International Women’s Day (IWD) went from national to international following the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910. Rallies in several countries called for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained and hold public office. They also called an end to discrimination and for rights at work. This need was tragically illustrated a few days later when a fire in New York City took the lives of 140 working women.
IWD continues to celebrate women’s achievements, raise funds for campaigns, raise awareness and lobby for change.
I am writing this to celebrate the women in the Co-operative Women’s Guild (CWG) and to identify what their campaigning can teach us for the change we need now.
The CWG, sprung from the Co-operative movement, was founded in 1883 to represent working women and spread co-operation in their communities. This was working women leading their own campaigns, in contrast to other parts of the then women’s movement in which they often had no voice.
The CWG campaigned for women’s suffrage, for maternity rights and pay, but also for things which weren’t explicitly discussed in other parts of the women’s movement at the time, such as safe contraception and sexual health, divorce, protection from domestic violence and more. They made significant progress in all of these, with their large membership and impressive lobbying skills.
In 1913, following mass campaigning by CWG members, a National Insurance Bill was going through Parliament which included a provision for a maternity payment (remember all MPs were men at this stage). The campaigners had mobilised health visitors, nurses and doctors across the country to make their case to their MP. When the Bill reached committee stage they went to Parliament to watch the proceedings.
The MPs who strongly opposed this payment said that money paid direct to women was an insult to working men. The campaigners concluded that it was important for women not only to be present to watch the Bills in which they were interested but to be in the committee process itself. In short, they needed to get elected.
Women from the Co-operative movement subsequently became Labour MPs but they could not focus solely on the needs and experiences of working women. They had to take on wider considerations. This shift from activism outside Parliament to being an MP – and how this changes focus – is on my mind a lot.
As I write, we are coming slowly out of the worst pandemic for a century, a set of economic hardships unknown for generations and a government debt of eye-watering levels which will take decades to repay. Businesses have closed, jobs have been lost, lives have been lost in appallingly high numbers, children’s education has suffered and people have spent months either out of work or on short-hours, skills and knowledge stagnating. We have a mental health crisis in the making and there are economic hardships to come. People are still being hospitalised and sadly dying and this may continue for many months.
And women are already paying a high price for all of this.
Single parents are highly concentrated in low-paid, insecure jobs which have either been on the frontline of Covid response, or can’t be done from home and don’t provide sick pay for isolation. Most of these people are women, most of them are also having to manage children’s education and many of them are now falling behind on rent.
Many women have had to ask for furlough so they can provide childcare and home education, and their pay and promotion prospects will suffer as a result. As the furlough scheme ends, we will see more job losses. Self employed women have also been held back and many local authorities are no longer able to support nursery schools or other early years provision. This makes it even harder for women to get back to full economic participation even when the jobs market picks up.
The impact of the pandemic on women and children experiencing domestic abuse been devastating, with lockdowns trapping victims with abusers, who used the situation.
The government has failed throughout the pandemic to consider the impact on women of their decisions. There seems to have been, from the start, an assumption that women would be able to give up any work to educate or care for children, that women would pick up neighbour support and that women’s careers could take a back seat.
If we compare other developed countries with different styles of political leadership we can see very different consequences. Yes, contexts have often differed and it’s not a hard and fast rule but the messaging in, say, New Zealand, led by Jacinda Adern, has had a consensual tone focussed on bringing people together.
And the government’s focus on construction as a lead industry for recovery shows a male bias, without any attention to the very significant housing problems for women, such as the crisis in affordability and security. Yes, we need new homes, but we need refurbished homes as well, homes which are truly affordable and which have safety and security as standard, not as optional extras. Single women, particularly single parents, will find it much harder than couples to take advantage of the 95% mortgage scheme but also there is no commitment to invest in council housing or other truly affordable homes.
Learning from the experiences of the women a century ago
Now, as then, we cannot rely on politics as usual and we cannot rely on politics run by men.
There is still the problem of representation. Female MPs hold only 30.9% of government posts, compared with 42.7% of opposition positions (across all opposition parties), as of August last year. When it comes to MPs, a quarter of Conservative MPs are women, compared with half of Labour MPs.
As the CWG women discovered, just getting more representatives is not the end of the story, we need to keep up the ability to speak in our own voices, build alliances with others and push for change which benefits women and eradicates inequality.
This year’s IWD theme is #ChoosetoChallenge. I want us to challenge and support each other to consider standing for public office and then to increase our power and influence when we get there. I want all women to think about who they could encourage to go for promotion, or set up a business, or take up a training opportunity. We can also share our experience through mentoring schemes as well as more informal support.
But these are not opportunities available to every woman. We must prioritise in Parliament, councils and beyond, the needs of those women who cannot currently even consider promotion or election. These women have just got too many pressures on them or have lost work, income and confidence.
Economic and training opportunities for women are essential as we move into a new world in which many old skills will be redundant. We will need new skills and knowledge to halt climate change, revolutionise social care, create digital, fintech and robotics-based industries of the future. We also need to rebuild our creative economies – devastated by the Covid crisis but vital for our recovery as human beings, and for our ability to grieve for what has happened and to create a future together.
Finally, I give myself a challenge. Before I became an MP, my work was on preventing domestic violence and my focus on gender equality was integrated into my daily work. Since becoming an MP, I’ve had to take on a much wider range of concerns. More recently I’ve had a strong focus on housing and homelessness as Shadow Housing Secretary. It’s an enormous privilege to be serve the people of Bristol West and the UK in these ways but today, on International Women’s Day, I’m challenging myself to actively consider gender inequality every day and contribute to changing it.