‘We have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling.’
In her speech conceding defeat in the US presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton reminded us that there are still many milestones for women to reach and cross on the road to full political equality. But the fact that she ran Donald Trump so close – winning more votes, in fact, than her rival – speaks to me of the winds of change blowing through Washington, Westminster and the world’s legislatures.
On International Women’s Day (yesterday), a month after celebrating the centenary of Votes for Women in the UK, it was timely to celebrate the progress made in that 100 years and remind ourselves of the lessons learnt in 150 years or more of struggle for true political equality between the sexes.
The latest UN stats show that around 23% of MPs worldwide are women. This may not sound too impressive but the fact that the percentage has roughly doubled in the last two decades gives cause for hope that growth will accelerate with the increased prevalence of role models.
The 208 women MPs in the House of Commons (a record high of 32%), for example.
Or the 106 women (20%) currently sitting in the US Congress.
Or the 18 female presidents or Prime Ministers (9%) holding office across the world at the moment.
For some, the pace of change is simply too slow and more radical action, such as positive discrimination, is needed. Jess Phillips MP, for example, has called for quotas of female representatives to be set for local councils. But the bitter legacy of affirmative action on race relations in the USA, all-too-evident in that country today, should give pause for thought when considering relying on artificial levers to crank up the rate of progress.
A cultural shift is a more powerful driver than a formal change to the rules of engagement. And there are encouraging signs of change. Until 2010, for example, the Houses of Parliament had a rifle range but no crèche. That situation is now reversed. Perhaps Jacinda Ardern’s announcement in January that she is preparing to give birth while serving as Prime Minister of New Zealand may encourage other women to see politics and pregnancy as compatible.
The years since Vote 100 have also shown the naiivety of thinking that women politicians per se make better decisions than men. From Nazi Germany’s Trude Mohr to Winnie Mandela via Madame Mao in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, there are plenty of examples of power corrupting women at the top. And more recently, it has been sobering to see that Dilma Rousseff of Brazil failed to transcend the corrupt culture of her country while Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s policy towards the Muslim minority in Myanmar has tarnished her reputation internationally.
Armchair critics have greater access than ever before to a public platform, through social media, and our challenge is to avoid falling under the spell of their siren voices. Anyone with a proper education in the art of politics knows that exercising power justly and wisely, especially in hard economic times, is even harder than gaining it in the first place. That is why political education is such a vital part of our modern curriculum, though it is often overlooked or marginalised.
The rise in interest in current affairs, in political engagement and in the pursuit of politics as an academic study among High School students has been one of the most exciting developments of my time in the School. Through debating, in-school activism and student journalism as well as in lessons, a true renaissance in political engagement is in play.
Never was this more apparent than on International Women’s Day itself. In Assembly, Femsock members introduced us to the pioneering young women who are inspiring them to go out and make a difference in the world, ranging from Rupi Kaur to Emma Gonzalez. The #PressforProgress pledge stand in the Foyer was a hive of activity, girls and staff proudly wore their purple, green and white and the School was buzzing with discussion and debate. The Junior School girls got into the act with their hand-made Vote 100 sashes and rosettes and a group of students from Y6 to Sixth Form were interviewed for Radio Northampton about their views, impressing the journalist with their knowledge and articulacy.
Barack Obama, himself a convention-busting politician, said ‘truth isn’t about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information.’ In the end, that hardest, highest glass ceiling will be broken, not by the blunt force of aggressive populism, nor by the gimcrack trickery of media manipulation but by the resonance at high frequency of many well-informed, truth-speaking voices.