Baroness Williams: The voices of those who have fought for equality will echo throughout this centenary year
The struggle for equality is one that has involved hundreds of thousands of women and is still ongoing. In this centenary year let’s honour their memory – and encourage the next generation to make their voices heard, writes Baroness Williams
Working in Westminster today, I cannot help but think of what Parliament must have looked like one hundred years ago, and how much has changed. All that time ago, women had to hear and see the debates that decided the course of their lives through a grille in the Ladies Gallery.
This position, out of the view of the men, was intended to maintain their modesty – but of course its real effect was to separate them physically and symbolically from political action, and to bar them from shaping their own fates.
They were unable to vote or stand for election. Now, in contrast, we have our second woman at the helm of government, leading the country through some of the most complex challenges we have faced for years.
The fight for women’s prominence in British public life is one that has involved hundreds of thousands of women and is still ongoing. One hundred years ago on 6 February, the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent – giving the vote to women over 30 with property for the first time.
But the struggle to get women’s voices heard and to secure the vote goes back decades before 1918 to petitions, lobbying and debates throughout the nineteenth century. This included the first petition to Parliament in 1832, the first mass petition in 1866 and countless failed Bills for the following 50 years.
Today, we owe our achievements and enfranchisement to many women who lobbied tirelessly, brought groups of women from across social, cultural and political divides together in the pursuit of a shared goal, and ultimately made a tangible difference to the opportunities available to every woman in this country.
Women are of course as capable as men of occupying positions of authority, but we must make sure we are doing everything in our power to make it easier for them to fit their working lives around family and other commitments. These are not just “women’s issues”, but issues that affect men, women and children.
This government is making strides to tackle inequality and give women the chance to achieve professionally while maintaining a personal life. We are investing £5m in returners schemes so that people who take time out for caring responsibilities can return to work in jobs that match their skills and experience. And we are one of the first countries in the world to require all large employers – those with more than 250 staff – to publish their gender pay gap.
By being transparent about their pay gap employers can take action to tackle it so that more women are supported to progress in the workplace. Through these actions, we intend to level the playing field, so that women are free to make choices about their lives and their aspirations.
Choices which I believe should include a career in politics. It is an inescapable reality that women who want to work in Parliament face barriers, including working between multiple locations, balancing caring responsibilities with long and demanding working hours, and ensuring their financial stability while pursuing election. We are starting to address these issues, but it is clear we need to do more.
I am excited and energised at the prospect my new role as Minister for Equalities gives me to be involved in work to bridge the gap between what men and women can attain in the political sphere and beyond.
I am continually inspired by the stories of women, both historical and contemporary, who have achieved remarkable things and made a real impact on the fight for equality. It is their voices, their stories, that I hope will echo throughout this centenary year, inspiring other girls and women across the country to make their own mark.
Baroness Williams is Minister for Equalities. Peers will debate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act on Monday 5 February