Women’s health, women’s bodies, women’s security, women’s rights – these simple rights were discussed on International Women’s Day 8 March 2023 during the third modern Women’s Parliament held at Cambridge Guild Hall Council Chamber. This followed two sessions of the Women’s Parliament, one on 8 March 2022, when a motion on a Women’s Bill of Rights was debated, and one during the Days of Action Against Violence Against Women, to debate a motion on women’s economic independence and ending violence against women.
Why a Women’s Parliament?
During the struggle for women’s suffrage last century, women staged Women’s Parliaments to demand the vote. While this was achieved on the same basis as men in 1928, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving equality. Building on the action and activism of those women of the past, women today are demanding our rights in full measure. Speaking out as members of the Women’s Parliament, women from a broad range of backgrounds and practical and personal commitment to women’s rights, recognise the power of women’s voices.
The Women’s Parliament is building on the work of the CEDAW People’s Tribunal, which, in June 2020 produced the President’s Report proposing a Women’s Bill of Rights. This aims to bring to fruition the United Kingdom’s international obligations in signing CEDAW in 1981, ratifying it in 1986, and signing the Optional Protocol in 2004. Ratification confirms the United Kingdom’s commitment to incorporate CEDAW and the General Recommendations (GRs) of the CEDAW Committee wholly into domestic law. This has not yet been done.
Harassment and misogyny
So, despite the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Abortion Act 1967, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010, United Kingdom women remain deprived of their full rights and entitlements. Women continue to labour in a system where the pay gap will not be closed on current ‘progress’ until 2069, depriving the economy of £600bn; the pensions gap leaves women in poverty in retirement; sexual harassment, sexist harassment and misogyny militate against women’s industrial rights; and rape, criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence continue relentlessly.
Adding to this, the CEDAWinLaw Tribunal Judge’s Report addressed the pensions gap. This demands that the government compensate 1950s-born women who suffered from the change of State Pension age of accrual from 60 to 65. The 1950s cohort was targeted explicitly, thus suffering direct discrimination on grounds of age and sex. From 1940, the age was set at 60 for women, 65 for men. The High Court and Court of Appeal said that this discriminated against men because they had to wait five years longer for their pension to accrue.
Yet this missed the point. The change made no difference to men, but it meant that 1950s women, who’d been given no notice of the change, would have to reorganise their retirement plans and stay on at work, begging employers to keep them on, or search out other paid work, rarely available for older women. In introducing the Pensions Act 1995, Work and Pensions Secretary, Peter Lilley, stated in his Second Reading Speech, and the Act itself confirmed, that 1950s-born women would bear the brunt of the change.
A strong tradition
Women sit in the United Kingdom Parliament, and in the devolved authorities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet the numbers are grossly unequal (just over 30 percent in 2019 – the highest number ever), with women MPs recounting gross levels of sexual and sexist harassment within the Parliament and from constituents. With voices untrammelled by patriarchal strictures and masculine bluster, the women of the Women’s Parliaments sitting in the Guild Hall Council Chamber in Cambridge affirm a strong tradition of women speaking out and speaking up.
Their voices echo the strong, courageous women who established Girton College in 1869 and Newnham College in 1871. They affirm Cambridge as a centre for feminist activism and action in politics, education and transforming charity, following in the steps of women such as Clara Rackham, Julia Kennedy, Millicent Fawcett and Eglantyne Jebb. Those women made their mark in politics, education and transforming charity. The women of today’s Women’s Parliament stamp their imprint firmly in the name of freedom, equality and rights for all women, today and tomorrow.