. It would however, take 60 years before another women would be appointed to a cabinet post in Ireland. The depressing lack of female representation in Irish politics caused the country to impose gender quota legislation in 2012, ensuring a minimum of 30 per cent of candidates put forward by political parties are female, this will shortly rise to 40 per cent.
In the 1918 general election, no female MP took a seat in the British House of Commons. It took another 10 years before women were granted equal voting rights with men in the country. In the 2017 general election, a record high number of females were elected. Before we decide to celebrate this as a time of gender equality in British politics – this equates to just 32 per cent of all MPs. The Chair of the Commons Select Committee Maria Miller declared that ‘the UK is failing to be a world leader on women’s representation’. We can now reflect on the progress made by women over the last century, but to truly celebrate those women who achieved this advancement, we must continue to call for change until countries like Britain and Ireland can claim to be truly equal.