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Beyond cross-dressing

Where are the new suffragettes asks Mary Southcott in celebrating the 90th anniversary of women's franchise.

Should Emily Wilding Davison or a Pankhurst mother or daughter revisit the UK in the Noughties, 90 years after women got the vote, and 80 since the electoral rules applied equally with men, and 50 since legislation to allow women peers, they would find a really confusing and contradictory picture.  They might be surprised that the equality they fought for in the vote had not axiomatically translated into equality in everyday or public life.

Coming up to 30 years since the UK became the first western state to have a woman prime minister, we are trailing 52nd in the world ranking of women's representation in our legislature, behind Argentina and Rwanda.  What's more there is no sign that the dramatic improvements made in 1997 will be repeated and clear indications that the number of women MPs will fall whatever the outcome of the next general election. 

Despite improvements in gender balance by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives from a low base, any loss in Labour marginals where women predominate is likely to offset any gains.  So women's representation will fall again from 1997 and the glass ceiling of 20 per cent will remain firmly in place. 

In attempting to understand this one can go the traditional path of blaming women with no ambition, political parties without strategies or electoral systems which allow for individual constituency rather than overall representative choices and outcomes.  One thing is clear is that the only countries with women's representation over 25 per cent have proportional voting systems.    

Equality under the law is not the same as equality in reality and perhaps more importantly for today's debates, equality is not about sameness or stereotypical cross dressing but is about difference and diversity, cultural change, the language and words we use.

Turning to the rest of Europe, women in Sweden are approaching gender parity with 47 per cent women elected in 2006.  Surprisingly in Spain there is from 2007 an Equality Law that men do half the housework which would have been ridiculed by the Sun, which retains it Page 3 ‘girls'.  Rightwing premiers in France and Italy have chosen pink ministerial teams. 

Without getting anything fundamentally changed in the UK, except perhaps in the devolved assemblies, women playwrights have greeted the anniversaries in two ways.  One is to join the jokes against feminism contained in the play The Female of the Species which prompted Jenni Murray, of the wonderful programme Woman's Hour , to say that “the themes were much better examined in a popular musical, and now a film.  In Catherine Johnson's Mamma Mia!, a mother's youthful promiscuity goes un-remarked. She is puzzled by her own daughter's enthusiasm for marriage.  For years she had run a successful boarding house on a Greek island, on her own.  She delights in her women friends and accepts her daughter's need to find out the identity of her father.” (Coincidentally, Murray recently interviewed the solicitor general, Vera Baird and the attorney general Lady Scotland, the first two women to hold these posts together they stated their commitment to effective legal proceedings in the fields of rape and domestic violence, equal pay for female solicitors, a balance of men and women in barristers' chambers, and more women on the bench).

The other is to stage a full blown play about the Suffragettes at the National Theatre.  My take on Her Naked Skin was that the violence by and on the Suffragettes, the hunger strikes and force feeding, puts events in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, the current suicide bombers and Guantanamo into a wider perspective of fighting for ones rights and what one is prepared to do, and is acceptable, to achieve them and the State to suppress them.

Often it seems the world could be different, the political culture could change.  For instance at a reception on 6 February at Lancaster House to mark the 90th anniversary of women getting the vote, besides talks by Harriet Harman and the Fawcett Society's Katherine Rake, I was struck by the contribution of many women in the room to my political life, such as it is.  There was Emily's List and quotas, all women shortlists and other positive action mechanisms. 

But most of all there were women doing things for women, not in the way that men have always promoted men in their clubs and their hobbies, but by passing on their experience and supporting one another.  A sisterhood if you want to give it a name. 

What struck me at Lancaster House was that here was the site of top negotiations whether on Cyprus or Rhodesia/Zimbabwe which almost invariably excluded women.  When men are prepared to leave the primary care of their children to women surely a woman's perspective on war and peace should be incorporated.   The priorities of the one should be the priorities of the other.  And Condoleezza Rice is not sufficient. 

When Beatrix Campbell launched her book Agreement! The State, Conflict and Change in Northern Ireland, there was a coming together of women of all generations with supportive men willing to recognise the role women had played in civil society, in the women's movement and in what is called “the coalition of the committed” by which a state can be changed.  Curiously the European Union, despite all its democratic deficits, has played a different and often unacknowledged role in supporting consensus in a more feminised way that the top down imposition of peace and power-sharing which only credits the guys in ties, Blair, Ahern, Paisley and McGuinness, Mandelson and Powell, perhaps Senator Mitchell and Bill Clinton. 

Mo Mowlam cannot be left out of history.  Women can do things differently.  As Beatrix Campbell writes: ‘The approach of Mowlam, which succeeded in opening up pathways to dialogue…fundamentally, Mowlam understood the nuances of inclusivity.  She believed in the political ‘centre'…but never thought it exhausted the cast of players.  …Mowlam's social progressivism animated her approach to Northern Ireland, and her efforts to represent all its people in the peace process.… Mowlam and Mandelson represented a fundamental cleavage in the New Labour project.  Mowlam brought feminism, social progressivism and a left-leaning pragmatism.  She was opposed to New Labour's adoption of a ‘new imperialism'. Like Labour's first Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and International Development Secretary Clare Short, her politics was guided by a progressive ‘ethical dimension'.  … The appointment of Mowlam as Secretary of State brought an unprecedented change of tone to the peace process in Northern Ireland.  She was a fully engaged Minister determined to make a difference.  She also already knew the territory.'

The mentioning of these three Labour Cabinet ministers together reminds us that they were the main politicians who in 1997 were willing to keep Electoral Reform alive despite a landslide victory.  In many ways they shared their embracing of the feminine into their politics, the listening , the consensus seeking, the willingness to discuss issues and change their minds, not often seen in politicians, and their shared belief that a new politics really had to be different from the Punch and Judy culture of the past. 

When Lynne Segal wrote Is the future female? her own answer was no but it was feminine.  This does not exclude men but asks them to be part of a different politics and a different world.   What we need today are new Suffragettes that not only realise that getting the vote is necessary but not sufficient but also that men will also benefit from not having to live stereotypical lives in stereotypical relationships.  In bringing together the former commissions of equal opportunity,  disability and racial equality, into the equality and human rights commission, we have a real opportunity to continue the suffragettes' struggle but address it in a new culture  of human rights and equality.  This does not pitch one against the other but addresses the need for respect, diversity and difference as well as our common humanity, or as the Chair, Trevor Phillips says, it may all boil down to commonsense, courtesy and consideration.