You are here
Last month, politicians, members of the media and various governmental and non-governmental institutions throughout the UK commemorated 100 years since (some) women won the right to vote. This first step in women’s franchise was a critical achievement, paving the way for more comprehensive equal voting rights a decade later. We also now commemorate another important event in 1918 although one that receives less attention: the adoption of separate legislation, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which permitted women to stand as candidates and be elected as Members of Parliament. That, crucially, allowed women not only to vote, but to assume senior leadership positions in the legislature, and, eventually also in the various ministries of the British government.
Of course, the right to vote does not necessarily translate into full equality, which is an altogether more complex process, as we have all been made painfully aware only recently, with the #MeToo movement, but also with the women’s marches in the US, in response to the election of President Donald Trump. So, just how far have we come since 1918, particularly in the defence and security sphere, which is our focus at RUSI?
The answer, in short, is that progress has been slow, but change is heading in the right direction. It took a tad over 60 years between the time women won the right to vote and be elected and the moment when Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s prime minister, the first female to hold that position in a European sovereign nation. But Europe’s first female defence minister was not appointed for another decade: Elisabeth Rehn got that post in Finland’s government in 1990. And although Britain now has the second woman prime minister, the country has yet to nominate women for the roles of defence minister, national security adviser, director of GCHQ, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service or ambassador to Washington. However, today, women lead in other senior security positions in this country, such as: the post of the Metropolitan Police service commissioner, held by Cressida Dick; the director general of the National Crime Agency, held by Lynne Owens, the first woman in this post; commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, held by Dany Cotton, again the first woman in this post; and, of course, the home secretary, Amber Rudd.
Across the world, figures for the representation of women are also improving, although regressions are also notable, especially in the US where 80% of the top jobs in the Trump administration went to men, resulting in what a British newspaper characterised as ‘the most male-dominated federal government in nearly a quarter-century’.
Still, last year in Europe many female defence ministers held office: in France; Germany; Italy; Spain; the Netherlands; the Czech Republic; Macedonia; Slovenia; and Albania, among others. The Italian Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy, is another notable figure in mainland Europe’s politics, succeeding Catherine Ashton, the first woman appointed to that position who, incidentally, is also one of RUSI’s trustees. Furthermore, 9 of the 29 permanent representatives to NATO are women, including the UK’s Sarah MacIntosh, who sits on our Advisory Board.
Of course, this is not about token representation; women not only have to be in decision-making capacities, but also in real power. Furthermore, there needs to be a sustainable effort to mobilise and empower qualified women across all sectors of society and at all levels; after Margaret Beckett broke one tradition in 2006 by becoming Britain’s first female foreign secretary, four of her subsequent successors were all males. So, the march for equality continues.
In 1941, women were first admitted as members of RUSI, but only if they were in uniform. Fortunately, those times are very much in the past! Please click here to learn more about Women in RUSI.
Caroline Tranter is Executive Assistant to Dr Karin von Hippel, RUSI’s first female Director-General in its 187-year history.
Banner image: Recruits for the Women's Auxiliary Terrirorial Service are put through three week's extensive training, 1940. Courtesy of PA Images
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.