Women in Parliament

Sixty years ago, in December 1919, the House of Commons saw its first woman MP, Viscountess Astor. She was not the first woman to be elected, having been preceded in November 1918 by another woman of wealth and title and supporter of capitalism, the Countess Markievicz who had been elected as Sinn Fein MP for a Dublin constituency. (Southern Ireland was at that time still part of the United Kingdom with MPs at Westminster). The Sinn Fein party however was boycotting Parliament so Markievicz never took her seat.

Lady Astor was elected as Conservative MP for the Sutton division of Plymouth. She was an American and was already wealthy before her marriage to Viscount Astor. Astor was the MP for Plymouth, but on the death of his father in 1919 he entered the House of Lords and Lady Astor replaced him as MP, occupying the seat until 1945. She had long been an advocate of women’s suffrage and (along with an obsession about the “evils of alcohol”) took a prominent part in Parliament and outside in the campaigns for equal pay and for legislation affecting the employment of women and children.

Women had been given the vote in 1918, but with qualifying age of 30, against 21 for men. The qualifying ages were brought into line in 1928 (reduced to 18 in 1969.) It was claimed by Lady Astor and the women’s suffrage organisations that the entry of women into the House of Commons would bring about a fundamental change in legislation, with corresponding improvement in wages and working conditions not only for women but generally. As, since 1928 women voters have exceeded men voters by about 2 million, the campaigners confidently expected to see a big increase in the number of women MPs. In this they were disappointed and only a tiny minority of MPs are women. The number reached 29 in 1964 and is now 18.

In an article in the Guardian (30 October) Shirley Williams, who lost her seat as Labour MP at the recent general election, made it clear that she still holds the view that Parliament would be a very different place if there were more women MPs, irrespective of party. But she has to admit that, once women voters preponderated, the male members took up the so-called “women’s issues”—after all it was votes they were after.

Many Acts of Parliament have been passed affecting these issues, including the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, both of which came into force in December 1979.

How much in fact have these Acts altered the operation of capitalism to the benefit of those for whom they were intended?

In the first place the advocates of such legislation overlook that the employers, whether private companies or nationalised boards, are in business to make a profit and with this in mind will always pay as wages as little as they can. Secondly, employers will seek legal ways round the Acts, or will ignore them. In the 1930s it was estimated that half the agricultural workers were being paid less than the minimum rates that were supposed to apply: they preferred to accept lower pay rather than be unemployed and perhaps be evicted from their tied cottages.

In their pay, women’s average weekly takings were increasing relative to men’s in the years before the Equal Pay Act, possibly reflecting the larger numbers of women workers who were organising in trade unions. Women’s pay has continued to increase since 1975, but according to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth the position in 1978 was that women workers as a whole received only 59 per cent of the pay of men, this reflecting the fact that a larger proportion of women are in the lower-paid occupations.

Over the same period women workers have been increasingly hit by unemployment. In the years 1973-75 the number of unemployed women was 22 per cent of the number of unemployed men. Since 1975 the figure has risen each year and in 1978 was 37 per cent.

In short capitalism has largely nullified the intentions of those who thought to change women’s position by legislation. Women workers, like males are exploited as members of the working class. Their problems call for working class action not the remedy of Lady Astor and the women’s organisations based on the simplistic belief that having women MPs would change the scene. In 1919, replacing a male supporter of capitalism in Plymouth by his wife, another supporter of capitalism, made no difference to capitalism or the politics of the working class; and the same applies to Shirley Williams’ plea for more women MPs now.

Before women had the vote male workers, who formed a big majority of the electorate, chose to return to Parliament Tory, Labour and Liberal MPs committed to the continuation of capitalism. Since women got the vote they have continued to follow the same barren policy.

Edgar Hardcastle

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