Why 50:50 Parliament are fighting for a gender equal Westminster
Frances Scott felt disassociated from UK politics and the government for years. Problems were arising like birth conditions that were not being solved because those in parliament, for the most part, did not care about them. They did not experience them or empathise with them. They could not tackle them because they did not understand them. She knew Westminster did not represent the UK in modern times but wondered what to do about it.
Then her eight-year-old daughter changed her mind when she came running out of class saying she had been elected to the school council.
‘There’s always a boy and a girl from each class’ she had explained to Frances, ‘boys don’t understand the dilemmas of whether we should wear skirts or trousers to school and we don’t understand how the boys’ toilets get so dirty. Our experiences are different.’
It made Frances wonder why Westminster wasn’t the same and so over the next few years, she began talking to people about the idea of two-seat constituencies, having one male and one female MP for each constituency. Then she heard Tony Benn on the Today Programme saying exactly the same thing - that we need a seat for a man and a seat for a woman.
Time passed and Frances carried on thinking about gender equality until one morning when she was shopping in Sainsburys. Her friend rang her and told her to listen to a debate on the radio, where professors from Oxford and Cambridge university were agreeing that equal representation constituencies would be a good idea. That same day she started a petition on Change.Org and 50:50 Parliament was formed.
A long and difficult journey
Frances said: “At first I thought everyone would sign the petition. I had lots of discussions over Christmas with lots of young people and realised that, actually, there wasn’t agreements on this particular issue. I was gobsmacked.”
Despite less support than she expected, Frances continued getting 50:50’s name out there and attending political events, including speaking at the Reclaim the Night March in 2014. The political landscape began to change. Nicola Sturgeon was elected as leader of the SNP and Baroness Scotland showed her public support of the 50:50 movement.
Frances said: “There are many stories I can tell about the road. We have changed direction recently. In about 2015 we began thinking we needed to take more action.”
Frances met a young girl called Rosie when she was invited to speak at Canterbury university.
She said: “She seemed to know an awful lot about politics, and I said she should stand and she said that she’s Labour and this was a Tory seat, and had been for 100 years, and Labour won’t choose a woman. And I said you’ll never know until you have a go.”
This was the start of 50:50 Parliament’s #Askhertostand campaign, an initiative where action is the only focus. We need more people who identify as women in parliament and so this campaign simply encourages people to ask any woman who they think should stand, to do so. You can ask someone to stand via 50:50’s website or just do so in person.
Frances suffered a tragedy in the following months which put her work with 50:50 on hold.
“My husband died. It was a huge shock, terrible for me and my family so I put 50:50 on the backburner for quite some time.
“We got together as a team in about November 2017 and I said I couldn’t be bothered anymore, clearly people don’t think it was very serious. We’ve had about 52,000 signatures on the petition, but Jeremy Clarkson got over a million in two days when he came off Top Gear."
The BBC fired Clarkson in March 2015 following reports of physical and verbal violence against Oisin Tymon. Political blog Guido Fawkes then started a petition to get him back on the popular Top Gear show which quickly became the fastest growing petition in the UK for two years.
Frances added: “My team said we couldn’t stop and that we should copy what Hilary Clinton has done with ‘She Should Run’. They said we need to keep encouraging women on the way to Westminster.”
Despite the hurdles, 50:50 carried on. The Ask Her To Stand campaign was officially launched in the House of Commons in 2016, with the backing of the then minister for women and equalities, Justine Greening.
Why do we need equal gender representation in Westminster?
Today 50:50 continues to take action for equal seats and equal say in Westminster. The organisation is itself growing, with more and more people signing up as 50:50 ambassadors, spreading its mission, and attending political events and marches.
Hannah Philp, 50:50 ambassador and founder of Her Stories, which raises money for women’s charities through art, first got involved because she had spent time doing some feminist campaigning with the East London Fawcett Group, which she set up in 2011.
