Last Wednesday afternoon, Church House in Westminster hosted the From Law Breakers to Law Makers conference to celebrate 100 years of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, allowing women to become MPs for the first time.
The event, whose name derived from the famous Emmeline Pankhurst quote, gave way to a set of influential women who have all brought positive changes to our country, including MP Stella Creasy, Baroness Anne Jenkin and the Minister for Women, Victoria Atkins. The discussion was presented by Jane Garvey and there were also workshops run by Shannon O’Connell and Aysha Esakji.
Certain women throughout history have successfully brought about new laws in the search for greater gender equality. But it it is important to consider how they were able to make these laws in the first place, and who we have to thank for the position women hold in Parliament today.
The Suffragettes and the Suffragists
It wouldn’t be an event commemorating the right of women to become MPs without first of all, mentioning the work of the suffragettes and their struggle to gain voting rights for women during the twentieth century.
As well as marking the 100th anniversary since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 2018 also marked 100 years since the Representation of the People Act which as Victoria Atkins stresses, allowed only some women to vote. It wasn’t until 10 years later that women were finally given equal voting rights as men — and the suffragettes played a huge role in these historical landmarks.
‘The fight for women to have a voice and a vote was long and it was hard, both inside and outside Parliament’, asserts Atkins.
In order to get to where we are today, the suffragettes had to make many sacrifices: from being force-fed in prison to being assaulted on the streets.
Although the suffragettes took a more direct and somewhat aggressive approach towards achieving votes for women, we should not forget the work of the suffragists who Atkins declares are often not as widely remembered.
As Atkins explains, the suffragists played a huge part in persuading male MPs to vote through these important bills, as without their vote, the law couldn’t be passed.
Both groups have provided a platform for women to be heard, which as a result, has made the achievements of the following women possible:
Martin, also one of of the panellists, was able to give her personal story about her trip to Parliament after an incident occurred at a festival last year. Whilst she was in the crowd, a man took pictures up her skirt, yet when Martin confronted the police, she was left bewildered at hearing that the situation was out of their hands.
‘I eventually got to the police who were lovely and very sympathetic’ she admits, ‘but were confused on the law and didn’t know how they could help me’.
Martin, who decided that a change was drastically needed, spent the next couple of months researching the law before going on to campaign.
Eventually, when she arrived in Parliament she gained the backing of MPs, who convinced the Government to put forward new legislation. As a result, as of the beginning of next year, upskirting will be a sexual offence.
What makes Martin’s story particularly remarkable is that for a girl who had never considered becoming an MP or anything politics-related for that matter, she had succeeded in creating a new law. Her refreshing outlook on the situation means she has used her right to speak out as a woman, and as a result has gotten one step closer to making the world a safer place.
Akiwowo has been involved in politics from the age of 23, after being elected and becoming the youngest ever black female councillor. Therefore, it is no surprise that she has continued to strive for positive change. On Wednesday, she discussed her latest invention, ‘Glitch’ — an organisation which attempts to stop online abuse.
Glitch, Akiwowo admits, holds a close place to her heart. After she received an array of abuse following her speech at the European Parliament, she decided she wanted to find a solution to tackle this alarming, yet very relevant issue.
‘Glitch is all about how do we fix the glitch; how do we encourage everybody to see themselves as a solution to the problem around online abuse’, she says.
During her speech, she also illustrated the frightening correlation between people who take part in domestic violence, and those who have committed national threats and posted abuse across social media.
‘We need to start joining the dots, we cannot see abuse happening to women separately’, she says.
Online abuse is a much larger issue than people often make out, and Akiwowo is doing everything she can to stop it.
Since the suffragettes, and the suffragists for that matter, it’s fair to say that we have come a long way in terms of a woman’s ability to fight for and gain justice in the eyes of the law. But of course, there is still a long way to go.
‘In the 100 years since some of us first got the right to vote’, Atkins explains, ‘and since women were able to stand for Parliament, only 490 women ever have been elected’. Women still represent the minority in Parliament, and men often hold the upper hand in politics.
However, if there’s one thing to take away from the conference, it would be the inspiring reminder that any one of us can make a change. As Creasy points out, ‘there isn’t a special talent or special requirement to be somebody who can make a difference’. These women have proven this.