Julie Iles, Chairman of Conservative Women's Organisation opened the discussion by welcoming the guests and explaining that this forum was a tribute to this month's 100th Anniversary of The Representation of the People Act which gave the first women the right to vote. She also noted in her introduction that the Equality and Human Rights Commission had just published a report which stated that 1/3 of interviewers thought that it was reasonable to ask a woman about her plans to have children in the future, and 46% said it was also reasonable to ask whether she had small children. Julie remarked that this was depressing.
The Home Secretary, Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP spoke first, thanking the CWO for encouraging women to stand for public office. She is the 353rd female MP to have been elected, the third female Home Secretary, but the most important number to her is 346, her current majority in Hastings.
She said that she has had a different journey; she had never thought about entering politics. She had a career in banking, and was busy with children to look after, then her husband sadly left and her life was full.
15 or 16 years ago a friend got cross with her strong opinions and asked why she didn't do it herself. She approached the Conservative Party where she received a warm welcome. She was sent to fight an unwinnable seat in Liverpool in the 2005 General Election: they were right, it was unwinnable! But in spite of that, she learned a great deal about campaigning and she passionately got the bug.
In 2006 she was selected for Hastings and Rye which she won in 2010 and has moved swiftly through the ranks, being only the fifth woman to hold one of the Great Offices of State. She related that being a Member of Parliament is a remarkable job and she has never, for one second, questioned her choice. She has had a fortunate journey, but political success is all about luck. Your party may or may not be in Government and you may or may not be in favour with the leader of the party.
Earlier this month there was a debate about women and the vote, celebrating the centenary of the Act. It was a unique experience as, unusually, she was getting smiles from the side opposite and there was a wonderful feeling of solidarity and pride amongst women MPs.
Sadly, as a public servant, we are having to face up to the scale of abuse targeting at politicians; particularly women. When Amber goes canvassing door to door, she is often asked: ‘How can you bear it?', and although it is not pleasant to be on the receiving end, if you believe in what you are doing, you can rise above it.
Amber then said that she is often asked when is the best time to get involved in politics? Her advice, is that women ought to try to move your career forward in some way, whatever you decide to do. Her children were older when she was first elected: her son was 17. Amber's sister said to her son, ‘you must be so pleased your mother has been elected', and he responded in agreement, because it meant that Amber was never home!
In her introduction to Dr Helen Pankhurst, Julie Iles explained that the CWO has a long association with the Pankhurst family. Each year through a legacy left to the CWO a floral tribute to Emmeline is laid at her statue in Victoria Tower Gardens.
Dr Helen Pankhurst published her book, ‘Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women's Rights Then and Now' – Spectre, to coincide with the centenary of the ‘Representation of the People Act', on February 6th. She said that she pinched the name of the book from the slogan attributed to the Suffragettes and in it she charts how women's lives have changed over the last century and offers a new way forward. Each of the five chapters within the book explores a different theme; politics, money, family & identity, violence and culture.
She thanked the CWO for laying the wreath year after year on Emmeline's statue and went on to say that throughout the ages, in her family there were deep schisms in both personal and political beliefs: the different generations had different perspectives and different understandings.
She thought it was important to acknowledge that the language of politics currently could be very divisive, especially through the form of social media. Even 100 years ago, the language used could be powerful because women wanted a voice. We have to admire the Suffragettes: their slogan, Deeds Not Words was and still is a rallying cry for women to do more than take a traditional role in society.
In her view there are four reasons to admire the Suffragettes
Because they fought for the right for any women to be involved;
The degree they have had to show their commitment – the extent of their sacrifice to the horrors and torture that many still face in other parts of the world;
How important it was to work across social and class divides to highlight important issues; even now we have to unite and work across ethnicity, class, politics and disabilities to make a difference;
They had panache, verve and sophistication and understood how to maximise the impact of the campaign's message.
On the question of abuse in politics, Dr Helen drew parallels with contemporary behaviour saying that the Suffragettes faced similarly abusive language and that we should all support each other to reduce the abuse. She recounted that every year she writes a card of support to all female Members of Parliament; the card had arrived on the same day that she met one particular MP who had been experiencing abuse and was told how much receiving that card had meant to the MP.
The book Dr Helen has written goes up to 2028, the centenary of Equal Franchise; she says that we now have a decade to make a real change. She ended by saying that Sunday March 4this this year's date of the annual March4Women where there will be a CWO and Women2Win presence. Details can be found on the website; it starts at Millbank (near to Parliament Square) and goes to Trafalgar Square.
