Visit the home of British democracy this year and discover how, one hundred years ago, women finally won the right to become members of this historic institution.
The Houses of Parliament celebrate an historic anniversary this spring as one hundred years ago, on 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed. Despite its decidedly unexciting title, this act of parliament marked a hugely important moment in Britain’s history as it gave women the vote for the first time. The act wasn’t a complete victory for women campaigners as it was only female property owners or graduates over the age of 30 who were allowed to vote (younger women being considered too flighty) but it was a massive step in the right direction. It was followed in November with an act allowing women to stand for election as an MP and then finally in 1928 with the Equal Franchise Act which gave all women over 21 the vote. This right had been given to men in 1918 and meant that women and men finally had equal voting rights. It marked an end to the bitter and often violent campaign for women’s votes that had officially started in 1866 when a petition asking for votes for women had been presented to parliament – and had been promptly turned down.
An exhibition at Westminster Hall explores the history of the resulting campaign for votes for women and women’s role in parliament today. Called Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament, it’s part of Vote 100, a year-long celebration of the passing of this major democratic milestone.
The exhibition explores women’s experience of parliament from the 18th century – when they could only watch Commons debates by dint of standing in a ventilator shaft – to the present day when there are over 200 women MPs, presided over (for the moment) by a female prime minster. The curators have re-created four spaces representing this journey.
The first is the Ventilator shaft which was burnt down in the Westminster fire of 1834. The new Houses of Parliament included a Ladies Gallery for female spectators and the exhibition re-creates this space, known as the Cage, showing how, in spite of its elegant title, this was a small pokey space, high up above the Chamber, covered with heavy metal grilles (which were designed to prevent the women distracting the men below by their devious feminine wiles).
Two other re-created spaces are the Tomb and the Chamber. The Tomb was the nickname for the office given in 1919 to Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in parliament. It was small and poorly furnished and remained the Lady Members’ room until as late as the 1970s – by which time it had become extremely crowded with women such as Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams having to share the only coat hook. The exhibition finishes with the Chamber, where the work of women in parliament today is highlighted. ‘The idea is to engage the visitors with the history of women and parliament and how it still applies today’ says exhibition co-curator Mari Takayanagi.
Outside parliament, the centenary of women gaining the vote will be marked by a statue of the famous women’s rights campaigner, Millicent Fawcett. Designed by the artist Gillian Wearing, this will be the first ever statue of a woman to go up on Parliament Square – and incidentally the first statue designed by a female artist. Fawcett will be depicted holding a banner reading ‘Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere’.
Combine a visit to the exhibition with a tour of the Houses of Parliament. These start at the Queen’s Robing Room, and then pass through the Royal Gallery and into the splendid Lords’ Chamber. You then get to visit the various lobbies, scene of much Victorian Gothic magnificence and modern-day politicking. Look out here for the imposing statue of Winston Churchill glaring down at the passers-by. It’s opposite that of David Lloyd George, Britain’s other wartime prime minister, and the feet of both statues have been polished bright by MPs who touch them for good luck when entering the House of Commons. Before you follow their footsteps into the Chamber, take time to look at the door which has been damaged by generations of ‘Black Rod’. This official has to knock on the door of the Commons three times with a ceremonial staff to summon the MPs to listen to the Queen’s Speech during the State Opening of Parliament – the speech is delivered in the House of Lords as the Queen is traditionally not allowed into the Commons.
Once in the Commons Chamber you can admire the famous green leather benches, the dispatch boxes and the Speaker’s Chair. The benches are lined up along each side of the room so Opposition and Government MPs are directly facing one another. They are separated by a distance of 3.96 metres – the same length as two swords – a design reputedly intended to prevent MPs duelling, although it doesn’t seem to have stopped them arguing.
The tour ends up in Westminster Hall. This huge space is the only remaining part of the medieval Palace of Westminster and was built in 1097 by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It’s famous for its spectacular hammer-beam roof, the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe. Today it is used for ceremonial events, such as the lying-in-state of the late Queen Mother, and for public exhibitions such as Voice and Vote. You can finish the tour with afternoon tea in one of parliament’s several restaurants overlooking the River Thames, a welcome break after a walk through nearly 1000 years of history.
Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament
Westminster Hall, Parliament Square, London SW1
Monday to Saturday between 27 June and 6 October 2018 (closed 27 August) More info click here
Tour the Houses of Parliament
You can take a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour of the House of Commons, House of Lords and Westminster Hall every Saturday and most weekdays during parliamentary recesses. Call 020 7219 4114 or book online. parliament.uk/visiting
Attend a debate
You can attend debates for free in both the House of Lords and House of Commons by visiting the public galleries (Monday-Thursday when the Houses are sitting).
*Image credits: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Parliamentary Archives
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