In many ways, this general election period has been remarkable for women.
Of the two leaders debates we have had so far, three women have been on stage as party leaders. The last time we saw a woman on stage as party leader was back in the days of Margaret Thatcher - before the recession took hold, before the Iraq War, prior to the evolution of Facebook and Twitter, to the Labour victory in 1997, even to the Spice Girls debut. It's safe to say that since then, as our British history has unfolded in the 21st century, voices of women have been missing at the very top of the political sphere: our political parties.
This year, we have been incredibly lucky to benefit from three excellent, formidable, female party leaders outperforming and challenging the men, for the first time in recent decades. The phenomenal performance put in by Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party as a credible, prime ministerial leader, is a moment in our history. Having the Green Party, with their only Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas, a woman, with Natalie Bennett as their female leader, on stage challenging both Ed and Dave over austerity, is a moment in our history. Add in Leanne Wood, a likeable, formidable advocate for Wales and advocate against public sector cuts. Together, the three women who are a clear team during and after debates through their shared principles against austerity, are a moment in our history.
And yet, in a lot of ways the addition of women's voices into the general election debate has gone unnoticed. For a start, the debate is obviously structured around the Conservatives and Labour, the two leading and dominant parties, and Sturgeon and Wood are there on behalf of their Nation, not the whole of the United Kingdom. Their significance in the debates currently is arguably lesser, although Sturgeon has placed the SNP as kingmaker in the possibility of a coalition. Having a female Conservative or Labour leader would undoubtedly see a greater shift onto a debate around gender, if only because there would be opposition to a woman leading the country.
But additionally, the addition of women's voices has not resulted in the higher prioritisation of issues affecting women: or the explicit articulation that austerity and cuts have hit women far harder than they have hit men. And in that regard, collectively Sturgeon, Bennett, and Wood are missing an opportunity to place women's issues higher up the priority list.
In 2010, there were 31.4 million women compared to 30.4 million men according to government statistics. Women are more adversely affected by benefits cuts: benefits make up one fifth of a woman's income on average, compared to one tenth for men. 94 per cent of child benefit claimants are women, as they are the main carer. Add to that the fact that women make up 50 per cent of housing benefits, and mothers of low socio-economic status experience poverty due to the high cost of childcare and low levels of state support. And so women have a huge personal stake in this general election which simply is not being put forward.
Some may contend that if the women leaders in debates drew attention to women, their role as a leader could become even more gendered, and difficulty would develop in their ability to appear truly representative.
Yet this approach represents the fear that exists about talking about women in the public sphere, in an audience of both men and women. In politics, whether it be in Parliament, in universities, or even between friends, there is some innate fear that exists about talking about women explicitly. And that comes from the fear of putting them first and rebalancing the narrative. Whether that be for fear of backlash, or simply breaking from society convention. We are scared to talk about women.
It is my hope that in the coming few weeks at least one leader, whether it be Sturgeon as leader of SNP, Wood as leader of Plaid Cymru, or Bennett as leader of the Greens, will put women at the heart of the general election narrative. There is an excellent opportunity to challenge both Ed Miliband and David Cameron on their policies, some of which are largely applicable to women - whether it be on cuts to benefits or funding of childcare. Somebody needs to be challenging the men in power on what they can deliver for women. The ability to do so would demonstrate confidence, power, and integrity. Those qualities are also missing from this election amidst the spin machines and photo opportunities.
So let us harness the fact that we have this incredible scenario where there is female representation. And let us use it to push all the political parties to talk in gendered terms, and acknowledge the fact that socio economic inequality in the UK is gendered. And it has to change.