Opinion

Historic general election sees record number of women win seats in parliament

8 min read

11 May 2015

Just 100 years ago, there were no female politicians in the Houses of Parliament. But the 2015 general election proved to be an historic event for women.

The drama that was the general election has ended, but it brought about a rise in the number of women in parliament by a third. 

It has been a long battle to bridge the gender gap within parliament and some may even claim that the matter still persists. However, that women have taken great strides in this field are unquestionable.

Between 1869 and 1907, various legislations needed to be passed until females could finally stand for election. The Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 extended the vote to women ratepayers in local elections. The 1870 Education Act allowed married women ratepayers to stand as candidates to local school boards, and the Local Government Act 1894 enabled women to serve on parish and district councils.

It was not until the Qualification of Women Act of 1907 that women could become members of county and borough councils. One of the most successful women, who also broke barriers in the medical industry, was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She became the first female elected mayor in 1908

The first female MP, some ten years after Anderson became mayor, was Countess Markievicz, who stood for Sinn Fein and refused to take her seat. It was not a a good start to female representation in the Commons. This was later rectified when Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in 1919. The first woman in the House of Lords was appointed in 1958.

The 20th century saw a gradual increase in the number of female MPs, but one of the dramatical outcomes of the 1997 general election was the number female MPs doubling overnight from 60 to 120. It was suggested that the Labour Party chose party candidates through all-women shortlists.

In 2014, former culture minister Mariah Miller said she “wouldn’t rule out” all-women shortlists if, specifically the Conservative Part, continued not to recruit enough women. She noted that parliament was “struggling to attract women either as a first career or even as a second career”. 

“There is a real problem there,” she said.

This was echoed by Tory MP Mary Macleod, who said: “I believe really strongly that parliament needs to represent the country it seeks to serve and therefore it should absolutely show that it represents people from every corner of this country, from any background, and certainly there should be more women in it.”

The UK, which had 15 per cent of the 32 broader positions for British ministers go to women at the beginning of 2015, was joint-54th with the Ivory Coast out of the 104 countries for which such data was available. Meanwhile, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark and France all have more than 45 per cent of their ministerial positions filled by women.

When it comes to women in parliament, Britain’s 147 women MPs puts the UK 64th in the world, behind China, Italy and several more.

Luciana Berger, the Labour shadow minister for public health, said: “I’ve been in all sorts of workplaces where I haven’t felt in a minority, and here it feels as if we’re a minority and a novelty. As long as parliament doesn’t represent society, it’s going to feel weird.”

Rival Conservative MP Brooks Newmark, suggested when the party only had 17 female MPs, it was hard for them to percolate to the top. 

Read more about the 2015 general election:

“With 49 we’re beginning to see it,” he said. “But we need more role models. We need more associations to see them and think, yes, that’s what we want here.” 

An indication of the female MP’s struggle comes in the form making the House of Commons more accessible to people who have families. In 2012 there had been a vote to adjust working hours so that business wouldn’t end at 10:30pm. This allowed them to start work earlier and finish at 7:00pm instead. However, Berger explained that the measure “only very narrowly passed”.

“Some of the arguments were bizarre,” she said. “You hear people saying, well, what am I going to do in my evenings? We’re making the laws of the land. That makes it incumbent on us to do everything we can to encourage women. Parliament should be setting an example.”

But maybe parliament has started leading by example. A record number of female MPs were been elected during the general election. One in three MPs are now female. This represents the largest increase since 1997 when Tony Blair was famously photographed with 101 women Labour MPs after he was elected prime minister.

The Liberal Democrats suffered a crushing defeat in more than one way. The few women they had were all ousted. This included business and equalities minister Jo Swinson, who lost to a SNP rival, home office minister Lynne Featherstone and Jenny Willott.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives had far more luck. Education secretary Nicky Morgan increased her majority in Loughborough and defence minister Anna Soubry did the same in Broxtowe. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Cameron has done well to progress gender within his part. In fact, he’s been chided for the lack thereof. The party even fielded fewer candidates compared to the Liberal Democrats.

The SNP, however, proved to be the highlight of the general election. For starters, Nicola Sturgeon put up a great fight. And some 36 per cent of the SNPs candidates were female, second only to the Green party.

What made the SNP so unique was not only because it was led by a woman, but also those who were among the legion of new parliamentarians. Mhairi Black, who is only 20 years old, not to mention a Glasgow University student, is now the youngest MP since 1667. She also managed to oust, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election chief and a former cabinet minister, and of its top figures.

Their were also candidates to become MPs who only joined the party in 2014. This included Kirsten Oswald and Lisa Cameron, who saw off a 14,500 Labour majority and turned it into a 16,500 majority of her own. 

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss Real Business’s First Women programme:

Drawing on ten years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit – designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.