An unprecedented number of women were elected to parliament on May 7th in the 2015 general election. In a night that surprised politicos, pollsters and media types across the country, many were thrilled to see a historic number of 191 women elected to the House of Commons.
The most representative parliament to date
Only 100 years ago, the Houses of Parliament was a male only establishment with women only eligible to stand for parliament since 1918. Although we are far from a gender-balanced parliament, the 2015 crop of female MPs represents a historic moment for women in the UK.
The political class is changing, too slowly for some (myself included), but the important thing is that it is becomingly increasingly representative of society. There were 191 women elected; the number of ethnic minority MPs doubled to 42 and 25 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs will take their seats in the House of Commons. There were record-breaking seven women taking up their seats as Cameron’s Cabinet Ministers at the heart of power.
The number of women MPs reached double digits in 1987 under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, and slowly increased until a 173% hike, thanks to the historic intake under New Labour, in 1997. The July 2014 reshuffle saw Prime Minister David Cameron appoint a record number of eight women to take their seat at the Cabinet table. The 7-way TV debate that occurred in April 2015 saw 3 women hold their own including Leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, Leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood and Leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon.
There are almost 30% women MPs poised to take their seats in the House of Commons following this election; and a historic 43% of Labour Party MPs are female and 26% of Conservative MPs. However, unfortunately the Liberal Democrats lost all their women MPs in a devastating night for the party, exacerbating an existing gender in-balance.
The first woman elected to the Commons, Countess Constance Markievicz did not take her seat as she was an Irish Republican. It was Viscountess Nancy Astor who first took that historic seat as the first female MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1919. She was well known in society for being brilliantly witty, intelligent and infamously saucy in conversation at times. Two of her best lines were ‘I married beneath me. All women do’ and ‘I refuse to admit that I am more than fifty-two, even if that does make my sons illegitimate’.
Shining stars of the new parliament
The UK has seen some exceptional women take their seats since Viscountess Nancy in 1918 and I was thrilled to see some new shining stars in the 2015 political intake.
An unknown 20-year-old defeated incumbent Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander in Paisley and Renfrewshire. In a testament to the determination and resilience of young people, SNP’s Mhairi Black was mid-way through her undergraduate dissertation at Glasgow University when she was elected. As her deadline looms, she will take her seat in the House of Commons as the youngest MP since the 17th Century.
Some other notable female successes include Labour’s Naz Shah defeat of incumbent Respect party leader George Galloway to take Bradford West with a majority of 11,420. Caroline Lucas remains the only Green party MP. Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equality, Nicky Morgan substantially increased her majority to win her Loughborough constituency with 50% of the votes.
One can’t ignore the notable victory of the SNP led by the formidable Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon. She led the SNP to a resounding victory wining 56 seats and powered her way through the 7-way TV debate. Almost 1 in 3 of SNP MPs in Westminster are female.
Beyond 'Blair's Babes'; and 'Cameron's Cuties'
However we are a long way from a gender-balanced parliament and many believe there is still in-depth sexism rife in our political system. Former Employment Minister Esther McVey, who recently lost her West Wirral seat, suffered comments from former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott on the campaign trail that she was only memorable because of how good she looked in a dress. He also said she was ‘heartless’ and ‘just like Thatcher’.
Margaret Thatcher was an exceptional and talented woman who became the first female Prime Minister of our country in 1979. However I believe we must avoid comparing all ambitious and talented women MPs to her, particularly Conservative ones as they should be recognised for their own individual talents and capabilities, rather than their similarities or otherwise to a woman who was in power decades ago.
A record number of 1,030 women put themselves up as candidates for election and 191 were elected. Unfortunately women only comprised 26% of the total candidates and 102 constituencies did not have a woman standing at all. We must strive harder to educate and empower more women to stand. We must do more to support our existing women MPs in order to retain their place and asend through the political party hierachy to the top tiers. We must do more to ensure the gender inbalance at Westminster continues to narrow.
There is a structural, historic problem with the under-representation of women in parliament, however we should celebrate the 2015 general election as a significnat step in the right direction. Having a more representative House of Commons is in the interest of the entire country, and I look forward to a day when we see women represented in parliament to the same extent that they are in society.
BRIT POLITICS General Election Team - About EmilyEmily is a 23-year-old MSc student at the London School of Economics and a Director of Conservative Future Women.
She is also Campaign Developer for the Red Light Campaign and UK Ambassador for One Young World.