February 6th 1918 saw (some) modern British women get the vote. 100 years on, I’m one of 22 women out of 75 councillors elected to Suffolk County Council. 22 -that’s 29% – significantly below the appalling 33% average women in UK councils – itself a flatline, increasing only 5% since 1997. At the current rate of progress it’ll take 48 years for the UK to reach gender equality – and nearer 80 in Suffolk.
We’re behind so many countries: Italy, Germany, Norway. The Rwandan parliament is 64% female – in Suffolk, there are 2 women out of 7 MPs, a pretty equivalent percentage to the county councillors. And this is Suffolk! – Birthplace of women’s higher education, home of Women’s Suffrage.
Clearly something’s adrift.
In 1860 3 young women in a house in Aldeburgh planned to change women’s futures: Elizabeth Garrett became first woman to qualify in Britain (both physician and surgeon), co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, first woman dean of a British medical school, first female doctor of medicine in France, first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board, and (as Mayor of Aldeburgh), first female British mayor and magistrate – a lot of firsts in a lot of fields. Her friend Emily Davies opened university education to women: she founded Girton College, Cambridge. Elizabeth’s 13-year-old sister Millicent became Millicent Fawcett, pioneer of women’s suffrage.
It is fair to say, the rest is – half-remembered – history.
On the way back from Ipswich Hospital Garret Anderson centre the other day, a taxi driver asked “who the chap was” that it was named after? And who in Suffolk links women’s suffrage and Fawcett Society with that 13yo in Aldeburgh?
A crying shame when you consider that half of our county’s population are women – about 370,000 of us all occupying Suffolk’s 3800 square kilometres. If we were spread across the county we might all be within shouting distance of each other – if we shouted very loud. And we’ve a lot of reasons to shout. The gender pay gap in Suffolk is 22.2% – above the national average. We have a higher than average level of violence against women. Last year, I established that Suffolk was not a good place to be a girl.
Women need all the help we can get – in Suffolk, as elsewhere. So why so few women representing us?
First and foremost I’d say a lot of women simply don’t think of themselves as elected representatives. A shame, because so many women’s lives have required them to develop the skills sets, the energy, the drive, the determination, the ability to multitask and the fire in our bellies to be very good representatives indeed. A lot of women just don’t realise they have the skills, or that they have value.
Then, people in general have a very low awareness of government in general. They are often unclear as to which services are delivered by central government, and which by local. In Suffolk, people are often unclear as to which council of three they may mean when talking about ‘the council’. Who’d be elected to something you don’t understand?
What people do know about councils, they know in terms of dissatisfaction – transport, potholes, social care – all gone wrong. They know that some officers are paid large salaries. They often conflate these with councillors who are paid (small) ‘allowances’. Generally this means that ‘the council’ has an undeserved bad reputation: people see it as ‘them’ instead of ‘us’ and profligate with ‘our money.’
Most curious of all, when it comes to ‘our money’ people seem to make very little connection between local politics, voting and outcome. They will see local elections as unimportant and ‘not bother’ to vote – though the effects of the county council budget will affect their roads, their schools their social care, their transport.
They will vote for a party that fails to raise council tax year after year – and then be astonished at the effect this has on their roads, their schools their social care, their transport.
Within this mindset very few women might want to be councillors – seeing it as a male environment and a negative one at that. And yet of course, it a council is a place where we the people can put many things right – and gender equality in councillors can make this happen.
No, this isn’t pie in the sky – its common sense! Councils have budgets and allocate huge amounts of local funding – and they decide where it goes. If most councillors are middle-aged middle-class white men who have never had “the worry of how to put shoes on the children’s feet because you are paid so little as a carer”, or “worry if you can manage to hang on to your job while getting two children to schools in different directions”, they will not understand the issues of paying carers too little, or splitting siblings between schools, or failing to provide rural families with sufficient transport options. They may well have different funding priorities to women when it come to refuges, or rape crisis lines or supporting family carers. Not because they mean harm – but because it has never had to enter their head as personal priorities.
My own background as a councillor is, maybe, unusual – but I would suggest that the background of many women councillors IS unusual. Many experiences played a part, but I’d say, most importantly, was that I was a lone parent and full-time carer fighting for the needs for my disabled child – and very angry indeed about various things in society that I wanted to try and change. In the end my friends told me to put up or shut up so I joined the party that was closest to my beliefs and put my name forward to stand as county councillor.
I stood against a respected, longstanding local politician – he was a past town, district, county councillor and past mayor too. And, against any expectation I won. Was it because I wasn’t a “normal politician”?
I’ve been re-elected three times since. Because of that I have had the chance to raise more issues, fight for more causes, and gain more successes than I had ever thought possible as a private individual. And that is immensely satisfying.
But still as a woman you find you can speak to a silence and five minutes later a male councillor repeats what you say to rapturous applause – clearly you had a cloak of invisibility on.You speak with passion about an injustice and a political journalist tweets something dismissive about your manner of speech. Like Ginger Rogers you do everything Fred Astaire does but backwards and in high heels, and still get second billing. There are endless microaggressions. Why? It’s a numbers game.
But the winds of change are blowing here -as in the film industry, as everywhere. The atmosphere is suddenly getting markedly less aggressive
I love what I do because it has so much variety- and you can have so much direct effect. One day you are fighting to stop someone (it often seems to be a woman, low-hanging fruit) getting deported, the next, putting the spotlight on a controversial transport consultation, the next convincing the council about the injustice of WASPI pensions. There’s never a dull moment and it makes a real difference to real lives.
To my mind, politics isn’t a game of “them” and “us” – its about how ‘we’ want to get ‘our’ country, county, town to work – and where women are concerned it’s a numbers game.
Our numbers and our expertise will ensure that we can make it better for all of us in towns, in counties, in our country if we step up to the plate and have belief in our own capacities.
It is really as simple as that!
Women of Suffolk, come and join in!