Minister Penny Mordaunt was choked up with emotion as she called on female MPs from across the globe to “finish the job” the suffragettes started 100 years ago.
The House of Commons hosted a landmark ‘Women MPs of the World’ event on Thursday, with 100 female parliamentarians from as far afield as Venezuela, New Zealand and Nigeria meeting to celebrate the centenary year of women securing the right to vote.
On a day when history weighed heavy, International Development Secretary Mordaunt asked those gathered to look up at a ventilation shaft through which women would once listen to proceedings they could not take part in.
She said: “Often they would hear men voicing the widely held concerns that if women were given the vote it would be the end of everything, the downfall of the family, society, nation.”
In the wake of a slew of sexual harassment and bullying allegations made by parliamentary staff, however, Mordaunt acknowledged Westminster was “still a hostile environment for some women who work within its walls”.
She paid tribute to the women who could not be there because they had been held captive or killed, picking out Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right activist in 2016, and British embassy worker Becky Dykes, who was killed in Beirut last year.
Mordaunt, who is also minister for women and equalities, called on those present to tackle global gender disparities, which includes 25 million backstreet abortions-a-year, how 200 million girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation and the 63 million girls not in school.
She concluded to a huge round of applause: “Without women’s rights there are no human rights.
“I mentioned earlier the shadows and echoes of the women who went before us still surround us.
“Let us recognise here today that we too will become shadows and dust, but our legacy must mean that in one hundred years a meeting like this will be nothing but a memory. Those who went before started a great movement for equality.
“Let us be the generation that finishes the job.”
Her speech was followed by Labour MP Harriet Harman, the longest-ever continuously serving female MP.
“We have all made progress. When I was first an MP in 1982, it was 3% women and 97% men and women’s voices were not heard. Now, democracy is about representation,” she said.
“It is not a proper democracy if women’s voices are not heard.”
Harman also warned of a backlash to women’s fight for equality.
“There is always a backlash, and the backlash comes in verbal threats and also on social media, abuse, and also from the mainstream media as well.
“And I think we have to say to ourselves and to each other this is not something that you just have to expect.”
The group also heard their international colleagues talk about the gender pay gap, work to tackle domestic violence and barriers to representation.
The session heard from MPs from Canada, Columbia, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Oman, Ireland, Gambia, Slovakia and Venezuela.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott also spoke, as did the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom.