Through hard graft, the women of Westminster have steadily transformed the lives of women across the countryby Rachel Reeves / March 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Nancy Astor entered parliament a century ago with a singular mission: to improve the lives of women. She was the first woman to take up a seat in the Commons, and while the symbolic importance of that fact has registered, what’s less appreciated is how vital her gender was for her practical work. She worked—as Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson later put it—“like a terrier” to give a voice to the thousands of women who wrote to her every week.
Fortunately, over the 100 years since, the responsibility that Astor felt towards women has come to be shared across generations of female MPs. Forget the fashion for commentators to set the discourse about identity and diversity in opposition to that about practical policies. Through hard graft, the women of Westminster have steadily transformed the lives of women across the country.
It started in earnest in 1925 when women still had no rights to their children in case of divorce or separation. Astor, and the second woman to take up a seat, Liberal Margaret Wintringham, vowed to change this. They worked as cross-party partners-in-crime to secure equal guardianship, with the rational Wintringham describing herself as a “cart- horse” trotting alongside Astor, the rhetorical “prancing pony.” Wintringham implored male colleagues to “take a mental somersault” and view the issue “from the stand-point of the woman who passionately desires the guardianship and the ownership of her own child.” Thanks to these two pioneers, the Equal Guardianship Act was passed.
Some 491 women have now been elected to parliament, and in reviewing their achievement in a new book, I come across many similarly practical and often cross-party success stories, right up to this year’s trial of “baby leave” proxy voting in Commons divisions. Women MPs have never stopped bringing new policies to the fore.
In 1944, the Conservative Thelma Cazalet-Keir stood up to Churchill and defeated the government with an amendment demanding equal pay for teachers. Churchill was furious and told her that equal pay was like “trying to put an elephant in a perambulator.” He successfully diverted the defeat by turning the question into a matter of confidence, but Cazalet-Keir’s bravery got equality on the political map.
In 1970, after women machinists went on strike to protest unequal pay at the Dagenham Ford factory,…