women in parliament

women in parliament
   The female suffrage struggle before the First World War led to important reforms in 1918. Among the provisions of the Representation of the People Act was the grant of the vote in Parliamentary elections to all women over thirty (the franchise was not extended to women aged twenty-one and upwards for another ten years). Under the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, women became eligible as MPs for the first time. Countess Markiewicz (née Constance Gore-Booth) contested Dublin St Patrick’s in the 1918 election and gained a majority, but as she was imprisoned in Holloway at the time for Republican activities, she did not take her seat in the Commons. The first woman to do so was Lady Nancy Astor. A Virginian by birth, she won Plymouth Sutton for the Unionist Coalition on 28 November 1919 in a by-election called when her husband, MP for the constituency in 1911, entered the Lords on inheriting a viscountcy at his father’s death. An irrepressible character who quickly put paid to suggestions that women might, literally or figuratively, be unable to make their voice heard in the Commons, Lady Astor was soon followed by a handful of other women MPs, mostly earnest intellectual politicians, with opinions tending left of centre. Though doubts about their capacity for the job were soon proved mistaken, the number of women MPs increased only gradually. From the time of Margaret Bondfield’s appointment as Minister of Labour 1929, however, it became customary to include a woman in the government, generally with departmental duties perceived as involving a caring role.
   Such typecasting has been abandoned in the post-Thatcher era. In 1992, Betty Boothroyd became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons. Discontent in the mid-1990s over the low proportion of women MPs led Labour to oblige certain constituency parties to select a candidate from an all-women short list. In the 1997 election, the number of women in Parliament doubled, to 119 (18 percent of the members, 24 percent of Labour MPs). Possibly distorted by the landslide, these figures, though the highest yet, are still far from reflecting the male/female balance in the population. Under the Life Peerages Act (1958), women became eligible for nomination to the House of Lords just like men, and the Peerage Act (1963) allowed hereditary peeresses in their own right to take their seats there as well.
   Further reading
    Vallance, E. (1979) Women in the House: A Study of Women Members of Parliament. London: Athlone Press.
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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