Women in Parliament
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Women in Parliament

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As in almost every other ruling body in the world, until the twentieth century, membership of British Parliament was an exclusively male domain.

During the 19th century three separate Acts of Parliament gave the vote to most of the men of this country - ultimately even criminals and the mentally 'unstable' were granted the right to vote, just as any other man. However, no woman had the right to vote, and it was frequently stated - by men - that women just did not posess the necessary temperament or intellect to make a well judged decision.

During the 19th Century certain groups of women began to campaign for their rights. They became known as 'suffragists' - a word deriving from 'suffrage' which means 'the right to vote'.

Most of these women were from middle class backgrounds and as such used respectable methods in order to gain the same right to vote in Government elections as their male counterparts. From 1897 the debate reached the House of Commons itself. But each time it was raised, it was voted out. Even Queen Victoria was opposed to women having the right to vote.

In 1903 a more radical women's movement was founded, called the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. Women from all walks of life, and all professions flocked to join the WSPU and to lend their time and devotion to the cause.

The followers of the union were seen as rebels using militant tactics. Although prepared to work with Parliament, these women were more than ready to wage war on the government if that was what it would take. In 1906 an article in the Daily Mail appeared, naming them Suffragettes - a title which although was originally intended in scorn, soon became a badge of pride. The leaders of the party were often arrested for interrupting major political meetings, and heckling the speakers. One woman, Emily Wilding-Davison, hid in the broom cupboard next to the Undercroft Chapel in the Palace of Westminster during the 1911 census in order to establish her address as the House of Commons.

The suffragettes also organised marches to Downing Street and to the House of Commons, and these marches often ended up in vicious confrontation with the police. Some women even chained themselves to railings to prevent themselves from being dragged away. On one occasion a suffragette chained herself to the foot of the statue of Viscount Falkland in St Stephen's Hall, and she could only be released by breaking his spur. In 1911 the tactics of the suffragettes had become even more radical, and they started to smashed windows, and bombed and set fire to buildings. Many were imprisoned for so doing, which of course brought even more publicity to their cause.

During the First World War activities were postponed in order to aid the service industries, but after the war was over the question of votes for women was once again raised. In 1918 an Act was finally passed allowing over 8 million of the women of Britain to vote, and making it possible from women over twenty one to become Members of Parliament. In 1921 the 'suffrage' was extended to all women over twenty one years of age.

In the General Election of 1918 seventeen candidates out of 1,623, were women. The majority of these had been active campaigners of the Suffragette movement, including Christabel Pankhurst, yet the first woman to take her seat as a member of the House of Commons was Nancy Astor - who had never campaigned for women's rights. However, she soon took up the interests of women and children. In her maiden speech in 1920 she announced,

I do not want you to look on your lady Member as a fanatic or a lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.

In 1992 Betty Boothroyd was chosen by the members of the House of Commons as its first Lady Speaker, and in 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected as Britain's first woman Prime Minister. The Labour government which began its term in 1997 has seen the greatest ever number of female members, over 100 women being elected.

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