Hannah said: “I really believe in 50:50’s mission, which is to ensure that women have an equal say in the laws that are made in this country and in policy and that, fundamentally, this is where you can have a really big impact that can trickle down.
“I also believe that parliament should themselves more representative of this country. I really like that 50:50 is a cross party campaign that has been campaigning on the basis of general principles and not on specific policy and that it’s looking at making structural changes which would ensure a fairer society by government being more representative.”
Ask Her To Stand
Ask Her To Stand is, quite simply, a practical way of trying to increase the number of women from all backgrounds who are in parliament to make it more representative of our society.
Frances said: “Everyday women are signing up to stand and we liaise with the parties to put these women in the right direction. You cannot believe the hurdles we have to overcome.”
Hannah looks at the campaign as a way of tackling the barriers women face to Westminster.
“There aren’t enough women putting themselves forward. One barrier is that women don’t have the confidence to stand and don’t see themselves as entitled to be MPs.
“A recent study found women need to be asked on average seven times before they will actually consider something while men only need to be asked once.”
Women face walls like unsociable voting times which are difficult to manage alongside a family, misogyny within parliament, and criticism and misogyny from the media.
Hannah added: “What if we all started asking the great women we know to stand and think about politics, to help them change the perception of themselves.”
Dolly Theis, a Cambridge PhD student in epidemiology and previously a parliamentary researcher, worked closely with Hannah to craft Ask Her To Stand.
She said: “Hannah and I led the campaign together. Despite being different political camps, we have a beautiful friendship and by working together on this we could show the world that we could get on! We just want good people in parliament. We’ve got to be less obsessed with party politics.
“I loved the idea of having a cross party campaign. A lot of the work I do is cross party because ultimately we’ve got to all work together because the best solutions come out of that and they are generally the more representative ones too. A huge part of what attracted me to 50:50 was having that cross party element and the idea that party politics didn’t matter so much.”
Ask Her To Stand is such a simple way for both men and women to take action and improve representation in Westminster.
Hannah said: “It doesn’t cost anything to say to someone - ‘I think you should be involved in politics’.”
It’s time for deeds, not words
The long-term goal for 50:50 is to see a truly equal gender representation in Westminster, but there are many complex layers to this.
While 50:50 currently focuses on fight for equal gender representation, Frances views this as a piece of the puzzle. We must fight for representation across all areas of life and diversity elements.
There is also the fact that gender itself means many different things to different people.
Hannah said: “I would always think about parliament being representative of society, and one that is evolving. The more people that don’t identify as either gender makes the gender issue for those people irrelevant and more about representing a specific viewpoint.
“I would say that trans-exclusionary radical feminists who do not respect trans women who identify as women are a dangerous notion as well. I wrote 50:50’s stance on this and was strong on the fact we need to make sure are trans women are included in this and represented as well because they arguably have faced some of the worst misogyny and discrimination in this country.”
For Dolly the future is bright, and she is very clear about her ambitions as a 50:50 ambassador.
She said: “We want to bump the numbers up big time ahead of the next election. I originally set a pledge last year before the election was called that I would get 100 new women on the candidates list for the Conservative party before the election. I’ve got about 30 women processing through the candidates list already so it’s not looking too shabby!
“A lot of these women have had careers completely outside of politics and have just reached the same point of wanting to move on an affect some change and are likely to be inspired by someone else doing it and feel that it’s the right time.
“Women of all backgrounds, ages, and stories. The commonality is just an incredibly passionate desire to change things.”
50:50 Parliament are ever-busy. Having just marched at London Pride on 7 July, they are now gearing up to join Women’s March London on Friday 13 July in protest against President Trump’s visit to the UK.
On 18 July they are joining up with the Fawcett Society to run an Ask Her To Stand event in Westminster, which will include a cross-party panel session, workshops about getting into politics, and a drinks reception.
Frances spoke about the future: “Now we want Westminster on 21 November, the centenary of women having the right to stand. It would really show that parliament are taking action. Both front benches have worn 50:50 pins, and now it is time for deeds not words.”