On the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, in which women finally won partial suffrage, Off the Shelf Festival of Words has brought together great minds to discuss suffrage and women, both past and present.

Concluding a series of nine events around this topic, Clarisse Berthezene, a lecturer at Paris Diderot University, and our very own Dr Julie Gottlieb, co-authors of the book Rethinking right-wing women, gave a thought-provoking talk on the history of women in the Conservative Party.

The central issue of the talk (and their book) concentrated on the role of conservative women in suffrage, that remains largely untold. They drew on key female figures of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, and explained the changing role of right-wing women from the fight for suffrage, Thatcher’s anti-feminist movement, to their modern-day lack of representation in politics.

They remind us that the Conservative party has an interesting female history, not only offering us our only two female prime ministers, but also the first woman to take a seat in parliament, Nancy Astor, and the fact that it was under a conservative government that all women won the same voting rights as men. Their book looks at the unknown women who weren’t recorded in the history books, but who had an instrumental role in women’s rights.

A prominence in politics doesn’t equate to progression: Thatcher’s election paradoxically saw a decline in female membership where previously it had been majority women. Now, despite May’s efforts to bring women into politics, co-founding ‘Women2Win’ in 2005, the party remains male-dominated with only 20% of female MPs.

The idea of ‘breaking through the glass ceiling’, an amazing achievement especially in the male dominated area of politics must, therefore, be taken with a pinch of salt. Simply having a female leader does not mean issues of women’s rights aren’t still highly pertinent.

Although some view conservatism and feminism as incongruous, and we still have a long way to go, it is important to remember these influential women that have helped get us to where we are today, and rewrite them into history.


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