After watching the film Suffragette recently, I, like many, was filled with a mixture of emotions. Shock, surprise and anger at the gross injustice. But above all great pride. I was proud of those wonderful women who fought so valiantly for our right to vote and stand for office.
On a personal level, I was also immensely proud of my maternal great grandfather Sir Willoughby Dickinson, a Liberal MP. Outraged that his sister, a doctor, didn’t have the same opportunities as he did, my grandfather introduced the first women’s suffrage bill in 1907. Imagine how proud he must have felt when his daughter Joan Davidson, my grandmother, took her seat as an MP in 1937.
It was my grandmother and great grandfather who inspired me to found the campaign group Women2Win with Theresa May and other pioneers 10 years ago.
At the time, I was angry. Angry that people in my party, the Conservative Party, didn’t understand how out of touch we looked with only 17 female MPs in the House of Commons – a pathetic 9% of the Parliamentary Party. And I was angry that they didn’t seem to think it mattered.
We initially launched Women2Win to rattle the Conservative cage. But it soon became apparent that we were rattling an open door. David Cameron, who had just been elected leader, was clear that he wanted the Parliamentary Party to better represent our country.
We were surprised how many male MPs supported our aims and stepped forward to volunteer as mentors and to support women candidates. A number then, and many more now, saw their own daughters struggling against prejudice in their chosen professions and some have daughters who aspire to become MPs. As well as campaigning to promote women, Women2Win offers practical support by identifying, training and mentoring female candidates for office.
Ten years later, progress has been incredible. We were stunned at how women from across the political spectrum dominated general election night in May this year. The SNP’s formidable Nicola Sturgeon dominated in Scotland. While south of the border, Conservative women beat off high profile men such as Ed Balls and Vince Cable.
Today, there are 68 female Conservative MPs – representing almost 21% of the parliamentary party - and a third of our current cabinet are female. These women are capable, competent and feisty. They come from a variety of backgrounds and include doctors, a cancer specialist nurse, teachers and business women.
Many are mature women with life experiences which are more relevant to the work of Parliament than ever before. They are a generation of ‘do-ers’, who have got there on merit and are helping to change the way Parliament looks and does things.
But let me be absolutely clear that the work of Women2Win is far from done.
Our next challenge is to double the number of female Conservative MPs. I am also calling on the Prime Minister and the Conservative party to promise that NO woman will be left behind when boundary changes are implemented and the overall number of MPs is slashed from 650 to 600 in 2020.
This isn’t just about the Conservative Party, or politics. Women are still lagging behind in the judiciary, the arts, academia and in many other areas of public life.
Only 30% of those who put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates are women. Are there things we could be doing to make Parliament more attractive? Many women report that Parliament is still institutionally sexist.
Even today I am sometimes asked: “Why does it matter? Why do women who want to go into politics need any additional support?” The point is this. Women’s life experiences are different to men’s. They are not inferior, nor are they superior, they are just different and it is that difference which needs to be better reflected in Westminster.