“Female Lords”: Women’s representation and restriction in the House of Lords.
Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sLZBWcPklk @ 01:06, UK Parliament
Today, out of the 92 hereditary peers currently sitting in the House of Lords, none are women.
The House of Lords is a pivotal institution of the British political system but has received far less academic attention than the Commons. At its core, the underrepresentation of women in the Lords relates to the patriarchal history of the upper house and historical prejudices against the political woman.
The bicameral parliament we recognize today originated in the 14th century when the two distinct houses emerged. The House of Lords has participated in the fundamental moments of British history and to name a few: it was dissolved during the Republican Commonwealth (1649-1660), extended British liberty by approving the Bill of Rights in 1689 and had its legislative powers restricted under a Liberal government in 1909.
The underrepresentation of women within the House of Lords is tied up with its structure and traditions. Gender representation has never been formally addressed within the Lords. The 1958 Life Peerages Act intended to limit the inheritance of peerages down family lines, the fact that Stella Isaacs became the first female peer was only a side note. One route to attaining a peerage is by recommendation from your party leader, and those recommended are typically the most high-ranking and prestigious politicians in the respective parties. Therefore, the representation of women in the Lords is “a gradual process and contingent upon feminisation within the Commons and political parties more generally.” Furthermore, the representation of women in the Commons is hampered by the “motherhood trap,” as the parliamentary structure restricts women leaving their careers to raise children but also demonises mothers who aren’t active in their child’s life – a juxtaposition which does not inhibit male MP’s. Although, recent Labour and Lib-Dem governments have capitalised the lack of public election to the Lords by deliberately appointing women to the Lords and feminising the upper house.
The future substantive female representation in the Lords partly depends on the past female representation in the Commons. This dichotomy is exemplified by Nancy Astor, who in 1919 became the first female MP, however, she was aged 78 by the time women could sit and vote in the Lords. The forty-year lapse exemplifies the longevity of the political process. There will be no radical change within the gender representation of the Lords as it depends on the gradual increase of female representation in all of British politics.
Written By: Mary Taylor Lewis
- Ronan, Thomas P. “Women Are to Sit in the House of Lords.” The New York Times. Nov 06, 1957.
- Eason, Christina. “Women Peers and Political Appointment: Has the House of Lords Been Feminised Since 1999?” Parliamentary Affairs 62, no. 3. (2009): 399-417.
- Smith, Helen. “The Motherhood Trap: Why are so senior many female politicians childless?” The New Statesman. July 16, 2015. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/07/motherhood-trap
- Childs, Sarah. “Women at the Top 2005: Changing Numbers, Changing Politics?” Hansard Society. 2005.