As we celebrate 100 years since some women gained the vote, I have been reflecting on my own journey within politics, and how the sacrifices and work of the suffragettes created an environment in which women are now actively involved in politics. The fact that we have a female prime minister on the centenary of women gaining the vote shows how far we have come in terms of progress.
However, more needs to be done to encourage women to actively enter politics and stand up for their beliefs.
Early last year I heard Baroness Anne Jenkin, the co-chair of Women2Win, the campaign to get more women to stand for election, speak at a business event for women entrepreneurs. She ended her speech by talking about the #AskHerToStand campaign. It was just the encouragement I needed. The next day I signed up with the Conservative Women’s Organisation to find out more.
Six months later in the general election I had the privilege of standing as the prospective candidate in Rhondda, Wales. I didn’t win my seat but I am now the director of Women2Win. Without their support I would never have pursued politics as a career. I now reach out to communities, schools and businesses to encourage women to stand. It works. Women like to be asked – not just by other women, but by men too.
We are looking for women that want to put their heads above the parapet and get involved. Women who are Brown Owls, who chair the PTA, who are school governors, or who have campaigned to keep their local playground open. We are looking for women who care, are resilient and have what it takes to be an MP. They receive a very warm welcome from us and the support needed to navigate the maze that is politics.
As we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which finally introduced votes for some women, it is important to remember not only the men and women who campaigned for so long outside Parliament, including the Pankhursts and Millicent Fawcett (whose statue will be placed in Parliament Square later this year) but also the MPs. It was of course only men who campaigned in Parliament to introduce the legislation which started the journey to the full franchise 10 years later, but it shows that work inside Parliament can also contribute to sizeable social change.
Since Women2Win was founded 13 years ago, it has led the effort to get more Conservative women MPs elected. Since the campaign’s launch in 2005, the number of female Conservative MPs has increased from 17 to 67. It is better but not good enough. It is still only one in five and there is still much to do.
This increase in the number of Conservative women MPs has been achieved by able women, competing with equally able men on a level playing field.
The pipeline of Conservative women stepping forward to start the journey into public life remains significantly smaller than men. The abuse they receive on social media is a problem – and the fact that the Prime Minister has promised to tackle this intimidation shows what an issue it is.
However, it doesn’t put off everyone.
I gave a talk at a primary school last week, and I asked the students to help me recruit. I asked them to ask their teacher, their mum and their auntie if they had thought about entering government or local politics. As a result of that one talk, I had three teachers and a teacher’s daughter contact me for more information. Women need to be asked.
This campaign works and is beginning to reap rewards. It is how I began my journey. We all need to acknowledge that there is an urgent need to address the underrepresentation of women and minority groups in the Conservative Party and in Parliament. Politics would be the better for it.
Women’s representation and diversity are not optional extras, but essential features of any institution claiming to represent the people of this country.
Virginia Crosbie is the Director of Women2Win