Helen Whately is the Conservative Party’s Vice-Chair for Women, and is MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent.
A fundamental principle of both feminism and Conservativism is the belief in equality of opportunity – something we have worked on for over a century. It was a Conservative Home Secretary, George Cave, who steered the 1918 Representation of the People Act through Parliament, giving women the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time. And it was a Conservative peer, Robert Cecil, who introduced the Qualification of Women Act later that same year, enabling Nancy Astor to stand for the Conservatives in a parliamentary by-election in 1919, and to become the first woman to take her seat in the Commons.
Astor was the lone female voice among 643 men for almost two years. She not only eased the path to national politics for the women who joined her in 1921, but paved the way for every female MP since. Despite calling herself a feminist and strongly advocating for women’s rights, she and other Conservative women have often been overlooked for not being radical enough – though I would argue the reason is one of style rather than substance.
Emmeline Pankhurst, known for her use of ‘deeds, not words’ to progress the Suffragette movement, was considered radical both at the time and nowadays. She joined the Conservative Party in 1926, and was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the 1929 election.
Pankhurst sadly passed away in June 1928, just two weeks before the Conservative government passed the Equal Franchise Act granting women equal suffrage with men, adding fivr million women to the electoral roll.
Thirty years later, another Conservative Government passed the Life Peerages Act 1958, bringing women into the House of Lords for the first time.
Then in 1975, Conservative MPs elected Margaret Thatcher as their party leader – the first woman leader of a British political party.
Her three successive election wins made her not only the first female Prime Minister of the UK, but our longest serving head of government in modern times. The fact that we had a woman as our Prime Minister during my childhood meant I took for granted that women could succeed at whatever career they chose – including a political one.
With Theresa May as our second female Prime Minister, my daughters are growing up with the same assumption. May has had her own firsts: she became the first female Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2002, and was the first woman to hold two great offices of state.
And just as Margaret Thatcher’s leadership showed girls of my generation that there should be no limits to our ambition, thousands of women have expressed solidarity with our current ‘bloody difficult woman’. We know she is not afraid to get things done; frustrated at the slow rate at which women were becoming MPs, she joined forces with Anne Jenkin in 2005 to set up Women2Win. Part of the organisation’s mission is the normalisation of women in politics and, during its 14 years, it has helped to identify, train and mentor female candidates for public office, enabling an increase in women Conservative MPs from 17 after the 2005 election to 67 in 2017.
Being one of 209 of female MPs makes Parliament a much friendlier place than I suspect it was for Nancy Astor, but at 32 per cent it’s still not enough. After all, more than half of the population are women. That’s why Brandon Lewis is driving the Conservative Party to do more to support women, including setting an ambition for our parliamentary candidate list to be 50:50 between men and women. Since that announcement, more than 400 women have come forward to say they are interested in becoming Conservative parliamentary candidates – double the number of women MPs currently in parliament.
For me, campaigning for true equality for women is a natural consequence of being a Conservative. After all, ours is the party that believes in equality of opportunity, in everyone having the chance to fulfil their potential, irrespective of where you come from or who you are – including your gender.
And we have been putting this theory into practice. In 2017, we introduced legislation which means that, for the first time ever, businesses report on their gender pay gap – at its lowest level since records began in 1997, while the female employment rate is at a record high.
This Conservative government has brought in policies to protect and support women suffering domestic abuse through the Domestic Abuse Bill, including the first ever legal definition of domestic abuse. And we’ve committed more than £100 million in funding between 2016 and 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls, as well as making the largest ever single investment in tackling FGM, providing an extra £50 million to support work across some of the most affected countries in Africa.
There’s more to do. We have to tackle not just the well-known forms of abuse and discrimination against women, but also more hidden barriers to equal opportunity. And as we do so, I’m confident we can make things better for men too. This isn’t a zero-sum game. I know I’m an MP in a party that has done so much for women and is committed to doing more. That’s why I am proud to be the 436th woman to become an MP, and the Conservative Party’s Vice Chair for Women.