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The Representation of the People Act(resses)

Hat tip to “bloke in spain”, who pointed out this article by Dr Helen Pankhurst in the Telegraph:

95 years since its first female MP, Britain is lagging behind.

We brag about our democracy, but women are still less represented in our legislature than in Kyrgyzstan, China, Rwanda and Sudan

“Now there’s a list of democracies to regard with awe & envy,” said bloke in spain.

Before I turn to the article, a word about the author. At the bottom of the piece there is a note saying, “Dr Helen Pankhurst is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the original Suffragettes, and a special adviser on gender equality at CARE International UK.” If you were wondering, CARE International UK is a charity adequately described by the fact that it has a special adviser on gender equality and Emmeline Pankhurst was a great name in the fight for women’s suffrage, and, equally admirably, though this is less celebrated in the history books, a pioneer in the struggle against Bolshevism.

It is heartening to see Dr Helen Pankhurst gain entry to the pages of the Telegraph on the strength of the name of her great ancestress, thus upholding the hereditary principle in these Jacobinical times.

She writes,

Ninety-five years ago today, on November 28, 1919, an American became the first woman in Parliament. Technically, she had been beaten to it the previous December by the countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish nationalist who fought and won her campaign for Dublin St Patrick’s from Holloway Prison. But Sinn Fein, her party, was boycotting Parliament, and with them she refused her seat.

So it fell to Lady Nancy Astor to enter the House of Commons as its first female member (and first female Conservative), succeeding her husband in the by-election triggered by his ascent to the Lords. It was one year since the Act of Parliament which had given propertied women over 30 the right to vote and stand. She would serve her constituency of Plymouth Sutton for another 26 years.

Yet since then the progress for women’s representation has been slow. Until 1987 women represented less than five per cent of MPs; this doubled in 1992 then doubled again to 20 per cent in 1997. Even now, nearly a hundred years after the initial Act, only 23 per cent of representatives in both houses are women. Will it take until the 200th anniversary of Lady Astor’s election before we write about equal representation as if it were business as usual?

I disagree that the progress for women’s representation in the United Kingdom has been slow since 1919. Progress was quite fast between 1919 and the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1928, when women gained the vote on the same terms as men, and nonexistent since then. Progress has been nonexistent for the excellent reason that there was no more progress to be made. Once women and men had equal rights to vote or stand for office they were equally well represented by being represented (not duplicated) by whatever representative they had voted for. You know, voting for your unrestricted choice of candidate, like you do in a representative democracy. One of the things you’re allowed to do is vote for someone not like you in the nether regions. This innovation seems to have worked out OK since 1919; I think we might keep it on. Does Dr Pankhurst think that Lady Nancy Astor MP was incapable of representing her male constituents?

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46 comments to The Representation of the People Act(resses)

  • William O. B'Livion

    This is much like when the Republicans (briefly) had both houses of Congress and the Presidency, this was blatantly unfair because the Democrats were not represented.

    When the Democrats had all three it was “Shut up we won”.

    If government would stick to what it was good at useful for necessary for then there would be no need to worry or wonder about the sex OR gender of the representative as it would be completely irrelevant to defense of the nation and the regulation of international trade.

  • Fraser Orr

    I have a theory about this. As you know successful politicians have to work insanely hard, cast off every principle, lie, cheat and steal to actually gain the power — and they do all of this because their greatest aspiration is to gain the power to control other people’s lives, and take their stuff to redistribute taking credit and praise for such “largesse”.

    So given that politicians are among the worst people in the world, it is possible we have less female politicians because, as a general rule, women are rather nicer people than men.

  • My MP is a woman, Ms. Pankhurst. Am I therefore unrepresented because she’s not a balding 43-year-old bloke with glasses?

    (Well, In fact, I would argue that representative “democracy” is a nonsense in its entirety on more or less this basis. I’ve never even met the woman. And I voted against her. But that’s a whole other argument. And also, what William says above. If governments didn’t make themselves so damned important, it wouldn’t, by definition, matter so much.)

  • Jeff Evans

    Never mind about MPs. There are so few male teachers in British Primary Schools – clearly there must be discrimination going on there.

  • Regional

    Fraser Orr,
    A very generous assessment of politicians.

  • hugh

    A DFID operation active in poverty relief with,naturally,a political dimension:women,climate,Gaza,etc.
    Particularly gender advocacy,see their strategic plan 2013-2015.
    About 70% govt and eu money, (S)he who pays the piper..

