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Vote 100: After a century of votes for women, how can we go further?

It’s 100 years since the campaign for votes for women achieved its partial success. But we still have a long way to go.
In a speech in the Commons today, I asked how we can continue to push for gender equality and women’s liberation.

I asked everyone to celebrate the achievements we have made, and to imagine a world where gender equality is a reality for everyone. It would benefit women and men. It would mean greater prosperity, and happier relationships.

It will take us all to get there, but we will!

My speech (watch the full video here):

It is an honour and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), with whom I shared that memorable trip to CERN last month—it was a joy. I was particularly moved to come across not one but two of my old school friends, both female, working on the large hadron collider—I very nearly understood what they were doing.

In the 21st century, is it not time to say, “Job done. We don’t need International Women’s Day any more”? I say that we need it as much as ever, as many others have today, and not because I look backwards, refusing to accept progress. In fact I celebrate our progress, which is one reason why International Women’s Day is so important: we get to celebrate our achievements. I say that we still need it not because I want women in the role of victims—quite the opposite—and not because the job is done, because it is not. International Women’s Day has the power to focus women’s and men’s minds not just in this place, but across the country and the world, in really productive ways, and there are benefits for men and women of doing so.

One of those ways is the domestic stocktake—others have already mentioned some of this, but I will give a few more examples. The date of 8 March gives us a nudge to ask how we are doing on different dimensions of gender equality. We can look at the affordability and availability of childcare, at gender pay gaps, as others have mentioned, and at the impact of public sector finance cuts on women’s lives. All those give us a sieve for sifting out the stubborn aspects of economic and other inequalities.

Another value of today is that it nudges us to lift our gaze to the rest of the world. We should be asking how the millennium development goals and now the sustainable development goals have benefited women and girls. How might women’s lives be improved by better, more inclusive and more transparent processes for trade negotiations, for example? Those things matter, yet women get left out of those questions and processes. What is the availability—or otherwise—of water, sanitation, healthcare, education, finance and technology doing to limit or assist women’s and girls’ routes to learning and employment across the world?

A third value—the one I want to focus on—is that of imagining. What would a world free from gender inequality look like? How would we recognise it, how would it be better for women and for men, what more do we need to do to get there, and how will women’s liberation truly change the world? Well, it would be a world in which no woman would ever be fearful or uncomfortable walking down a city centre street or into an office, whatever the time of day or night, wherever they are and whatever they are wearing. It would be a world in which it was unthinkable that my nieces would ever be sexually harassed, or even have to think about the possibility. It would be a world in which it was impossible that my mother could be made nervous by big groups of loud men shouting stuff.

It would be a world in which no one would even dream of paying to have someone else’s body at their disposal for sexual gratification, objectification or abuse, whether in a so-called sexual entertainment venue, in prostitution or pornography, or in an intimate relationship. In a world of gender inequality, or even equality—see; it is difficult to imagine, but we are getting there—in which there was women’s liberation, no man would even want to do any of those things. They would choose. They would know the benefits of and how to have intimate relationships, professional relationships, and social and wider public relationships with women based on respect and, in the case of intimate relationships, shared mutual enjoyment, rather than something that is enforced. In that regard, I pay tribute to Bristol Fawcett Society, Bristol Women’s Voice and the many other women in Bristol who are working and campaigning specifically on changing the landscape of sexual objectification and gratification, and on challenging our rules and processes for making decisions about so-called sexual entertainment venues.

It would be a world in which young girls were just as likely as young boys to consider jobs in technology, engineering, particle physics or business management; as likely to take up apprenticeships in building trades or in catering; and as likely to get those jobs as their male peers—and, most of all, without any comment, nudging, eyebrow raising or sexual harassment at work when they did. It would be a world in which all employers, not just the really good ones—they do definitely exist—saw all men, not just women, as potentially needing time off to care for babies, children or vulnerable older relatives; and then, as some employers already do, worked with employees and trade unions to value those qualities in men and women, instead of discriminating against them, and worked out how to manage the employment structures needed. That is a big job for all of us in the 21st century.