Esther McVey MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions began by saying that at one stage in her political career she was the only Conservative on Merseyside, which was not a happy experience. It had its ups and downs, but she believes that there is power in belief; there is power in what she wants to achieve.
She was thrilled to be on a panel with such powerful women. She continued that it was not necessary to have political affiliation but it is important to have support.
We are at a time when the power of women and the support of women is beginning to be unleashed. Women have a big earning capacity, and with that comes a big spending capacity. We are powerful and we should be asked what it is that we want to do. The infrastructure has been set up and the turning point has come. There is the combination of living longer and looking younger; it is acknowledged that women take time to find their confidence and therefore, their voice.
Esther used to work recruiting staff where she made an interesting discovery, which was that it took far longer to check the CVs of men than those of women, as a woman makes an application for something that she has done, whereas men make applications based on what they would like to do. However, she believes that women are really getting into their stride. We can see that across the globe there are now numerous female leaders.
Esther related that her journey into politics was a tough one. She was inspired by her home town where there was lots of unemployment in the 80s and militancy in the 70s. There was a great deal of strife and unhappiness. She looked around and felt there could be something better.
She stated that she likes solving problems. Being a Tory was not easy in Liverpool and she said she walked into the lions 10. It took 10 years to win the seat and when she did win it, they wanted her out.
- was there for five years before she lost her seat in the 2015 election. Asked if she would still do it, she believes that it was about following her heart and about authenticity. After a long election campaign, at 5.00am in the morning she was well aware of the odds and knew that she was losing. had spent 18 months and 13 hours on the doorstep and knew that she was behind in the polls, but she could not let the people who supported her down.
At 5.00am, the irony that the Minister for State for Employment was about to become unemployed, was not lost on her. She had prepared herself for losing, but she believed in the Conservatives and what she was doing. She could lose gracefully, because she knew that she was coming back; she believed her mission was not finished.
She stated that life is a rollercoaster. There was not meant to be an election in 2017 and no one thought that George Osborne would ever step down. But both these fortuitous events meant that Esther returned to the green benches last June.
She also related how her strict ballet mistress, who is now in her eighties, interrogated her after the 2015 election. Esther told her that she was going to do it again and the ballet mistress replied: ‘Good, you lost the election, but you didn't fail. Failure is giving up. You must carry on if you believe you can make a difference.'
Esther says that she has been lucky to have been surrounded by strong women throughout her life. She thinks we are on the cusp of change and that the nastiness, intimidation and bullying we are now experiencing in politics will get better. She doesn't believe there should be anonymity on social media as this encourages abuse, and that no individual should be vilified, but that if you don't agree with the views, take those ideas on rather than making personal attacks.
- Lesley Clarke explained how her journey began when she stood as a paper candidate and she was amazed to be voted in. High Wycombe and other surrounding towns is an unparished area where you had to choose a Mayor. She was the Mayor and related that there is a tradition of being weighed in public which dates back to Queen Elizabeth 1st. If you put on weight over the year, ‘and some more' is announced to the crowd, who boo back; if you lose weight or maintain last year's weight, the crowd cheer when ‘and no more' is shouted. She says that Election years are good years for being weighed.
When she was elected a councillor it became clear to Lesley that both the community and officials need to work together rather than hiding behind bureaucracy. She is also the Chairperson of the Women's Local Government Society, a cross-party society for supporting women in local government.
As part of the centenary celebrations, the WLGS launched the Suffrage Pioneers Project working to recognise 100 women from the last 100 years who made a difference in public life. The website http://www.suffrage-pioneers.net has more details.
As a Councillor, Lesley is at the grass-roots. There are 6000 councillors in Britain and the number of women councillors at 33% has not changed for many years. Only 2% of those are from minority ethnic backgrounds and we need to do more to encourage and support this sector.
To be a successful Councillor you need a supportive family to deliver leaflets and knock on doors. Women can do the job and they do make that difference. Julie Iles added that she is a councillor in Surrey and there 39% of councillors are women and that 1 in 5 of the leaders are women.
Maria Caulfield MP is also an urban shepherdess and has just been promoted within the Party to champion women, to encourage more women into politics. She began by saying that the CWO ‘have you thought about standing' postcards are fantastic.
She began her life growing up in the 70s and 80s in a poor area of London. Her family struggled, living in Wandsworth, but they voted Conservative, because they were principled and at that time, the poll tax there was lower than in neighbouring boroughs.
