A bad week for equality

The Church of England’s complex voting system has led to a decision that women can’t become bishops. This is perplexing to an outsider. If a woman can be a priest, why can’t she make other people priests? A bigger issue for democracy is the political impact of this decision at the heart of the UK Government. Today’s vote affects policy-making way beyond the Church.

26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for Church of England Bishops. They will now continue to be men-only roles for the foreseeable future. Figures from January 2011 show that 181 (21.7%) out of 833 members of the House of Lords are women, so this reinforcement of gender imbalance is very significant.

Information provided by ‘Counting Women In’ shows the scale of gender inequality in government. Their statistics show that women hold 22 out of 122 of ministerial roles in the House of Commons. Nine Government departments are male only decision-making domains.

During the same week that the Church of England made its decision about Bishops, the Prime Minister announced the axing of equality impact assessments that the previous government had introduced to make sure that officials took account of disability, gender and race in their decision-making.

David Cameron said, “We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff.” How representative are these ‘smart people’? The all-white cabinet is made up of 19 men and 4 women, with 18 millionaires. 60% of the women in cabinet were sacked during the last reshuffle.

The WEA is non-party political but equality and democracy are central to our recently refreshed vision: “A better world – equal, democratic and just; through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society.”

Whatever your views on politics or religion, thoughtful consideration of these issues and their impact on society has a place in community-based adult education.

Sources of information:

http://www.cfwd.org.uk/uploads/pdfs/WomenIntheHouseofLordsJan11.pdf

http://www.countingwomenin.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Cabinet-reshuffle-A-Broken-Promise-dossier-Sept-2012Final.pdf

Parliament, Politics, Emily Wilding Davison and the WEA

Several threads are weaving together in the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) this week.

We have a Parliamentary celebration coming up on 7 November with WEA students, volunteers, staff and supporters joining MPs, peers, funders and partners at Westminster. Our Trustees will be taking active roles at the event, which we’re holding during National Trustees’ Week.

The WEA is also backing a new campaign for a minute’s silence at next year’s Epsom Derby to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison’s death in 1913. Emily made the ultimate sacrifice as a suffrage campaigner fighting for women’s rights to vote. She was one of our own, having been active in the WEA.

100 years on and the WEA is still campaigning for greater equality in politics. We launched a ‘Women into Politics’ project in Nottingham last Friday.

Parliamentary event, 7 November

There are more details about our Parliamentary event at: http://www.wea.org.uk/News/parliamentaryevent.aspx

We’re looking forward to celebrating award winners’ achievements, including recognition for a campaign encouraging people to vote. The event is causing a lot of excitement and will give many people a chance to visit the Palace of Westminster, building on educational visits that we continue to organise in partnership with the Parliamentary Outreach Service.

It’s timely to know more about Emily Davison’s story and her links with Parliament.

Emily Wilding Davison (1872 – 1913)

Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Davison’s challenges and campaigns are still all too relevant a century after her death. She couldn’t afford the tuition fees to complete her first course of higher education and faced discrimination because she was a woman. Famously, she died four days after being trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. She was making a dramatic protest in support of women’s right to vote.Her personal experience of discrimination fuelled her campaigning zeal.

Having won a place at Royal Holloway College to study literature when she left school, she had to withdraw because she couldn’t pay the fees. She worked as a governess before taking up higher education again and achieving first-class honours in English in the Oxford University examination for women. Oxford degrees were closed to women in 1895 so she couldn’t graduate. She became a teacher and returned to higher education, graduating from the University of London before working as a teacher again. Emily joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906 and gave up full-time teaching in 1907 so that she could devote more of her time to the WSPU. She also became involved with the WEA during this period and is reported to have been a member of the Marylebone Branch’s Executive. Emily was a militant suffragette and was jailed several times for some of her attention-grabbing protests, being force-fed in prison.

Penni Blythe-Jones (@WofWWW on twitter) is organising the petition for a minute’s silence at the 2013 Epsom Derby. There’s a link at http://emilywildingdavison.org/?page_id=11. Kate Willoughby (@2FCPlay on twitter) is working with her. There’s also a lot of background information on the internet about Emily’s life and death as well as the more traditional sources of biographical information.

Suffragettes and the Palace of Westminster

Emily Davison plaque

One of Emily Davison’s most creative campaigning activities involved her hiding overnight in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster on the night of the 1911 Census so she could record her place of residence as the “House of Commons”. A plaque in the building commemorates this event. There’s a permanent display about the suffragettes located off the Central Lobby, on the way to the public gallery of the House of Commons. It includes a suffragette medal and a scarf belonging to Emily Davison.See http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/exhibitions-and-events/exhibitions/suffragettes/ for more details.There’s also a case study of Emily’s Parliamentary campaigns at: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-emily-wilding-davison/

The WEA, Women and Politics

The WEA has a very long record of political education and of encouraging men and women to take an active part in democratic processes. We are non-party political and work in partnership with several other organisations to promote political education through initiatives such as the recent Democracy Week. Some of our educational projects and courses are specifically for women as they are under-represented in local and national politics.

We launched a new ‘Women into Politics’ project in Nottingham on 2 November. You can follow the project’s blog at: http://womenintopolitics.wordpress.com/. The project builds on a tradition of many linked activities in England and Scotland. We have developed ‘Women Be Heard’ courses with various groups and we also use history as a way of raising awareness of a range of current equalities and social justice issues.

Many WEA students, members, tutors and staff in Scotland took part in a memorable Edinburgh Procession in 2009 in support of ‘Gude Cause’. They dressed in period costume, carried banners and wore sashes to identify themselves with one or other parts of the Women’s Suffrage movement. See http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/Images/WearingtheColours_tcm4-672114.pdf.

The WEA can be proud of its early record on gender equality. We began life in 1903 as the ‘Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men’, changing to our current name of the ‘Workers’ Educational Association’ (WEA) in 1905 to be more inclusive of women.

It’s important to reflect and learn from history, to celebrate achievements and to reassess the challenges. There’s still a great deal to do.