It’s 100 years since Parliament passed the Act that allowed some women, and all men, to vote for the first time. But as the celebrations for this momentous anniversary pass, let’s be mindful that there is still plenty of work to do to engage their collective great granddaughters’ in politics. After all, a century on and I wonder what those brave suffragettes would think of Harriet Harman’s research that revealed a widening gender ‘turnout gap’ in general elections - with fewer women voting than men?
Things haven’t always been this way. Back in 1992, more women (78.2%) than men (77.2%) voted arguably influenced both positively and negatively by experiencing Thatcher’s Britain. Fast-forward to the 2015 election, when many of today’s first time voters started school, and women voters in general elections had fallen by 18%, a trend that continues despite a slow but visible rise in the number of female MPs.
So what is it that has turned young women off politics? According to IPSO 43% of 18-34 year olds voted in the 2017 General Election, similar to the figures for the 2016 EU Referendum. This doesn’t sound too bad until you learn that by comparison 78% of people aged 65 plus did too. And while in that election young women were most likely to vote Labour, they still voted overall in lesser numbers than their male peers. So what’s the cause? In my experience, listening to young women across the UK in the run up to 6th February, there are three main reasons:
- A lack of trust in the political system and politicians themselves
- Seeing little relevance between national politics and the issues affecting their own lives
- A perception that they can’t affect change.
As one young woman living in the south west succinctly put it: ‘I don’t vote because there is no point, no one listens to me,’ a view shared by many of her peers. Concerning as this is, to me it demonstrates the need for political education that is interesting, timely and relevant to the diverse lives of young women today. Far from being disinterested, these young women had plenty to say about things that affect everyone like the economy, affordable housing and reduced public services to campaigns that shine a spotlight on specific issues like #MeToo and the gender pay gap.
So who is taking on the mantle of educating the next generation of women? With schools stretched to capacity to meet government targets we can’t simply rely on Citizenship education to do the trick. Celebrations like #Votes100 certainly start the conversation, as do films like Suffragette that show the human face of the struggle for women’s suffrage, but we need to build upon this to capture hearts and minds.
Youth work has a proud history of empowering young women but the reality is that ‘girls work’ has been diminished, and in some areas of the UK totally lost, by repeated budget cuts. Considered an unnecessary ‘luxury’ by some in these supposed times of equality, the needs of young women have been overlooked for far to long, unless in response to moral outcry about teenage pregnancy or parenthood, much like the church based interventions of Victorian England.
We may have more choices than our 19th Century sisters but it is not enough to simply tell young women to vote without giving them the knowledge to do so and the self-believe that their vote matters. We need youth work that inspires girls and young women to speak up and represent their sisters, not just as spectators but as active participants whose opinions and ideas can help change the world, or at least their corner of it. Young women account for over half of the youth population so surely its time to start investing in them. Then perhaps we can move closer to true gender equality, not just in the polling booth but in the boardroom and at home too.