Lord Speaker remarks on Vote 100

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler.
07 February 2018

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, delivered remarks at a reception in Westminster Hall on 6 February 2018 to mark 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women in the UK the right to vote for the first time.

'Thank you Prime Minister, for those powerful words, and for your presence here to mark this important anniversary in the life of our democracy. I know we all welcome the action you have already announced on domestic violence and abuse which is a major problem in our society.

We also welcome this anniversary but, as you have said, this is not remotely the end of the process.

The vote may have been a hundred years ago, but the clouds for women did not remotely lift immediately – as I remember from my own family history.

In the 1930s, my mother, a qualified teacher in Manchester, moved to the south only to be told by the education authority in Essex that as her husband had a job she could not have one as well.

In 1956, I cycled past my local girl’s high school which had exactly the same ability range as my own school – as all the later surveys showed. But the difference was that many of us were preparing to go on to university, whereas so few of the girls were able to follow that same path.

While in the 1980s, when I was Secretary of State for Employment with two young daughters of my own, I spent time trying to expand the provision of child care but with only limited success – and frankly not vast interest among all politicians at that time.

Apart from the injustice of it all, the truth is that for most of my lifetime we have turned our back on so much of the women talent in this country. That has been to the disadvantage, obviously, of women themselves, but also to the major disadvantage of this nation. Think of what more we could have achieved.

Now at long last the clouds seem to be lifting. The Speaker has set out what is happening in the Commons, but what of the Lords? The first women to sit in the Lords came 60 years ago with the Life Peerages Act of 1958.

Today almost 30% of life peers are women and we should increase that proportion – even given our plans to reduce the size of the House itself (that is if you accept our plans, Prime Minister).

And there have been other changes.

When we introduced the Lord Speaker role itself, the first two elected speakers were women. So my election was an act of gender equality to break the glass ceiling!

The Leader of the Lords and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lords are both women. We now have two women bishops in the House and the third, the Lord Bishop of London, is soon to arrive. We have also just selected our first woman Black Rod, and she will take up her position in a week or so – the first woman to occupy that role since it was created a mere 650 years ago.

But just going back to that first woman life peer to take her seat: she was a remarkable woman called Stella Isaacs. She founded the Women’s Voluntary Service, and helped to mobilise more than one million women in the service of our country during the Second World War. When she took up her seat, the Observer newspaper wrote:

“The Women’s Voluntary Service has brought out in her the latent political talent and the strength of character that once induced someone to say of her that, had she been a man, she would have become Prime Minister.”

Well we have now had two women prime ministers in the last 30 or 40 years. We have passed that milestone. That achievement to me symbolises what is now possible in this country and is an example of what can be done. But the presence of women at the very top of politics should not blind us to the difficulties that so many women in this country still face at every level in our society.

We still face the gender pay gap, not just an issue for the BBC but for a whole range of companies and industries. We face the challenge of creating equality in education and equality in other areas like employment and pensions.

So, Prime Minister, thank you so much for your speech this evening; thank you so much for the action that you have announced and action you are taking, and for the recognition that we still have a distance to travel in this country to achieve true equality.'

Further information

Image: House of Lords 2018 / Photography by Roger Harris

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