This year seems an appropriate one to get angry about the need for All-Women Shortlists. A Century ago, one very famous woman threw herself in front of a horse to make a point about women’s rights to representation. It wasn’t a new idea. It was one women had struggled to achieve for years and one they would struggle to achieve for the next century.
It also seems appropriate to get angry about All-Women Shortlists here in the Holme Valley. Thanks to Gill Liddington we have that image of Dora Thewlis to remind us the battle for suffrage wasn’t just about Emily Davidson or the Pankhursts. I grew up in the same Holme Valley villages as Dora, Meltham Mills and Honley. I now explore the Colne Valley places she moved to, including Milnsbridge Socialist club, then at the heart of discussion that recognised the link between socialism and suffragism.
Aged sixteen, Mill-Hand Dora was prepared to risk her job and her freedom through her work for suffrage, arrested and imprisoned for taking part in 1907 demonstrations to Parliament. It was the second time in a few months that London arrests included significant numbers of women from the West Riding. The seventeen local women on this occasion included young Dora and Ellen Brooke of Wooldale.
So if anyone thinks the objection of some men to All-Women-Shortlists is new, I suggest they take a look back at the Hansard debates around suffrage. Progressive men supported the suffrage cause, but there were plenty of men – in Parliament, the papers and the courts, quite prepared to stand up and set out why they thought women should not be allowed – to vote, to stand for Parliament or to be elected as councillors. It took that indignant little bit of shooting from the sidelines in our local paper this week, headlining debate on our local AWS with ‘men not allowed’ to remind me of how much we were still part of a wider struggle to allow women their rightful place.
Then as now, of course, the struggle isn’t just about achieving women’s rights to representation as a goal. It is about the rights of women to influence the shape of their own lives from an equal platform. So when the magistrate suggested sixteen year old Dora should have been at school, it was her mother who scolded her for not mentioning that had she not been demonstrating in London, she would have been doing a ten hour shift in the mill. As the Fawcett society frequently remind us, the line-up of treasury ministers pronouncing more pain for the poor this week did not include one woman. I am watching, seemingly helpless, as my relatives try and work our how they can cope with the bedroom tax and end of council tax benefit all on one day. Every time it is talked about on the telly, it is the women who appear as recipients of the damage, smug men who tell them they are in the wrong. The battle for birth control, the rights of women to work after marriage, the struggle to gain places in the House of Lords, through to the building of comprehensive education and battles for equal pay are all part of the same work towards equality that needs women leaders working equally alongside men.
It is all too easy to see All-Women-Shortlists as an imposed internal Labour administrative exercise, rather than to view them as part of that great struggle for equality and the central link between socialism and feminism. So yes I will get angry about All- Women Shortlists – angry that a century on from that great struggle they are still needed.
The combination of belief and pragmatism always makes achieving socialist goals through Parliament a struggle. Yes, if we truly believe in equality then there should be no such thing as a sitting MP. All seats would be divided out equally between genders, taking full account of ethnicity, age and orientation. Democracy and gender equality are not easy to achieve alongside each other. The real justification for Labour All-Women Shortlists is that they work. Slowly but surely, a significant contingent of Labour women are shaping the patterns of government because we made such a big breakthrough in 1997. With the imperfect but justified application of gender quotas Labour achieve better representation in local government than the other main parties.
So this week I will be proud to return to Milnsbridge Socialist club, knowing Dora shared her political values there. It is fitting that Colne Valley Labour selection committee hold their first meeting there, once again making those crucial links between socialism and feminism by putting in place another All-Woman shortlist. As long as they are needed I will defend them as a central part of achieving my socialism, complete only with gender equality; whilst being angry about the fact they are still needed.