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15/06/2015 07:56 BST | Updated 14/06/2016 06:59 BST

What Did Magna Carta Do for Women?

On 15th June, 800 years ago the unpopular King John met with his unruly Barons at Runnymede to sign Magna Carta.

This ancient document is regarded as the foundation of democracy, a cornerstone of the British constitution, outlining the rights of "free men" to justice and freedom. It "retains enormous symbolic power... as a guarantor of individual liberties" says Claire Breay & Julian Harrison of the British Library.

The key principle that it established was that no one, including the king or a lawmaker, is above the law (The Constitution Society). It was used when drafting American Bill of Rights (1791) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Most of the terms in Magna Carta applied to only a small proportion of the population in 1215 - "free men".

So what did Magna Carta do for women?

It names 34 men but mentions only three women: John's queen, and the sisters of King Alexander II of Scotland and not one was named. This reflects "the inequalities between men and women, and in particular the way women played a very limited part in public affairs." David Carpenter Prof of Medieval History, Kings College London.

And what about the specific clauses in Magna Carta?

  • Widows get a mention:

    Clause 7: " A widow, after the death of her husband, shall ...have her ... inheritance...and she may remain in the house of her husband for forty days after his death". (How gracious is that.)

    Clause 8: "No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband". (What a concession.)

    The historian, James Holt, views this as "one of the first great stages in the emancipation of women" offering widows "a direct route to freedom from a forced marriage, and empowerment over their dower and inheritance". (An interesting route to freedom!) He asserts that "to let widows have their way was to encourage the acceptance of the principle that they should have their way". (Revolutionary.) To put it into context most women were either under the 'protection' of their father or husband. Widows were deemed to be under the 'protection' of the King but as Susanna Annesley (Kings College, London) points out "for all the undeniable benefits of Magna Carta there were still considerable loopholes that the king could exploit and widows often still found themselves at the mercy of a male overlord, whether he be a member of their own family or the king himself."

  • One of the most significant clauses in the Magna Carta is number 39. It says that no "freeman" is to be imprisoned or punished without the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land. This would have been taken to include "free women". But women could not sit on juries, so they would always be judged by men.
  • The word for woman, "femina", is actually only mentioned once and that was near the end, in Clause 54. This said "No one is to be arrested on the accusation of a woman for the death of anyone other than her husband" so it actually reduced and limited women's right to be heard as a witness in court. Talking on the BBC David Carpenter puts it like this "Women are being discriminated against in Magna Carta" .

Women have been playing "catch-up" ever since. Nan Sloane Director of Center for Women and Democracy says "The entire political process was developed over a 2000 year period for men, by men and to address the problems that men had, and we have not redressed the balance yet".

Parliamentary deliberations have always missed, and are still missing, a key component, the equal representation and consideration of the views and experiences of women. This has profound repercussions on our society.

In 1918 some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote in the UK, after a long fought struggle by the Women's Suffrage Movement. It wasn't until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 could vote on the same basis as men.

In 2015 men still outnumber women by more than 2:1 in the House of Commons. Of the 650 seats men occupy 459 (71%) and women 191 (29%). Forty countries have proportionally more women in their Parliaments than the UK. Since 1918, when the first woman, Constance Markievicz, was elected, women have held fewer than 7% of the seats. There have only ever been 451 female MPs; so there are more men in the Commons right now than there have ever been women.

50:50 Parliament is a cross party campaign petitioning Party Leaders and Parliament to debate and take action concerning this. 50:50 would like better gender balance in Parliament one way or another and are asking Parliament to find a solution. 50:50 envision "A Parliament where men and women legislate the laws of our land together in roughly equal numbers". The campaign has wide support, not only from women, but from all genders. The first of many MPs in the campaign t-shirt was Ben Bradshaw, see www.5050Parliament.co.uk . The recent setting up of the WEP (Women's Equality Party) is another historic step in the right direction, "Because equality is better for everyone" as their slogan says.

The All Party Parliamentary Group's report "Improving Parliament" published in July 2014 states: "All political parties are united in their belief that gender parity is critical to having a modern, aspirational and representative Parliament". This is certainly an improvement on Magna Carta. However, the old Suffragette saying still feels relevant, we need "Deeds not words".

So, 800 years on from when Magna Carta "freed" widows, and nearly 100 years on from when the women succeeded in gaining the right to vote, let's aspire to parity in Parliament. The effects would ripple out across society.

If you believe in gender equality join us!

Help make history happen, sign the 50:50 Parliament Petition now at:

change.org/5050Parliament.

50:50 Parliament Picnic. May 2015

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WOW (Women of the World) Festival, London. March 2015

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Stand Up For Women 50:50 Fundraiser. April 2015

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Sandi Toksvig (WEP) and Frances Scott (50:50)

Women's Equality Party Meeting. April 2015

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WOW (Women of the World) Festival, London. March 2015

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