Women in the UK were first able to vote in Parliamentary elections in the 1918 General Election. Separate legislation was passed to allow women to stand as candidates, also for the first time in 1918. Seventeen women stood at that election and one, Countess Constance Markievicz, was successful in St Patrick’s Division of Dublin. Ironically, as a Sinn Fein MP she did not take her seat in Westminster.
The first woman to take her seat as an MP was Viscountess Nancy Astor, elected at a by-election in November 1919 for the Plymouth seat previously held by her husband. He was no longer able to be an MP when he inherited the title of Viscount Astor and a seat in the House of Lords, on the death of his father.
1918-1983: change is slow
Allowing women to stand for Parliament did not swiftly result in large numbers of women being elected. The number of women MPs grew, but only slowly. In the inter-war elections, the number of women MPs peaked at 15 at the 1931 General Election, and then fell back to 9 at the next election in 1935 when women were just 1 in 75 of all MPs. In 1945 the number of women MPs rose to 24, and it fluctuated around this level for the next four decades.
There were two big obstacles for women wanting to be MPs. First, for a realistic chance of being elected, one of the major parties had to select them as a candidate. But the number of women candidates for Labour, Conservative or the Liberals grew only slowly in the early decades. At General Elections from 1918 until 1983 less than 5% of Conservative and less than 8% of Labour candidates were women.
Secondly, even when women succeeded in becoming candidates, they tended to be in less winnable seats than men. So the proportion of women MPs for each party was even lower than their proportion of candidates. Between 1918 and 1983, the highest number of women MPs after a General Election was 29, in 1964, less than 5% of the total.
The picture began to change in General Elections in the 1980s as both the number of women candidates and elected MPs began to slowly increase. But it wasn’t until 1997, 79 years after women had first been able to stand for Parliament, that there was a major increase in the number of women elected. The change in 1997 was partly as a result of the Labour landslide and the use of all-women shortlists for selecting Labour candidates. 120 women MPs were elected in 1997, 18.2% of all MPs. 101 were Labour MPs, 13 Conservative and 3 Liberal Democrat.
Since 1997, the numbers have continued to rise, albeit at a slower rate, so that in 2010, 143 women MPs were elected. The number has since risen to 147 female MPs (23% of the total) as a result of by-elections.
Female candidates and MPs at 2010 General Election
Women comprised 30% of Labour Party candidates in 2010 and they were 31% of Labour MPs. For the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, women were underrepresented among MPs relative to candidates. 24% of Conservative candidates were women, compared to 16% of those elected as MPs; 22% of Liberal Democrat candidates were women compared to 12% of their MPs.
In 2010, there were very few women candidates in the safest Conservative and Liberal Democrat constituency contests. In seats held by the Conservatives with a majority of 10% of the poll or more, just 7 had a women candidate. This was less than 1 in 10 candidates in those seats. Only 10 Liberal Democrat seats were this safe but all their candidates there were men.
Most women MPs have served in recent times…
369 women have been elected as MPs since 1918 – 8% of all MPs over this period. 224 (61%) of these women were elected as Labour MPs; 105 (28%) as Conservative; and 23 (6%) as Liberal Democrats (or predecessor parties). They have been concentrated in recent times:
- 75% (278) have served in Parliament since 1980
- Just over two-thirds (251, 68%) have service as an MP since 1997
- 35% were first elected to Parliament within the last 20 years
…and are more likely to represent urban constituencies
Since 1918, women have been more likely to be MPs in towns and cities than in rural constituencies. This at least partly reflects the tendency for Labour seats to be in urban areas and the higher number of women Labour MPs, compared with other parties. But women MPs have also tended to cluster in constituencies in some of the UK’s biggest cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow. Birmingham Edgbaston has been represented by a female MP continuously since 1953, Labour and Conservative.
Some areas of the UK have had relatively few women MPs. Only 14 women MPs have ever represented constituencies in Wales, and they have been concentrated in South Wales. Parts of the UK that are yet to have a woman MP include the North of Scotland, the Borders, Cumbria, parts of Dorset, Hampshire and East Anglia.
This article has been written to coincide with Parliament Week 2013 which has the theme Women and Democracy.
Further information is provided in the following House of Commons Library publications:
For more about the history of women MPs: Women in Parliament: Making a difference since 1918
For more statistics: Women in Parliament and Government, Standard Note 1250
For the names, parties, constituencies and dates of service of women MPs: Women Members of Parliament, Standard Note 6652
Author: Richard Cracknell