  • It always makes me laugh when lefties witter on about the repression of women in politics for fifteen paragraphs without once mentioning Margaret Thatcher. It’s as if one of the most dynamic and well-known global political leaders of the 20th century – who held office for over a decade – wasn’t a woman.

    Wrong politics, of course. From the wrong party.

  • Progress has been nonexistent for the excellent reason that there was no more progress to be made.

    Indeed. That is why I generally very much resent feminism as it exists now, or maybe even ever.

    If government would stick to what it was […] necessary for then there would be no need to worry or wonder about the sex OR gender of the representative as it would be completely irrelevant to defense of the nation and the regulation of international trade.

    And even if it does not so stick (as, obviously, it doesn’t). I mean, seriously: why should I care whether the person who insists on running my life for me, as well as everyone else’s life for them, has a penis/breasts/both/neither? I truly do find this obsession with sex/gender quite baffling.

  • bloke in spain

    Always reckoned the whole Suffragette thing was a total crock, anyway. Satisfied the demands of a very few intellectual middle class women & not much else.
    For most British women there weren’t any bars to employment. The bars were against not being required to be in employment to survive. And the women’s vote achieved bugger all. Whether the vote was cast by the menfolk or shared between the genders the votes went in the same direction to produce the same outcome. Except in a few argumentative middle-class households in Bloomsbury. Because the people voting had the same aspirations. Entitlement to a university education? Reckon a docker’s wife from Poplar must have really valued that.
    It took a very long time before the majority of the female half of the population had the spare time & energy to devote themselves to the wimmins issues. Before that divisiveness set in families, men & women, had what they’d always had. A common interest in achieving the best life for themselves, they could.
    Wasn’t it the Swiss didn’t get female emancipation ’til the 70s. Hotbed of male oppression, Switzerland.

  • I dunno, I’m still trying to figure out the historical aspects of this. As I see it, at least for now, all this goes back to property ownership. There clearly were legal barriers to some aspects of property ownership by women (especially married women, IIRC), and so if the vote was restricted to property owners, at least some women were clearly disadvantaged as a result, in my opinion unfairly so – i.e. based solely on the misfortune of being a (married?) woman. I would welcome any factual corrections.

  • bloke in spain

    Alisa
    Ask yourself this. The sole purpose of democracy is to produce benevolent government. Now tell me the franchise restricted to the property owning male heads of families would produce worse government than we have now?

  • Bloke, I don’t care much for democracy either way (can be good or bad – it depends), ditto its purposes. In this whole matter, democracy and voting are the cart, I’m interested in the horse, as it were – namely, property ownership. My point is that if instead of focusing their struggle on voting rights, the proto-feminists focused on property rights, they would have done a much better service to humanity, including women. That, again, assuming I got my historical picture of the matter right.

  • bloke in spain

    Oh, I wouldn’t disagree with you, Alisa.
    But the argument does depend on the presumption there’s someone being disadvantaged. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference who the property’s vested in. Because most people are trying to serve the best interests of all concerned. It’s what folk naturally do if left to themselves. It’s not so much the law should allow women to own property, as the law should get its nose out of who owns property.

  • It’s not so much the law should allow women to own property, as the law should get its nose out of who owns property.

    Philosophically – yes, absolutely. Practically though, the law is/was there to enforce property rights. So if I, after having been married, wished to declare equal/joint/mutual/whatever ownership of property with my husband, without the support of the law it would remain no more than a meaningless declaration.

    But that is all a digression, my main argument being that there was no need for feminism as such to achieve equal rights for women before the law. All that was needed was the extension of the existing right to own property to everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion or whatever.

  • bloke in spain

    I was thinking on the historical perspective from the point of view of my own family.
    My grandmothers both ‘benefited’ from “Votes for Wimmin!” etc. One was working class. The other middle class (at that time a small minority group). Middle class gran did because her mother did. She inherited property so it passed down through the female line (gran was one of three sisters). If she’d have had a daughter, daughter could have gone to uni. On the working class side, no-one owned property until my mother. And then, only because her name was on the mortgage. (Tax reasons?) She certainly could’ve have gone to uni. If she hadn’t been knocking out Spitfire parts. She’d matriculated. But it’d have been a novelty for where she grew up. So you have to wait until a daughter in my generation before any “Votes for Wimmin!” etc benefits show up. And they’d all result from the economic improvement of the working classes. Which had B all to do with Mrs P
    Hence Suffragetteism’s a minority sport.

