Suffragette100: St Albans and Harpenden women councillors reflect on their political journeys

Annie Brewster outside the town hall. Photo: DANNY LOO

Annie Brewster outside the town hall. Photo: DANNY LOO - Credit: Archant

The anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK offers the perfect opportunity to reflect upon the advances that have been made for female political participation, power and leadership, although there is obviously a long way to go before there is true equality in politics.

Cllr Mary Maynard.

Cllr Mary Maynard. - Credit: Archant

In the century since women won the right to vote, only 489 women have been elected to the House of Commons, fewer than the 650 seats available at any one time.

So despite the fact that a record 208 women MPs were elected in 2017, the Mother of Parliaments by no means offers gender equality.

At a regional level, women make up just 33 per cent of local councillors in England, and just 15 per cent of local authority leaders are women, demonstrating significant under-representation of women in local government.

We spoke to leading women in local politics to gauge their feelings on the gender imbalance, and ask what it would take to encourage their peers to enter the political agenda.

Cllr Teresa Heritage.

Cllr Teresa Heritage. - Credit: Archant

District and town councillor Mary Maynard explained: “Standing outside a polling station, with your rosette wilting in the rain, and the dawning realisation of lost contact with frozen toes is when you wonder why you got into politics.

“Young people voting for the first time make this worthwhile.They are unmistakable: excited; a bit confused; very solemn and often being fussed over by a proud mum or dad.

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“The girls are particularly special. They come hefted with history, the years of struggle, the women who were imprisoned or died to give them the right to stand there, the fight against being told they were second class. Their vote gives them the power to shape the world and create their futures.

“Use it wisely, girls. Find out about the issues that matter to you. Understand your vision of what you want and how you want things to work. Change today’s world to your world. The future is yours.”

Millicent Fawcett, who founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage, speaks at the Suffragette Pil

Millicent Fawcett, who founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage, speaks at the Suffragette Pilgrimage in Hyde Park. Picture: PA Images - Credit: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

Former Mayor of St Albans Cllr Annie Brewster also serves as a county councillor: “I do not believe the cheap sport of ‘Punch and Judy’ politics is attractive to most women.

“Despite having served within three tiers of government, I confess I’m not at all excited about politics for its own sake, but I am ridiculously passionate about delivering a better community.

“It follows I have been referred to as community leader who happens to wear a blue badge rather than a party activist who has to be a councillor.

“The customary ‘sledging’ abuse on Question Time and in Parliament, not to mention the way politics is currently taught, is not attracting enough millennial women into leadership.

“Using one’s intelligence, honesty and doing the right thing creates the best outcomes and, once this is accepted and encouraged, more women might seek political roles and the balance of power will sit with the men and women who deserve it, entirely on merit.”

Teresa Heritage is a Harpenden town councillor, a St Albans district councillor, and also serves on Herts County Council: “I grew up in a political household, so it was only natural that I became involved in politics.

“I took the plunge despite having a fulltime career in the city and having a young family to raise.

“As a woman, I have always been in the minority and have often wondered why aren’t more women – especially those under 40 – becoming involved in local politics.

“National politics seem to interest them more because of the glamour of Parliament and the perception you can only change things from the top.

“But I believe local government has many more responsibilities now and can impact on those things that affect everyone’s lives and make a difference whether it’s housing, social care, schools or the environment.

“Women make up 50 per cent of the electorate so they should make up 50 per cent of our elected representatives – not the 33 per cent or so that they currently do.

“We understand the challenges of managing work and family; the difficulties of juggling school runs, afterschool clubs, work and making dinner or dealing with the demands of aging parents. It’s a bit like trying to manage a council budget and priorities.

“Being a local councillor is no joy ride but I can say it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”