2018 is a very significant year in the gender equality calendar. It marks 100 years since Parliament passed a law, which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time; 100 years since women aged over 21 had the right to stand for election as an MP; and 90 years since all women were given electoral equality with men.
We have come a long way in terms of gender equality in the last 100 years, and Lewisham too has played it’s part in history. In the 1970s, Lewisham was the first Council in the country to set up a committee for women’s rights. This group was called the ‘Lewisham Women's Rights Working Group’ and worked to look at the disparity in women’s pay and roles in the council and constructed policy to address these issues. It is credit to this group that to this day Lewisham Council has a negative gender pay gap and a senior management team that is majority female. In addition to this, I feel immensely privileged to be one of the three female MPs who represent our Borough.
For me, all of these advances were beautifully symbolized at the end of April by the unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. I was lucky enough to be in the audience witnessing the first female to be represented on the square, joining the other 11 male statues. Millicent was the suffragist who dedicated 62 years of her life campaigning for women’s right to vote. She began in 1866 aged 19 collecting signatures for a petition. In 1867 she helped set up the first suffrage society and undertook her first speaking tour aged just 22, at a time when women rarely spoke in public.
By 1897 suffrage societies across the UK came together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which she became President of in 1907. In 1917 she led a delegation to Parliament and negotiated the amendment to the Representation of the People Act, which led to some women getting the right to vote and she continued campaigning until full equal voting rights were finally won in 1928.
Millicent’s story is one of absolute courage. To do what she did in the face of a society where everything belonged to men, including women, is remarkable. It is therefore fitting that adorned on her statue is the phrase “Courage calls to courage everywhere”, a line from her speech attesting to the bravery of Emily Davison, who died in the fight to get women the vote.
We have achieved so much since women first won the right to vote but gender inequality still persists, particularly in the workplace. The gender pay gap scandal is evidence of this. It is absurd that to this day a woman doing the same job as a man can be paid less. There are measures that the Government could take to help change this, such as proper paid paternity leave, making flexible working the norm rather than the exception and better funded childcare. However, culture takes a long time to change, and without the courage to challenge it, culture will remain as it is.
Therefore, as we celebrate this centenary we should remember Millicent’s words “courage calls to courage everywhere” and let them remind us of Millicent’s bravery and use them to inspire the next generation to stand up and challenge embedded gender inequality so that one day we can achieve equal representation and equal power for women in all their diversity.