  • Yep. Like I said, democracy-shmemocracy.

  • bloke in spain

    Incidentally. You could probably have done more for the economic emancipation of the working classes by fire-bombing the universities. It’s the monopolising of higher education by that middle-class cartel keeps the toilers & strivers out of all the better jobs.

  • bloke in spain

    Sorry. I meant carpet bombing. Just to be thorough.

  • bloke in spain

    HE & incendiary mix. I’d add sowing the ground with nuclear waste, but that’s my OCD showing through.

  • Patrick Crozier

    To the best of my knowledge in 1913, say, British women had exactly the same property rights as men. It is not an issue that I have ever seen crop up in the pages of The Times. The same cannot be said of the suffragettes. Their campaign of violence – burning down houses, destroying mail, disrupting Prime-ministerial games of golf – were heavily reported. Their willingness to starve themselves to death and the state’s unwillingness to force feed them was also a big issue.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I forgot. One issue that did come up is that female employees of London County Council were dismissed when they got married.

  • Patrick: if women did have the same property rights as men at that time, on what legal basis were they denied the right to vote/stand, other than being women?

  • pete

    Surely equality was achieved when women got the vote.

    The electorate, the majority of whom are women, choose to elect a parliament made up mostly of men.

    What’s the problem?

  • nemesis

    I think Ailsa raises a good point. Historically most of Parliament incumbents were landed gentry. It was and still is to some extent common practice of landed gentry to pass on their estate to the eldest male heir. I believe this was done in order to keep the estate in tact. Younger siblings, male or female had to marry well or fend for themselves.

  • Jeff Evans

    Not the case that women always had equal property rights. Look up on Wikipedia: Married Women’s Property Act, 1870 and 1882. Pre-suffragette, of course …

  • Indeed, Jeff. Still, if by 1913 (just to pick the anecdotal date Patrick chose) women had achieved equal property rights, then the equal voting/standing problem was seemingly solved, no?

  • Nemesis: yes, I too believe these were the considerations.

  • Mr Ed

    Not the case that women always had equal property rights.

    Not the case that married women always had equal property rights. A common law rule said that women’s property effectively passed to the husband on marriage, and intestacy rules favoured the first male heir. A law lecturer told me that in Victorian times unwed mothers were often wealthy women not wishing to lose their property by marriage, not got any sources but sounds a logical reaction to the common law.

  • Mr Ed

    That first sitting woman MP was, I believe, the same Nancy Astor who had an exchange with Churchill, for which she should rightly be remembered until the Sun burns out.

  • Property rights in the English legal tradition are intimately connected with Christianity (see John Locke who is credited with codifying the concept) – the same misogyny present in religion at the time was carried over to property rights.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mr Ed, regarding the explanatory text to your link, “she headed a clique in the House of Commons that found something to admire in Hitler’s Germany”, as you may well be aware there have been credible claims that the portrayal of the Cliveden Set as actually pro-Nazi was cooked up by the Communist journalist Claud Cockburn.

    I don’t really know enough to say. With the judgement of hindsight Lord Halifax seems to have behaved dreadfully in 1940, but all sorts of contemporaries who you’d think would have hated him for that didn’t.

    I digress. My real point is that successful Communist and not-very-ex-Communist intellectuals like Cockburn had a surprising ability to get their version of history accepted in liberal democracies, and Astor was a passionate anti-Communist whose name they’d naturally want to blacken, so I’d give her some benefit of the doubt.

  • Sounds about right to me, Lori. Still, my point remains that the problem, such as it was, should have been fixed at the level of property rights, not at the level of voting rights, as the former is more fundamental than the latter. I also happen to think that property rights are fundamental to many other issues which are traditionally dealt with as if they had an existence of their own, but that is a wider topic.

  • Patrick Crozier

    @Alisa “…if women did have the same property rights as men at that time, on what legal basis were they denied the right to vote/stand, other than being women?”

    To the best of my knowledge that was it: being a woman.

  • Mr Ed

    In 1918 the law in the UK was changed to allow women aged at least 30 to vote if they had the property qualification.

    In 1928 the age limit was reduced to 21, the same as for men.

    Of course, having property rights os one thing, but any Parliament could seize your property, voter or not. One might hope that having the vote might give you some chance to elect a representative who would defend your interests, but political reality does not seem to bear that hope out.

