The struggle for women’s empowerment has some way to go

06 Feb 2018
Unless you are a student of feminism, the centenary of some women winning the right to vote  conjures up only black and white images of defiant Victorian ladies in crinolines. It may be  hard to relate these images to present realities. And it may be particularly difficult for younger women, brought up in an era of consumerism, to relate to a long ago batle for women to claim their rights as a citizens.
And yet, the struggle for the right to vote was a crucial step in the ongoing struggle for women’s empowerment. And this is something we can all relate to.
Empowerment can take many forms. It is remarkable that only recently have women felt able and empowered to speak out about rape, sexual harassment and degradation. Nobody seeks to defend rape, although many still leap with alacrity on the idea that some men are the victims of predatory women and bogus rape claims. But shining a light on sexual harassment, whether in the film industry or the factory floor is a relatively recently phenomenon. The hashtag #metoo would have been inexplicable to our Victorian foremothers. But the actuality of sexual harassment would have been only too real. And, despite some people claiming the groping (and worse) which characterised the Presidents Club as being good clean fun, it is a victory for women’s empowerment that most people have woken up to the fact that very wealthy men groping much poorer young women is neither good, clean or much fun for the women involved.
Economic empowerment has been a long time coming.
Women are now employed in a range of professions that the Victorian women could only have dreamt of. But the pay gap between men and women, with the same qualifications, remains real. Women in the workforce are still decried for being shrill and aggressive when, if they were men with exactly the same characteristics, they would be admired as manly and forceful managers. And the row about pay differentials at the BBC has brought to light how, even men who consider who consider themselves liberal and advanced, can take for granted that women should be paid less than men for doing work of equal value. I cannot have been the only one amazed that BBC managers thought nothing of claiming that China editor Carrie Gracie could be paid less because (although she had worked for the BBC for 30 years) because she was still in development. But nobody should think that the BBC is alone in taking for granted inexcusable gender differentials in pay.
There has been some progress in political empowerment, which was the most obvious form of empowerment that the Victorian suffragettes were asking for. When i was elected in 1987 there were just 21 women MPs in parliament. Now there are 191.  We have had two female Prime ministers. Issues like childcare, health and social care were once seen as the exclusive concern of female politicians. Now they are seen as main stream issues which any sensible male politician should take an interest in. Women’s involvement in the political sphere has not been uncontested. Women politicians get far more online abuse than their male counterparts. I hold the sad distinction that fully half of all the online abuse sent to women MP’s all parties, in the run-up to the last election, was sent to me. However I had added my own small footnote to the history of women’s participation in British politics by being the first black woman ever elected to the British Parliament in 1987. This is something the Victorians could never have imagined.
The struggle as the Victorian suffragettes knew, is not an easy one. But, although there has been progress, there is still some way to go. However women can agree with the black civil rights hero Martin Luther King “The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends towards justice” 

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