There was no aspiration are her school where the children were signposted to council flats. No one was pushed to achieve for themselves or the community. She found that Mrs Thatcher was a huge role model, with a handbag and a posh accent, but she was one of the few people who said that you can achieve what you want if you work hard.
She has always been a Conservative because the Conservative Party is the party of talent and hard work. She went into nursing which she did for 20 years, and sometimes, she still works a shift. Under Tony Blair her hospital was suffering from the sheer volume of work and expectation to meet targets and at the coal face those working there were on their knees. She joined the Conservatives to campaign to save the hospital from Labour.
The local Association were pleased to see her; not for the possibility that she might be a Member of Parliament, but because she had the capability and potential to deliver lots of leaflets and to knock on doors.
She stood for a very tough first council seat in Brighton, but she had come from a similarly tough background and she knocked on every door on the council estate there. No one had ever knocked on their doors or talked to them. Maria told them that they could now have a voice. She won that seat by 1 vote, but that 1 seat gave the Tories control of the Council.
She says that there is no typical CV. Anyone who has a passion and want to make a difference to your local area can do so. She says that she is an ordinary person who rose to the challenge. Then they asked her if she wanted to consider being a Member of Parliament.
She stood against the Liberal Democrat, Norman Baker. She never thought she had a chance. Only 21 people applied for Lewes. It was an all-woman shortlist, but no one thought that the Conservatives had a chance of winning in Lewes. She recounted that she knocked on so many doors, so many times, but that there is always an element of luck and a strong level of determination and passion.
She gave two pieces of advice:
There is no one ideal person; just go for it;
Don't ever give up.
If you do not sign up, you will never know. You make great friends and have great support. She lost great colleagues in the last election, but you can make a difference. Just do it!
Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner was introduced by Julie Iles as a fellow PCC candidate when they both stood in 2012. Her PCC area covers 16 constituencies.
Katy originally got on the Parliamentary candidates' list but then she saw the PCC role being developed and thought that it suited her better than the role of a MP. She would have loved to have worked with Julie, but sadly, that was not to be.
She benefitted from two parents who both left school at 14. Her mother wanted more for her daughter and her father wanted her to be a JP, but she didn't have the confidence. Her mother had massive expectations and her father was of the generation who were reluctant to spend money on a daughter's education. Her mother persisted and she was sent to Roedean School in Sussex, a school founded by 3 sisters in the 1880s who believed in education for women. The ethos of the school is that women are nurtured by strong women.
Those that can do and those that can do more volunteer, was an inspirational quote from Katy's time at school. When she went to Uni, she joined two groups; the hiking club, because the boys looked attractive and the Young Conservatives because Margaret Thatcher was around.
She got roped into the General Election in 1983 in Wales and she got to go to the count. She says that the count is an exciting event because it is where you actually see democracy in action with the votes stacking up in front of you.
When she graduated she started her family young and had a successful family business. She then sold the family business and got involved with campaigning for an environmental action group which successfully took a man to court for illegal waste burying.
She then got onto the Parish Council and then applied to be the Conservative candidate for Sussex. In her last interview there were 800 people in the room, including the 12 MPs from across the County, which was very daunting. Katy says she was the outsider – the other candidates were male, pale and stale, archetypal Tory male candidates. Onstage, she recounts, she didn't expect much, but did well on stage and was selected, then elected.
Unlike other political roles, there was no blueprint for the role of PCC. There are 40 PCCs in the country and only 7 of those are women, and they come together and are very supportive of one another, irrespective of their political affiliation.
She has responsibility for £250m in her budget; she holds the police accountable and the Chief Constable is also answerable to the PCC. She says that the first few months in office was the loneliest time (apart from her divorce), but now there is a cross-party support network for women in place.
She now has responsibility for commissioning support for victims of crime in Sussex; a special support service for young victims and witnesses of crime. When she first set this up there wasn't one, and it has made an extraordinary difference.
She tells of sexual predators operating in Littlehampton, a sleepy seaside town in Sussex, between 2010 and 2015. They were put away last year. The girls had great support throughout and the Judge commended the girls on the evidence they gave in difficult circumstances at the pair's trial which ensured the pair were brought to justice.
The floor was opened to a range of interesting questions. Julie Iles concluded by thanking the panel for participating in such a brilliantly inspirational evening which was a great tribute to the centenary of (some) women having the right to vote for the first time.
For further information about the CWO, or to arrange an interview with anyone named in this release, please contact:
Tel: (020) 7984 8139