Seventy-five years ago tomorrow the King gave Royal Assent to the Representation of the People Act 1918 and extended the right to vote to the majority gender - women. The Act gave the vote to female householders (and wives of householders) over 30 years of age. Ten years later the franchise was extended to women over 21 on the same basis as men.

The decades-long fight for votes for women by thousands of peaceful suffrage campaigners, led by Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and the more militant Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, had been long and hard. There were repeated snubs from an all-male House of Commons and outbursts of misogyny that make recent opposition to women's ordination look like a vicarage tea party. Year after year, for half a century, MPs rejected bills and amendments to extend democracy to the majority gender.

This country, and democracy itself, owe a huge debt of gratitude to those brave suffrage campaigners who fought so hard for women to be allowed to vote. And indeed to the umpteen men who furthered the cause, from John Stuart Mill onwards. But the campaigners well recognised that winning the right to vote was only the first step. After 60 years of campaigning and lobbying for women's franchise, Dame Millicent Fawcett wrote in 1928 to the newly formed Junior Council of Professional and Business Women: 'You know from your own experience that equal pay and equal opportunity are still withheld from us. I shall expect to see you individually and collectively putting your shoulders to that wheel and pushing the car of progress along in your generation as we tried to do in ours.'

If Dame Millicent, the Pankhursts and the hosts of courageous campaigners in suffrage heaven were able to fax down a message to British women this week, the words would surely be the same. But they might add an impatient postscript: 'Why the heck aren't you using the vote we fought so hard for in your own interest as women?'

As one, among many others, who has beavered away for more than a decade on many issues that are loosely described as 'equal opportunities', I must say bluntly that progress over the 75 years since we won the vote has been patchy, to say the least.

To be sure, some glass ceilings have been broken. Betty Boothroyd is Speaker of the House of Commons, Stella Rimington is head of MI5, Barbara Mills is Director of Public Prosecutions and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Despite 17 years of the Equal Pay Act, however, women still earn on average 21 per cent less than men and the gap between the highest and lowest earners - most of them women - is widening. Women make up around 2 million of the 2.7 million people protected by wages councils, working in low-paid jobs in shops, cafes, hairdressing salons and the clothing trade.

The Government's decision to abolish wages councils is likely to make it still more difficult for women to achieve economic independence and provide for their future in old age. In 1991 only 15 per cent of women qualified for the full pension of pounds 52 per week. Three quarters of pensioners

living in poverty are women.

Another halter tied to women is the cruel lack of a national, affordable childcare system such as that in France, even though evidence shows the fusty, male-dominated Treasury would actually gain after the first few years of expenditure on a national childcare programme, as women went out to work and paid taxes.

At the next election, British women will be well placed to use their vote to remedy some of these injustices. The 1992 general election has left the political parties competing heavily for m'lady's favours. Labour is puzzling how to attract female voters over 24 years of age. Conservatives are working out how to woo younger female voters back into the Tory fold.

In 1983 the Tories had an 11 per cent lead over Labour with female voters under 24. Since then there has been a dramatic turnaround. By the 1987 general election, young women under 24 had swung to the left and Labour led the Tories by nearly 11 per cent. The trend continued in last year's election, when the gap grew to 13 points, Labour with 43 per cent and the Tories with 30 per cent, according to figures from the Mori polling organisation.

Party strategists in Britain are well aware that American women stepped out and campaigned for what they as women wanted and, even more strongly, against what they did not want. They dealt George Bush a six-point gender gap, and used their collective electoral power to knock the most powerful man in the world and a number of his male supporters out of the political arena. 'Women have finally decided to vote in their own self-interest. We want child care and family leave. We want the right to abortion and equal rights and an end to violence against women. We want a peace dividend and environmental protection. We want respect. Is that too much to ask? Well if it is, tough.' That was the political activist Jane O'Reilly, writing at the time of the American elections.

The gender gap in the United States is at its widest among women under 30 and women in the workforce. In the US, 48 per cent of women in the 18-19 age group who voted supported Bill Clinton and only 33 per cent supported Mr Bush. Men in the same age group voted 38 per cent for Mr Clinton and 36 per cent for Mr Bush. Some 51 per cent of women in the workforce voted for Mr Clinton, compared with 36 per cent of men in the same group; 31 per cent of women in this group voted for Mr Bush, compared with 33 per cent of men.

No one in the United Kingdom seems to understand quite what is causing the British gender gap, but Anne Lewis, a leading US commentator, attributed the gap there to a number of incidents in 1992 that made women angry enough to flex their voting muscles, including the erosion of the right to choice on abortion and the rejection of Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas.

'As someone who has spent 25 years organising women,' she told a recent conference in Vienna, 'I can tell you, nothing has mobilised them as much as seeing 13 men in blue suits (on the senate committee) during the Thomas/Hill case. It made American women suddenly aware of how politics affects them.' American women got organised, raised funds for female candidates and then campaigned and voted for them.

Before last year's election, more than 250 of the increasingly well- organised but unbelievably underfunded women's organisations in Britain agreed a 10-point agenda. During the campaign their issues were as visible as the Isle of Wight in fog. It showed them that they needed to mobilise and organise.

To judge by the animated response from female activists to a series of 75th anniversary briefings in committee rooms of the House of Commons on issues of interest to women - child care, a safer environment, equal pay and pensions, improved health care, and an equal voice in the media and in Parliament - British politicians should brace themselves.

Now, more women than men vote in general elections. By the next one, British women may have learnt from millions of their sisters across the Atlantic and give their votes only to the party and the candidates they believe will serve them best.

The author is founder of the 300 Group for Women in Politics and Public Life.

(Photograph omitted)

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