  • Thanks Ed, that helps. It also seems to be consistent with what Patrick just wrote.

  • bloke in spain

    Alisa
    “the problem, such as it was, should have been fixed at the level of property rights, not at the level of voting rights, as the former is more fundamental than the latter.”
    You’re going up the wrong route because your looking for the wrong thing.
    The Suffragettes were about politics not property. It’s connected with my oft repeated university rant. The Suffragettes were female, middle-class intellectuals with a set of political desires they wished to prosper*. They wanted universal sufferage because they believed, given the vote, all women would think like them & vote for what they wanted. A not-unreasonable belief for female middle-class intellectuals. (See any Guardian CiF) You can see from the article that 95 years later women still refuse to think like middle-class intellectuals, think & vote for themselves & continue to disappoint.

    *Another time. Life’s too short.

  • You’re going up the wrong route because your looking for the wrong thing.

    Now I’m not – because I’m not looking for what you think I’m looking 🙂

    The Suffragettes were about politics not property.

    I am not necessarily about property either, just as I’m not necessarily about politics, as both are just different means towards all sorts of ends. It depends. And yes, I do realize that the goals of the activists among the suffragettes were most likely different from mine or yours. However, being a political movement, they attempted to draw support from the rest of society, women in particular, and so tried to convince them that their own goals coincided with those of the rest of society* (you know, warm and fuzzy things like justice and equality before the law). Most people to this day think that these were precisely the goals of the suffragettes and the early feminists. And the current feminists too, for that matter. What I’m trying to show, or at least what I suspect, is that these proclaimed goals (as opposed to the real, political ones, whatever those may have been) could have been achieved by other means – in this case as in many others, by extending property rights to all.

    *They seem to have accomplished that when, with the beginning of WWI, they abandoned their militant tactics which seem to have alienated most of the people they hoped to convince and mobilize, and instead directed their focus and energies towards helping the war effort. Sometimes politics is not all bad.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A minor point for us Westerners, but i resent lumping Rwanda together with Kyrgyzstan, China, and Sudan.
    In the latest Economic Freedom of the World index, Rwanda ranks 29th out of 152. That’s ahead of Sweden and the Netherlands, not to mention, further down, Israel, France, Spain, and Italy. Not bad for a country famous for genocide, innit?
    By contrast, Kyrgyzstan ranks 90th and China ranks 115th. (Sudan seems to be unranked.)

  • Mr Ed

    Sadly Kyrgyzstan is only any use in Scrabble, perhaps there is hope for Rwanda yet.

  • john malpas

    I love all this nit picking . Especially the historical talk.
    Still nobody mentioned that a big bust and a bright smile will work magic when legislation fails.
    And what will the men do if they are barred from certain activities. Crime offers much growth potential.

  • bloke in spain

    “…warm and fuzzy things like justice and equality before the law”
    Well yes, Alisa, but (& I’ll no doubt set a few teeth grinding) I’ve never been convinced there are any universal standards of justice & equality.
    I’m minded of the Western opposition to the way women are treated in the Muslim world. And then Muslim women turn round to Western feminists with a blank look & say “Actually we’re perfectly happy with the veils & all the rest of it. But we don’t much like what you’re calling freedom & equality.”
    I’m not sure whether the Suffragettes weren’t shouting across a cultural divide. Most women may have been content with their lot, at the turn of the century, because it was the best format for those times.
    Hence my distrust of intellectuals. Folk do seem to be able to arbitrate themselves societal structures that work. But we’ve a lot of recent experience of intellectuals trying to orchestrate societal structures that prove to do anything but work.

  • @bloke: When a woman tells you, in all honesty, that Ol’ Mo’ had to allow men to marry up to 4 women because Al’ gave ’em the endurance to service even 20 women, it’s time to ask yourself whether the term ‘brainwashed’ might apply to said woman…

  • bloke in spain

    Thanx Greg for so elegantly proving my point. Cheers!

  • Deep Lurker

    There’s a theory that the development of modern repeating firearms gave a big boost to women’s suffrage. The possibility of a pistol in a purse altered people’s thinking about women from “childlike beings who needed men for protection” to “big girls who could take care of themselves.”

    So maybe we need property requirements with a new wrinkle: To vote, one must own at least one (1) working firearm that can fire at least five (5) times without reloading.