Women in Parliament

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Women were not eligible to vote in the UK until 1918. The Representation of the People Act allowed some women over 30 to vote. Although 8.5 million women met this criteria, it only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. In the same year the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women to be elected as MPs for the first time. The first woman to be elected to the House of Commons was Constance Markievicz, in the general election of 1918. However as a member of Sinn Fein, she did not take her seat. The first woman to take her seat was Nancy Astor (Viscountess Astor), after a by-election in December 1919. She was elected as a Conservative for the Plymouth Sutton constituency. It was not until the Life Peerages Act 1958 that women were finally allowed to sit in the House of Lords as life peers. The Act was passed in July 1958 and the four women took their seats in the House of Lords that year Baroness Wootton of Abinger (Barbara Wootton), Baroness Swanborough (Stella Isaacs), Baroness Elliot of Harwood (Katharine Elliot) and Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston (Irene Curzon). Hereditary women peers were finally allowed to sit in the House of Lords after the Peerage Act 1963. Today just over 20% of MPs are women and there are a similar percentage of women in the House of Lords. Women have held posts at all levels of government and in Parliament Betty Boothroyd, now Baroness Boothroyd, was the first woman to be elected Speaker in 1992. Baroness Hayman was elected the first Lord Speaker in the House of Lords when the post established in 2006. The Parliamentary Art Collection holds a growing number of portraits women Parliamentarians together with portraits of women who had a significant influence on Parliamentary activity, such as Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958) who campaigned for women to sit in the House of Lords in a famous test case before the Lords Committee for Privileges in 1922, and Margot Asquith, wife of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who as a political hostess was very influential in British politics in the early 20th century.