The gender agenda

Today marks 75 years since British women over the age of 21 were finally granted the right to vote. The anniversary will be widely celebrated in political and feminist circles. But do women voters still value the democratic right that Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters fought so hard to win? Or have the endemic apathy and cynicism of modern politics made a mockery of the suffragettes' courage and sacrifices? Marie Woolf asks six women of different generations and viewpoints to describe what their vote means to them
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SHIRLEY WILLIAMS

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS

The Rt Hon Baroness Williams of Crosby is a former Labour Education Secretary and is leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. Her grandmother, Edith Catlin, was an early suffragette and her mother, Vera Brittan, the writer and journalist, a vocal supporter of votes for women

People think that suffrage was about just the vote but it was about far more: it completely altered the attitude to women in society. When you think that at the beginning of the last century we were put in the same class as little children, it will tell you all you need to know. Everywhere you looked, from property law to divorce law, women were treated as dependants of men. I have always believed that the impact of the vote was much more on the agenda of politics than the emergence of individual women as leaders.

The revolutionary change was that male MPs had to regard female constituents in everything they said and did. That's when men got interested in health and pensions and care of the elderly. They had to take seriously issues such as maternity services that before the franchise were regarded as a joke.

We dignified women by giving them the vote. But it took about 20 years after the vote to shift the style of politics. The Second World War, during which women played an important role in defending the country, was important to that. But there is still a long way to go. The style of politics - in England at least - remains schoolboyish. Either that or it resembles a football match, in which confrontation is all. People leap up and punch the air when they score a point against the other side. It's very adolescent.

When young women say they can't be bothered to vote it is tragic and it shows how little they know of history. It also shows they don't have a clue about what they could lose. But it's understandable - tragic, but understandable. People are losing touch with politicians and don't identify with them any more. They regard politicians, if not as thugs, then as a bunch of semi-crooks.

My mother didn't need to imbue in me the importance of the vote; I joined the Labour Party on the day of my 16th birthday. The first vote I cast was in 1955, although I had been a candidate, agent and speaker by that time.

My father's mother, Edith Catlin, was an early suffragette. My father's father was a vicar and she so scandalised people with her support for women's suffrage that he couldn't get a living from the local squirearchy. She finally separated from him because she felt she was so blighting his career.

LADY DIANA DOLLERY

Chairwoman of the Friends of the Women's Library

My grandmother - Myra Sadd - was a suffragette and was sent to prison for throwing a brick through a window of the War Office during a demonstration. She was sentenced to two months hard labour in prison, during which she sewed uniforms and mailbags. Holloway prison was more or less full of suffragettes at that time, including Emmeline Pankhurst and the composer Dame Ethel Smyth. The prison was in absolute uproar after that demonstration and some of the inmates didn't get to their cells until the following morning.

My grandmother was a mature woman of about 40 at the time and she had four children. I know she was force-fed in prison and she suffered a broken nose as well. My grandfather was extremely supportive: he wrote to the Home Secretary to complain.

My grandmother came from a non-conformist Essex family of free thinkers. She was interested in bicycling, which was a great liberator for middle-class girls because you didn't need a chaperone.

Grandmother got permission for my mother, who was 12 at the time, to visit her in prison because she felt she should witness what things were like. My mother talked about smuggling writing paper into and out of the cells in the hem of a skirt. The letters are now in the Women's Library.

Some people have forgotten how much energy went into the campaign for women's votes: the people selling the newspaper for the suffrage movement, for example, weren't allowed to stand on the pavement because that was obstruction: they had to stand in the gutter. It was a long struggle. People don't realise quite what a fight it was.

DR KATHERINE RAKE

Director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equal treatment of women in public life

Bill Clinton said that it is the female vote that makes or breaks governments. It's a blind government that doesn't recognise that. A sensible political party goes after the women's vote quite aggressively. When Labour lost the 1992 election, it was the gender gap in voting that lost it. Then there was a swing to Labour in women's votes in 1997, but it looks as if those voters are now beginning to drift back to the Conservatives.

A lot of people would be very surprised that it is only 75 years since women got the vote because it now appears to be such a fundamental human right. It is easy to forget how long and hard it was fought for and how recently it was won. In the early days of the women's suffrage movement people questioned why women would need to vote when they had a male partner. One of the patronising arguments was that women needed to be protected from the harsh realities of political life.

But today we are still in a much longer-term process of women taking up positions of power. Women still account for just 18 per cent of MPs.

It's worrying when people do not vote. But you need to look at the reasons for that. A lot of people don't think it will make much difference who they vote for; they are just responding to the political climate. Anecdotally, we know that women voters are very put off by the aggression and the "yah-boo" element of adversarial politics. There are a lot of big issues where it is very obvious that one needs consensus, such as proper pensions.

MOJGAN NADERI

Teacher who came to Britain from Iran in 1978

When I became a British citizen six years ago and got the right to vote, it made me feel more a part of this society. If I lost the right to vote I would be furious. I vote on local issues such as health, but the question of integrity is also important to me. I can't stand the Conservatives, but it seems now that Labour is going the same way as them. It may be that I think like that because as a Middle-Eastern person I am quite cynical about what people do with their power.

In Iran, women can vote; they have not lost that at least. But here you can question the Government without feeling threatened and fearing for your life and that of your family. The person who questions the Government is not sent to prison. You have to be very brave in Iran to be able to do that.

Under the Shah, women were given rights. The dress code for women was changed and my mother was among the first generation of women to qualify as a nurse. But women in Iran have lost so many rights since. We have lost the right to even smile openly in public without having a remark made about it.

JOAN BAKEWELL

Writer and broadcaster

It's extraordinary how short a time it is since women got the vote. The question is: what have we done with it? I see voting as my civic duty but many people are very casual about these things

When people look at the House of Commons they see men in suits, and don't feel that it represents them. They listen to the debates and don't think it's how important subjects should be tackled. When Tony Blair reshuffled the Cabinet, and abolished the Lord Chancellorship, his speech was that of a student at the Oxford Union. It was childish, petty and completely inappropriate. We wanted an explanation for his decisions, not a talk about women's tights. That was offensive. It raises the question: if this is our top debating chamber - men behaving like fools - why bother?

It was good that a swathe of women came into parliament in 1997, and that they are now there in government, just as they are in the boardrooms. Women raise different issues and debate them in a way which is different from men. That approach is slowly seeping into public life.

It is important that we don't segregate women. They have earnt their place in the electorate. It's not a man's world in which women have influence - it's a people's world. That's a major difference. People are just as effective as they want to be, male or female.

NIKITA KANABAR

18, politics student who has decided not to vote

With political issues, it's still usually men who decide. In my house, when it comes to voting, my mum talks to my dad. Whatever my dad says, she does. She's not really interested in politics and my dad goes for the party that he thinks is best for him economically, because he pays the bills. I think that's wrong. Women should be more educated about politics. They don't have to read the broadsheets every day or get a big textbook, but they need to develop an interest. It's their country.

Most young people don't have a clue. I know a little more, having studied politics at A-level, and I found that there is not a lot to choose between the political parties. There's just not enough to vote on. If I go to the polling station, I will probably just spoil the ballot.

We need more women in politics, particularly as MPs. Even though I wouldn't support the Conservatives, Margaret Thatcher is a good role model, because she was the first woman to become Prime Minister. We need to demonstrate in parliament that we are on an equal footing with men.

Women have had the vote for only a short time. There has been a lot of change, but there is still a long way to go.

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