THERESA MAY’S appointment as Britain’s second female prime minister has led to predictable comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. Yet around Britain, female leaders have become the norm. In Scotland, the heads of the three biggest parties are women. So is Northern Ireland’s first minister. Wales is the only country of the UK where a man is in charge—and he faces a female leader of the opposition. It is a “historic moment”, says Meryl Kenny of the University of Edinburgh.
Yet despite these gains, women are still under-represented. Last year 191 women were elected to the House of Commons, making up only 29% of MPs. Northern Ireland’s share is about the same; Scotland and Wales do a little better, with 35% and 42% respectively. Britain ranks only 48th in the world for the proportion of women in its parliament (Rwanda leads the way).
The rate of change increased after Labour adopted women-only shortlists in the mid-1990s (see chart). And the lack of female Conservative MPs (only 21%) belies how the party has been evolving. In 1992, when it was riding high, it had only 20 women in the House of Commons. However, partly because of the efforts of Women2Win, a pressure group co-founded in 2005 by Mrs May, 49 female Tories were elected in 2010 and 68 in 2015. Gillian Keegan, a Tory candidate, says the aim is to double this number again.
But there are fears that things will get harder for women. For a start, as a recent report on diversity in Parliament by Sarah Childs of Bristol University contends, the lack of working-class representation in Westminster “has become a more high-profile political concern over the last decade”. Parties want to reconnect with working-class men; this could come at the expense of promoting women.
This could be particularly true of the Labour Party, where Jeremy Corbyn’s class-based politics have trumped Tony Blair’s identity politics. This is one reason for the ruptures in Labour. Women MPs feel that they have been “disproportionately affected” by heightened levels of personal abuse within the party, as 44 of them wrote in a letter to Mr Corbyn on July 21st. Owen Smith, who is challenging Mr Corbyn for the leadership, has promised that women would make up half his shadow cabinet.
Some express concern that the problem is broader than this. Demos, a think-tank, has documented how social media have become a conduit for abuse against women in public life. Labour MPs have helped to found a “Reclaim the Internet” campaign. They fear that online “trolling” is forcing women to reconsider whether it is safe even to enter politics, let alone aspire to the cabinet.