In 1915, to coincide with Magna Carta’s 700th anniversary, the suffragette campaigner Helena Normanton published an essay on ‘Magna Carta and Women’. She argued that the disenfranchisement of women contravened Magna Carta’s clauses 39 and 40, which are still valid under the charter of 1225:
(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
For Normanton, “it is expressly contrary to Magna Carta to refuse, deny, or delay, right or justice. The right of the franchise is still unconstitutionally withheld from women, but the spirit of Magna Carta sounds a trumpet-call to them to struggle ever more valiantly to realise its noble ideal.” Normanton went on to become the first female barrister to practise in England.
Because of Clause 40, Magna Carta has come to symbolize equality under the law. And although it includes one example of blatant discrimination against women in Clause 54 – “No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.” – it also contains some protections for women, like the protection of a widow’s marriage portion or inheritance in Clause 7, and the right of a widow to refuse to marry in Clause 8.
So why did it take so long to achieve universal suffrage – not until 1918 for men and 1928 for women – in Britain? This Spring, there was a fascinating series on BBC2 about “Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power”, in which Amanda Vickery traced the long history of the struggle for women’s political rights.
Vickery notes that the struggle is still going on today, a message that was echoed by the concurrent programme “Hillary Clinton: The Power of Women”. In 1995, Clinton made a ground-breaking speech in Beijing, challenging the world to treat women’s rights as human rights, but twenty years later change for the world’s women has been patchy at best.
The Fawcett Society, named for the suffragist campaigner Millicent Fawcett, says: “While there is much to be celebrated in women’s lives today, the UK’s record on women’s rights is still poor. Women and girls are exposed to inequality, discrimination and harassment, and face significant barriers to achieving their full potential.”
Our 2015 speaker Michelle Ryan researches the phenomenon of the glass cliff, whereby women (and members of other minority groups) are more likely to be placed in leadership positions which are risky or precarious.
In the parliament which has just been dissolved, just 148 of the 650 MPs are women, and just five of 22 Cabinet ministers. Since both percentages are 23%, I suppose Cabinet is at least representative of Parliament, but they compare poorly with Afghanistan, where 28% of MPs are women.
All of which is why it is damaging that there is a gender ‘turnout gap’ in general elections, with fewer women voting than men, and indeed that turnout has fallen across the board.
Politics is relevant to women and men alike, to anyone that uses the NHS, or drives or takes public transport, or buys food, or works or is on benefits or receives a pension.
So I ask you to honour the long view taken by those who campaigned for voting rights and equality. Take a long view yourself regarding what you think is right for the UK. Register to vote by 20 April, and use it on 7 May.