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Britain has only 20 per cent women in Parliament

March 08, 2010 18:11 IST
As wrangling continues in Indian parliament over providing 33 per cent reservation to women, history shows political participation was more difficult for women in Britain and now only 20 per cent of MPs at the House of Commons belong to the fairer sex.

Women in Britain first struggled to get the right to vote and then to contest elections. In the 2005 general election, 128 women were elected for the 646 member strong House, which amount to 20 per cent. It was highest number of women being elected in British parliamentary history.

According to parliamentary records, it took over 50 years of campaigns and debate before women were allowed to vote in British elections.

The first debate in the House of Commons on women's suffrage was initiated by John Stuart Mill, a great advocate of the cause, on May 20, 1867. From then on, attempts to pass legislation on the subject were made during almost every parliamentary session, but without success, although a few bills did pass the second reading stage. A variety of arguments were used at the time by opposing groups, for example, if women were given the vote, logically they could not be prevented from becoming Members of Parliament.

Another was that those who had to obey the law should have a say in its making. A further view was that if women's interests were the same as men's they could be expected to vote the same way. The converse argument to this was also made, that women's interests were different, and so they should be directly represented in parliament. The outbreak of the First World War brought about a truce whilst campaigners devoted themselves to the war effort. However, the subject came to the fore again in 1916 when it became obvious that the movement of military personnel had rendered the electoral register quite out of date.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, as president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and acknowledged leader of the constitutional movement, secured a concession from the then Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, that the matter should be considered once more. A conference on electoral reform, chaired by the speaker, was set up. In February 1917 this conference recommended a limited measure of women's suffrage.

The recommendations were duly enacted in the Representation of the People Act (1918), which gave the voting rights to women over thirty years of age. In 1928, the voting age for women was lowered to 21 years, the same as for men. On 23 October 1918, the House of Commons passed a motion (by 274 votes to 25) proposed by Herbert Samuel "that...it is desirable that a Bill should be passed forthwith making women eligible as Members of Parliament".

Accordingly, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill was introduced by Lord Robert Cecil, a minister, on October 31 that year. It was passed, almost without opposition, within three weeks and received Royal Assent on November 21, the day Parliament was dissolved. At the 1918 general election, out of 1,623 candidates, only 17 were women. Most had been active campaigners in the suffrage movement, but the only successful candidate had taken no part in the campaign and was never to take her seat.

Countess Constance Markievicz, of Anglo-Irish background and married to a Polish Count had contested the election from her cell in Holloway prison, where she was being held under suspicion of conspiring with Germany during the war. In common with other Sinn Fein members, she did not take her seat in protest against Britain's policy on Ireland. The first three women MPs to take oath were all elected for seats which had been held by their husbands. Viscountess Astor was elected for the Sutton division of Plymouth on November 15, 1919 at a by-election caused by her husband's accession to the peerage on the death of his father.

Lady Astor (Conservative) was joined in the House of Commons in 1921 by Margaret Wintringham (Liberal), who was returned for the marginal constituency of Louth even though, as a mark of respect to her dead husband, she had not spoken in public throughout her campaign.

In 1923, Mabel Hilton Philipson who as Mabel Russell had been a well-known musical comedy actress took over as the Conservative Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed after her husband, a National Liberal, had been unseated because of fraudulent practices of his agent.

Prasun Sonwalkar in London
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