Women in Politics Today

By Beckie Jone
With Emily Davison Day just around the corner (June 4) I wanted to revisit the hot topic of women in politics and explore what the political world holds for women today, nearly a hundred years since the death of an important British figurehead. The struggle for women’s rights has always been a difficult one and the fight is far from over.
 Just last weekend I was involved in a conversation with my own boss regarding how reluctant he would be to take on new female employees of a certain age, over male candidates, because of, you guessed it, pregnancy. I can understand where he is coming from with regards to the strain it puts on a small business to have a member of staff off for so long, but as a twenty-something woman who wants children, I found this very frightening. Maybe we need to reassess the way pregnant women are provided for by society at large. In the current economic climate is it really fair to expect a small business to take this on as their own responsibility? And I wonder to what extent this has an effect on the representation of women in the political world.
 I am all for equal rights and actually, I think that paternity leave should be substantially increased; but would this mean that the twenty to thirty-something man would be discriminated against as well? I doubt it.
 In the United Kingdom, our parliament has an abundance of white, male, middle class MPs. Only 1 in 5 are women. Whilst holding the minority share of seats, it seems that women also hold the minority share of respect. If like me, the Prime Minister David Cameron’s, recent remark to Angela Eagle in the chamber of commons; “calm down, Dear,” got your blood boiling, you will likely know what I am talking about. The comment (in fact he told her repeatedly) was met with a chorus of laughs from the Conservative Party and the Labour leader Ed Milliband. Cameron’s first promise as Conservative Party leader was to increase the number of women MPs. Currently, this is to no avail as in 2008 we were still trailing behind men at a measly 17 out of 180. This is the face of politics today in the UK.
 Going back through history, in 1893, New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote. Following this, many New Zealand suffrage activists travelled to other countries to help fight in the name of women’s equality. In America, the vote for women was granted in different states at different times. New Jersey was the first, granting women the right to vote in 1776 (though only to women who owned property). This was rescinded at a later date, and it wasn’t until 1920 that national suffrage was granted.  In other places in the world, women’s suffrage was granted and only to be later retracted. Egypt granted women the right to vote in 1956. However, feminist organizations and public expression of their political views were banned the same year. In Iran, women’s suffrage was granted in 1963 along with new equal rights legislations passed in 1975. However, many of these rights were revoked in 1979 following the Islamic revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Women in Northern Ireland were not granted the vote until 1969, and it wasn’t until 2008 that women in Bhutan were allowed the right to vote.
 Even today, the right to vote in some countries still does not mean that it is as easy as walking into a polling station. In Lebanon, if a women wishes to vote she must prove that she is educated, whilst a man is legally obliged to vote and does not require proof of education. In Saudi Arabia there is still no vote for women and they are forbidden to be elected into high political positions. Alongside this, the Islamic tradition of Purdah (the segregation of the sexes) is still enforced and it is the only country in the World in which women are banned from driving. Unfortunately, money can also be a deciding factor in whether women are able to vote. In many countries, a voter registration card is required, and fees can be at an extortionate amount. This obviously poses problems for women as political inequality and financial inequality often go hand in hand.
 In Egypt, after the downfall of the authoritarian leadership culminating in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, there was much deserved rejoicing and celebration throughout the country. One thing that we possibly need to be thinking about now is how will the situation fair for women in post-revolutionary Egypt? Throughout the protests, women played an equal role in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the early part of the year, standing side-by-side with men, all campaigning for the same end result. However, now that this has been achieved, are women at risk of once again returning to their assumed role of second class citizens? On March 8th—International Women’s Day—a “Million Woman March” was scheduled to take place in Tahrir Square in the name of gender equality. Only a few hundred women turned up for the march. Within a few hours, the women were surrounded by hundreds of men forming a counter-protest stating that the demand for equal citizenship was a “divisive agenda”.
 Since 1980, American women have voted in larger numbers than men reaching a massive nine million more in the 2004 Presidential race. According to an exit poll taken by Rutgers University during the 2008 presidential election, women voted 56-43% in favour of Obama over McCain. In contrast, men split their vote 49% for Obama and 48% for McCain. Nearly a century after universal suffrage, women in the United States have yet to hold the highest office in politics. Currently, they make up only a small percentage of governors, senators and representatives. With women comprising over half of the population in America and the e2008 US Republican Vice Presidential Candidate, Sarah Palinvident impact that they had on the 2008 presidential election, why is this? Even taking into account the campaigns of Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin,women have achieved a surprisingly low amount of seats.  Sarah Palin, love her or loathe her, is one of the most talked about woman in politics. Describing herself as a “Conservative Christian, gun-enthusiast with a passion for moose-hunting”, this Republican is not everybody’s cup of tea. Initially gaining a lot of female support during the campaign run, this certainly waned as time went on. Reportedly describing herself as a feminist and then publicly backtracking as election day grew close is perhaps not the best way to gain the public vote. As Linda Lowen wrote in April 2011:
 “If the 2008 election had any lessons to offer in the gender debate, the most obvious one is this: Although women may eagerly flock to a female candidate in the initial stage of a campaign, by the time election day rolls around it’s the candidate’s position on the issues—and not her or his sex—that exerts greater influence on the female voter.” -About.com
 Palin was, however, the first female Republican vice presidential candidate. There is currently a hot debate regarding whether she will run for presidency in 2012 and, perhaps more importantly, if she does, will she win the race against President Obama? Senator John McCain for one has reportedly stated that he thinks she can.
 In 1975, Margaret Thatcher became the elected leader of the Conservative Party. Then in 1979, when the Conservative Party were voted into power, she became the first, and only, female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. So why are there so few women running for office? In a male-dominated world, shouldn’t we be continuing the fight for recognition that was started by the suffragette movement all those years ago?
 Artists Hester Reeve and Olivia Plender certainly think so, and this is why they are campaigning to get Emily Davison Day on the calendar as a commemorative holiday. June 2010 saw the first official celebration of EDD and as the idea is spreading, this year is looking to be even bigger. That women are under-represented in politics and most walks of public life is, unfortunately, a fact. It is a shame that feminism has become such a dirty word, even amongst my own generation, because in the end it is about choices for women, fair representation and equality. Whatever you are doing this Saturday, remember the Suffragists and their struggle for equality and recognition, perhaps organise your own commemorative event for Emily Davison, or if nothing else, spare a moment’s thought for women in politics today. Remember, we still have a long way to go.

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