Baroness Jenkin: I'm so proud of my great grandfather's suffrage role

A CENTURY after women got the vote the world may have taken giant steps forward.

But as celebrations take place this month to mark the momentous occasion the Suffragettes achieved their goal of becoming part of the electorate, there is a feeling there is still a long way to go.

Not least in the number of women who are coming forward to become Members of Parliament.

It was a sentiment once again aired this week by Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, of Hatfield Peverel, who has been a Conservative peer since 2011 and involved in politics since the 1980s when she stood as a parliamentary candidate.

Baroness Jenkin, who has been married to Harwich and North Essex MP Bernard Jenkin for the past 30 years, discovered only in recent years how involved her own great grandfather was in the steps toward universal suffrage.

"I knew my great grandfather, Willoughby Dickinson, was involved in politics but it was only when I had spoken about him a few years ago that the parliamentary historian delved further and found out the full extent," she says.

A Liberal MP, and later a member of the House of Lords, Willoughby actually dedicated his entire parliamentary career to winning the vote for women.

In a special debate on the subject last week Lady Jenkin, spoke of how he was actually the only MP with a perfect voting record on women's suffrage.

He introduced the first Bill of the 1906 Parliament and reintroduced it every year until the outbreak of war, 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.

And he was also a crucial member of the Speaker's Conference, chaired in 1916 to 1917, the recommendations of which finally led to the act which was celebrated this month.

She says: "I knew about his political career but I did not realise he was one of the chief architects of the act and to have such a heritage is very moving.

"And when I gave the speech I actually was surprised by how moved I was. Standing there speaking about something my great grandfather was instrumental in, 100 years later, in front of the same red chairs, I felt very emotional."

Willoughby's motivation would no doubt have been as much about justice as the futures of his sister, a doctor who worked behind the lines of Serbia during the First World War but could not vote and his own daughter, Frances Davidson.

Frances, Lady Jenkin's grandmother, went on to become only the 33rd woman to be elected as MP, later taking up a seat in the House of Lords as her own granddaughter has done.

Baroness Jenkin explains she is hugely proud of her own heritage but says there is a long way to go - not least in boosting the number of MPs.

She has been campaigning for a number of years on this platform, forming Women2Win more than a decade ago.

"We can celebrate 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, but there is still much to be done.

"In some ways, things moved quite quickly in terms of it was only 50 years from when they could stand that we got our first female Prime Minister but more needs to be done to persuade women they can do it now," she says.

It boils down to needing to convince women they have what it takes - and nurturing that talent.

"I am often told by journalists outside Westminster that women do not want to talk to them about political issues and I think a lot of that is down to thinking they don't know enough about it when they often know as much as men.

"A good example is we often have events where prospective candidates can come along for the Conservative party and whoever is chairing the event will ask if anyone feels they have political experience.

"And in many cases no women put up their hands, but quite a few men do and then later on they find out there were women who actually were sitting on council cabinets, but did not put up their hand, and men who did but had not even been out canvassing."

She says the key might be to catch women at the stage where they might be looking for a second career, in their late 40s early 50s, and looking for a new challenge.

"But that is not to say that younger women cannot successfully do it, they can and they are but sometimes it is easier when you are older to deal with the toughness of being in public life.

"It is not easy, you have to resilient," she says.

But this does not mean you have to put up with abuse - something Lady Jenkin has herself garnered quite a bit of notice bringing to the attention of the wider public.

In January she hit home in the House of Lords when she spoken on the subject of the abuse female Conservative candidates had encountered whilst canvassing during the past general election.

"I hadn't really thought about it before I actually said the words themselves, I had not meant to be the first person to ever utter a certain very bad swear word in the House of Lords but I did think it was important to make the point because it they are terrible words and no-one should have them shouted at them.

"And as if to back that point up, within days someone had looped me recordings of me saying those words and put them on social media, telling me 'that is what you are.'

"There seems to have been a move towards this kind of thing. People feel they can say what they like and actually, this was the seventh time Bernard had stood for election and the first time where he had been jeered and booed at hustings.

"There was definitely a disproportionate hostility and it needs to be addressed."

Baroness Jenkin, 62, herself admits her autobiography would probably be called "the Reluctant Politician."

"I stood for parliament 30 years ago and I was probably too young because I knew I was not resilient enough, certainly not at that time.

"I am far more resilient now than I was then and that is why I feel the group we need to be looking at are people like that, who might not have thought about it but have that experience and drive to take on a new career."

Essex Gazette, 13th February 2018