It would be a world in which rape was not used as a war crime. In fact, in my head—this is a big imagine—it would be world in which rape was not a part of any woman’s life. Just saying that out loud, I am struck that that seems really difficult to imagine, which is a marker of why International Women’s Day is still so important. To me, it should be unimaginable that any man would ever think it was an option or something they would want to do. It would be a world in which rape was a part of history. It would be a world in which refugee women were not trafficked, abused or imprisoned, with their talents refused to be recognised. It would also be a world in which the end of violence against women and girls meant that not only the use of rape as a war crime, but the abuse of women in other areas of conflict, was over. It would be a world in which women and girls were not forced to flee their homelands in the first place, but in which, if they were, we would welcome them and make them safe.

So how do we get there? Government, business, education and so on all have their roles, as we do in this place, but I want us—men and women—to start right here in this room. We can all help to bring about, and benefit from, true gender equality. Women in this place and beyond, I ask you a series of question. Can you advise, guide, support and encourage other women and girls? Can you be the person who spots a woman’s potential and tells them, because they might not have realised it? Can you take part in any of the many schemes to give women a chance to shadow or be mentored by you? Can you speak out against injustices that are holding women back and keeping women fearful, and stand by your sisters who are affected by those injustices even if you are not—in fact, especially if you are not? Can you recruit male allies and talk to them about why it matters that we live in a world of gender equality and how they, too, can speak out?

Will you always thank those women who have mentored and helped you? Will you let them know, years later, how their advice worked out for you? I want to say thank you to my maths teacher, Mrs Morley, who years and years ago helped me to see that maths was for girls. I also want to thank the many women MPs—too many to mention—particularly my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who I am delighted and slightly nervous to say is just in front of me, and Baroness Jean Corston, the former Member for Bristol East, both of whom showed me just how much women MPs can do for women, and in ways that many of those women will never know about. They showed me that that does not matter, because we should not expect a “thank you” note from all the women we might benefit—we should just be glad to have the chance.

While I am at the thanking stage of my speech, I might as well thank all the women in my family, particularly the young women, who challenge me so much, inspire me and make me question my beliefs and think again about my particular form of feminism. I thank all the sisters in the violence against women movement who have helped us to make so much progress from where we were when I started out as a teenager, to where we are now.

I ask all Members to look around our constituencies to see whether we can spot where we are making progress towards that truly great, gender-equal world, and where progress is still stalling—and we need to be honest about that.

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con)

The hon. Lady is my near neighbour—her constituency is almost in Somerset—and she is making such a passionate case. May I say in the spirit of cross-party relations that one of women’s great strengths is that they are very good at working together. I know that we have our differences, but when we get together—for example, on the Jo Cox campaign—we do great work. Perhaps we should highlight that more. On a day like today, we should give particular credit to the women who work together in so many areas and who can indeed do so much great work.

Thangam Debbonaire

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She almost predicted what I was about to say next, which was to ask us all in this place whether we can do more to work across party lines. For example, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and I have worked together on an issue that is very dear to, as well as physically close to, both our hearts. That is a really good example for me, and a personal one. In our different ways, everyone in this place finds their route to cross-party working.

As Members, can we visit more schools, youth clubs and businesses, and show more women and men that women are capable of political leadership, and that it is for us, too? Can we speak out, ask questions, use our positions for good, expect—nay, demand—answers, and hold others and ourselves to account, while always providing for improvement rather than just blankly assuming that things will never get better? Can we show women and girls that there is potentially another #MeToo—one that says, “Me too, I can be politically active, I can take a leadership role, I can study maths, I can work on whatever it is that matters to me, not held back by my gender but perhaps even helped by it”? Can we always give out that hope? My hope is that everyone present today can take forward some of the suggestions that have come from Members from all parties, and those yet to come. Can we take with us some of the spirit of International Women’s Day, here in this place, and help us all to get ever closer to a world in which gender equality and women’s liberation are a reality for us all?

 

 

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