Yesterday, across the globe people celebrated International Women’s Day in myriad of ways – from coffee mornings, to talks, from gala dinners to radio shows. Following the flourishing global movement for women’s rights in the past year and as we celebrate 100 years since the first women were given the right to vote, it seemed natural that ROSL’s annual debate would focus on women in politics. 

Guests joined us in the intimate setting of our Drawing Room to listen to our star-studded panel discuss the challenges, benefits and opportunities women face in politics.

To kick off the evening, our Director-General Dr Diana Owen informed members and guests of the reasons women’s rights are so important to our club. Touching on our history, Diana spoke of our founder’s strong conviction that men and women should be treated equally and how proud she was to be the first female Director-General.

Deeba Syed chaired the panel for the evening with cool efficiency, asking probing questions of the panel. Not holding any punches, she asked bluntly why participation in politics among women was so low in terms of voters and if we were about to see a new wave of participation in activism.

Helen Pankhurst, descendant of Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, said that participation in politics often came in waves and the rise of activism over the last year was a surge she had seen coming – “we’ve got to that point that we’ve decided enough is enough, and there are enough other people who are agreeing.” Akeela Ahmed added that women have traditionally always participated in politics more than men and what we were seeing today was how women were changing their technique to combat new challenges. Social media has bridged the global gap and brought women closer together and that has generated greater political participation. Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party voiced similar feelings about how she expected participation in politics to rise as more people became dissatisfied with our current political structure.

“What are these ‘barriers’ keeping women out of politics and how do we overcome that?” Deeba asks, once again getting to the core of the problem.

Helen took the lead on this question, drawing on her extensive knowledge of the history of women in politics. “In the past it’s been as simple as a lack of toilets, or men using a certain style of language that was designed to keep women ignorant.” Sadly it has not really evolved beyond that, with things like the lack of childcare keeping many women from entering such a time consuming career. Helen also points out that legislation keeps the ordinary women out of politics too – women need to be involved in this process to feel like politics represents them.

“So, what are the benefits of women being in politics?”

Akeela picks up from where Helen left off and reflects on a personal story about her friend, a lawyer, who was suffering from an abusive relationship. When she reached out to the law and asked it to protect her, it favoured the man. To ensure this stops happening, we need women at the higher levels being involved in the legislative process. Sophie Walker went further, commenting “we need more female representation so we can stop having ‘debates’ about sexual harassment where the chair has found someone who believes that outcries against sexual harassment have ‘gone too far’.”

There is a round of applause.

“Yes we know the barriers – but what can we do about it? Are they impossible to overcome?” Deeba pressed, building on her last question.

Helen took this question, pointing out these are very simple barriers to overcome. She raises childcare as it has been mentioned as an example previously and explains how nurseries sprung up all over the UK during the wars in order to free up women to work. When people want women, she points out, they’re quick to make sure they can be free. Why cannot it be like this all the time?

On this note, Deeba opened the debate up to the audience who were eager to ask their own questions. One of the first questions, from Ann who works in London, is on how we can involve men in a non-patronising way.

Sophie very bluntly pointed out that men have had centuries to help and have done nothing. “The way men can help us is to step back and make space – women don’t need mentors or special training to be taught how to rise up against our barriers. We’re really good at what we do.”

There’s another round of applause for Sophie.

Helen and Akeela point out that a way for men to get involved is for them to take on what keep being viewed as ‘women only’ roles. “Help out in the house, make it your problem as well as ours.”

Olivia builds on this discussion and asks why is there this backlash against women’s rights – especially from white men – and if we achieve equality will those feelings actually change?

Sophie explains that it’s not a ‘backlash’ but a type of politics – that of angry white men. We need to stop allowing these lies – like that Farage and Trump are ordinary men – to continue. Helen echoed Sophie and spoke of how we need to let those dinosaurs die out and focus on the ordinary masses of men. We need to be asking them what they think and if they are happy, then bring them into the new future with us.

Akeela brought up a very interesting point that it is not just white men – there is a rising group of angry alt-Muslim men rising too. It’s about understanding what is causing these groups to grow and in a way supporting the diversity of male representation as well so they do not feel under represented as well.

The questions continued throughout the night and touched on the differences between white and black feminism, how to break down the current structures, and how men can educate themselves on why these things matter.

After the debate came to a reluctant end, there was a chance for guests to continue the discussion in small groups, enjoy a glass of wine and buy a copy of Helen’s book.

On behalf of ROSL once again we’d like to thank our panel for joining us last night and helping us have such an important and invigorating conversation.

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