International Women's Day

6th March 2008

Brooks Newmark marks International Women's Day on Saturday with a Commons speech highlighting advances being made in the representation of women in Parliament.

 

5.15 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am delighted to contribute to today's debate to mark international women's day on Saturday. Hon. Members may know by now that I was born in the United States, but they might not know that the predecessor to international women's day was also born across the pond in February 1909. It had far more dubious parentage than mine-the Socialist party of America. Early socialist credentials stood the movement in good stead when the observance of international women's day in Russia on 8 March 1917 coincided with the downfall of the tsarist regime. However, the story of women's rights has much more to do with evolution than revolution.

Women won the vote not because Emily Davison shocked race-goers at the Derby but because those who survived her proved themselves indispensable during the great war. If Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and Millicent Fawcett were the figureheads in the fight for women's rights in the 20th century, J. S. Mill provided much of the early impetus for that fight during the 19th century.

Mill represented Westminster as a Member of Parliament, but his constituency was far broader, and the debt that is owed to him is correspondingly deeper. Gladstone described him as the "the saint of Rationalism", and he was certainly more rational than his electorate, who failed to return him to Parliament after he had been a Member for only three years.

It is striking that Mill's contribution to the debates of his day continues to be relevant to the debates of ours. Although we have made tremendous advances in some matters, there is clearly ground to be made up in others. When Mill spoke out on the admission of women to the electoral franchise, for example, he believed that it would address the practical grievance of the lack of property rights then given to women. He told the House simply that

"if we were besotted enough to think these things right, there would be more excuse for us; but we know better."

The fight for property rights for married women now seems like something out of the dark ages. However, that one moral right, which Mill explicitly identified as a justification for extending the franchise to women, had a long and painful gestation. Between 1857 and 1882, 18 married women's property Bills were introduced in Parliament and an Act finally appeared on the statute book only in 1882, by which time Mill had said goodbye to the world along with Westminster.

The substance of the inequality is perhaps less important than the lesson that there will always be those who say that change takes time and that it must be allowed to run its course. Our answer to them should be that sometimes the pace of change needs to be given as much encouragement as possible. I am therefore proud to be co-chair of the Conservative party's Women2Win campaign with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I am also proud to claim Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, as both a Conservative and a fellow Anglo-American. Women2win is making great strides to secure better representation among women, without the party needing to resort to the expedient of all-women shortlists, proving that positive action does not necessarily mean affirmative action.

Helping to encourage the right women to be selected for winnable seats is a challenge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has set us. It is a challenge that we are undoubtedly meeting, with one third of the prospective candidates whom we have so far selected being women, as we heard earlier. All the women selected have shown not only what can be achieved on merit alone, but that the Conservative party is doing what it must to improve representation of women among its candidates. Notwithstanding all that, the figure of one third is only a start. I am confident that, in the spirit of 1997, things can only get better.

I want to return briefly to another of Mill's observations during the 1867 franchise debate, in the spirit of continuity rather than anachronism. He said:

"I should like to have a Return laid before this House of the number of women who are annually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors...We should then have an arithmetical estimate of the value set by a male legislature and male tribunals on the murder of a woman, often by torture continued through years, which, if there is any shame in us, would make us hang our heads."

The issue is no longer the values set by a male legislature or a male judiciary, because we have made great advances in those respects. Nevertheless, as we heard earlier, violence against women, the practice of forced marriage, human trafficking, female genital mutilation and that most unpleasant misnomer, "honour killing", are all alive and well in 21st century Britain. Thankfully, there is no need for us to argue that those things are wrong. We all know far better than that. However, the culture may have changed in Westminster, but it has not always changed out in the real world, and that is still the challenge to us in all parts of the House.

Added to the category of practices that are morally repugnant are those to which many people will turn a blind eye, notably inequality in pay and pensions. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) pointed out, the median pay gap between male and female full-time workers fell from 17.4 per cent. in 1997 to 12.6 per cent. in 2007, while the mean figure fell from 20.7 to 17.2 per cent. in the same period. In the words of the women and equality unit, the median gap between male and female part-time workers has "remained fairly static," at around 40 per cent. Although there has been some progress, clearly we can all do better. Some 28,000 sexual discrimination cases were taken to employment tribunals last year, which is double the figure of the previous year. Since I am an optimist, I interpret that as evidence of a greater awareness among women of their rights, rather than of a greater incidence of discrimination, but the figures should nevertheless give us pause.

I want to conclude with some final "grist to the Mill" from 1867, by noting his warning that

"men are afraid of manly women; but those who have considered the nature and power of social influences well know, that unless there are manly women, there will not much longer be manly men."-[ Official Report, 20 May 1867; Vol. 187, c. 822-828.]

One woman has, of course, proved him utterly correct. I doubt that my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher would have enjoyed being called "manly" but she certainly revelled in her Soviet sobriquet as the Iron Lady and showed her formidable strength over many years. As a member of Mr. Speaker's advisory panel on works of art, I know how delighted hon. Members in all parts of the House are that the Iron Lady was recast in bronze by Antony Dufort and placed in the Members Lobby just over a year ago.

Lady Thatcher was a towering figure in British politics and it is more than fitting that her statue should be larger than life. As the United States focuses its electoral debate on the merits of two very different Democratic presidential candidates, let us all be proud in this country of the distance that we have already travelled and of our shared commitment to continuing that journey.

5.24 pm

...

BROOKS' OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DEBATE

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The sector in which women work most is part-time work, and the real tragedy is that, over the past 10 years, we have seen almost no movement in the differential between what women and men get paid. I believe that that differential is still about 40 per cent.

John Bercow: The differential is enormous, and it is especially great among part-time employees. Ironically, the gender pay gap among part-time workers is even more pronounced in the public sector than in the private sector. Of course, there are all sorts of factors to explain the desperate disparities in pay that continue to exist. There are differences in capacity and skills, for example, resulting from historic under-recognition of the importance of training, career progression, qualifications and educational provision for women. Furthermore, a lot of women are, for understandable reasons, going into part-time work, where the gap is greater. Another factor is that women are often unable to travel as far as men-perhaps because of their other responsibilities-and therefore have a more limited set of jobs from which to choose. We know that 60 per cent. of women work in a very restricted set of occupations, so the opportunities for them are not as great. There is also the problem of occupational segregation-and of segregation within the workplace, to boot. All those things have to be tackled.

...

Mr. Newmark: As well as putting on the record the hard work done by his wife, will my hon. Friend join me in mentioning the splendid work done in the past year by Lady Fiona Hodgson as chairman of the Conservative Women's Organisation?

Alistair Burt: I will indeed. I shall return to Fiona Hodgson's work a little later when I talk about Rwanda.

...

Mr. Newmark: I wish merely to make an observation: I am surprised that the Leader of the House has not had the courtesy to return for the winding-up speeches, following her diatribe at the beginning of the debate.

Mr. Vara: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I am afraid that that only adds to the Leader of the House's demeaning of her office-something she has done from the start of the debate right to the end.

 

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