Baroness Jenkin in The House magazine: "I'm carrying on the fight of my great grandfather"

Willoughby Dickinson was the only MP with a perfect voting record on women’s suffrage. Baroness Anne Jenkin writes about her great grandfather’s legacy – and why there is still much to be done to achieve equal representation

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, and the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, much of the focus over the coming year will be on the suffragettes, the suffragists, the Pankhursts, the Fawcetts and other brave women who courageously campaigned in this cause.

However, let’s think for a moment about one group of people who may not get the attention they deserve: the men who introduced the legislation and made it happen, and one man in particular. Although there was a growing groundswell of support for women’s suffrage before the First World War, the contentious issue of the parliamentary campaign was not whether women should be able to vote, but how many. All the political parties were anxious about extending the franchise because of how it would affect them. This was not a popular cause for MPs to espouse, and it did nothing for their political careers.

Willoughby Dickinson was the Liberal MP for St Pancras, later a Labour Peer, who dedicated his entire parliamentary career to winning women the vote. According to the Vote 100 historian in Parliament, he was the only MP with a perfect voting record on women’s suffrage. He introduced the first women’s suffrage Bill of the 1906 Parliament and reintroduced it every year until the outbreak of war. He called for equal pay for women in 1903, secured financial support for the masses of women who were left widowed by the war and protected the rights of women who were married to foreign citizens imprisoned during the war. He was a crucial member of the Speaker’s Conference in 1916-17, the recommendations of which led to the Act which we celebrate this year.

Through his years of parliamentary campaigning, Dickinson had the franchise knowledge, the cross-party contacts and the experience of suffrage debates to produce a solution to the deadlock. He emerged as the conference’s deal breaker, winning by a majority of one vote by suggesting that age be used as the discriminatory barrier. Millicent Fawcett’s NUWSS wrote to him, saying:

“We all know that a very large part of the great triumph of this week was due to your personal efforts … we always felt that you were our true champion in the House of Commons”.

He wrote in his diary:

“The House of Commons passed the third reading of the Representation of the People Act without one protest. The greatest measure of reform since 1832 ... It is ten and a half years since I first introduced my Women’s Suffrage Bill and now at last I see something done. I feel as if I had not lived in vain”.

For him, this campaign was not merely matter of justice; he was also motivated by the fact that his sister, an eminent doctor who worked behind the lines in Serbia during the war, could not vote while he could. How proud he must have been to see his daughter, my grandmother, take her seat in 1937 as the 33rd ever woman MP, and how proud I am of them both today. I hope they would be pleased that I have taken on their fight, which today we still need to win.

Therefore, although we can celebrate the fact that 489 women MPs have been elected since they were able to stand in 1918, compared to the 4,503 men over that same period, there is still much to be done. Today, a record one-third of MPs are women. Better but still not good enough. Thanks to All Women Shortlists, the Labour party has already reached 45% of their MPs and is committed to a target of 50%.

The Conservative party went into the election in May last year with 70 Conservative women MPs—up from 17 in 2005, when Theresa May and I founded Women2Win to campaign for Conservative women in politics —and with 30 candidates in good target seats, I felt pretty confident. The polls showed us winning most, if not all of those. 

Looking ahead to the election beyond that, we were confident that a good number of older, white men would pack it in and women candidates would be in a good position to get selected for many of those retirement seats. Job done. But it was not to be. Not a single one of those target seats was won by a woman and so we stuck at 21% of the parliamentary party, one in five Conservative MPs. In addition to not winning those target seats, many Conservative women candidates received disproportionately vicious abuse, online and in the constituencies. Resilient they may be, but the whole experience had been far from joyous for many. 

For us in the Conservative party our pipeline remains challenging, so if you know someone you think would make a good MP, please encourage her to step up and start the journey. If she is a Conservative, please send her our way. The #AskHerToStand campaign needs to be supported by all who care about diversity of experience in Parliament.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to deal with the issue of abuse. No one standing for public office should be treated with anything but respect. It is an honourable thing to aspire to represent one’s community, and women in particular should be encouraged rather than bullied. We should never allow our public discourse to become toxified, and we should stand for decency and tolerance.

Even today people sometimes ask me, “Why does it matter if there are more women in Parliament?”. It matters because women are different. Their life experiences are not the same as men’s. They are neither superior, nor inferior, but different, and that difference has to be better reflected here in Parliament.