This is the first time that I have had the privilege to address the 300 group though I have attended a number of the group's events over the years. I am honoured to be asked to deliver the Pankhurst lecture in this your tenth anniversary year.
You have a specific goal, which I applaud and support.
I, too, wish to see more women in Parliament and in public life as a whole. Not because I think women should be granted special favours. I haven't received special favours in politics at Westminster or outside it. And I very much doubt if you have either. Rather, I want to see more women in public life because this country will be better served if it draws fully on the rich talents of women as much as men.
Women have had to fight over many years to gain the opportunities we now have. Among the standard bearers of this crusade were many of those whose names are recalled here today. Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Parliament, Margaret Bondfield, the first woman Cabinet Minister, Amy Johnson, the first woman aviator, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who became the first woman qualified doctor in Britain. Mrs Pankhurst
But no one could surpass the achievement of Emmeline Pankhurst. Mrs Pankhurst was a fighter. Not everyone, even now, would approve of every tactic she used. But it's sometimes forgotten that it was the example given by Mrs Pankhurst and her colleagues in wartime as much as their militancy in peacetime which brought, first grudging respect, and then enthusiastic support for her cause.
The reward of that sacrifice was the enfranchisement in 1918 of women over thirty; and in the same year it became possible for women to enter Parliament.
The gratitude of the nation brought justice for women.
The influence of women
Not, of course, that women before this time lacked influence.
Certainly, the idea of a woman as a frail, sheltered junior partner in the business of life is alien to the judaeo- [end p1] Christian tradition.
Chapter 31 of the book of proverbs talks about the qualities of a capable woman, whose “worth is far beyond rubies” .
And what does she do?
In addition to getting on with her work at home and making every effort to give the best to her husband and children, we also read, “she seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands … . she rises while it is yet night (well I can certainly testify to that!) and provides food for her household … . she considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard … . she perceives that her merchandise is profitable … . she makes linen garments and sells them … . she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and she does not eat the bread of idleness” .
Well, there's nothing new about women working!
This thoroughly admirable lady, who is at the same time a good wife, a good mother, a practical provider for her own, generous to others and a very good business women, balanced her responsibilities rather well.
And, essentially, it is the balancing of responsibilities which I want to deal with today.
Women in public life
Since the days of Mrs Pankhurst, the economic, social and political condition of women in Britain has been transformed.
In 1918 there were seventeen women parliamentary candidates. Only one came to Parliament.
At the 1987 general election there were 325 women candidates. Forty-one were elected.
Not enough, I agree. We need more—lots more. [Every one of us will be delighted when there are so many that our presence there is not a matter of comment.]
In this government there are four women ministers of state and two junior ministers—oh, and one Prime Minister … . not a bad record if you consider we have only seventeen women Conservative members of Parliament and that five of these are ministers. The two others are in the Lords.
And earlier in the lifetime of this government, Baroness Young was the first woman to lead the House of Lords and of course she was in the Cabinet.
I was delighted that four out of the eight new peers whom I recommended in the last working peers list were women, distinguished in their own right. This was the first time that half the list were women. [end p2]
Just as important, though, is the advance of women outside public life.
In the professions, in management, in self-employment and generally. Two out of five jobs are now done by women.
We have come a long way since the days when Marie Curie was forced to publish her early research under her husband's name. Or from the days when Lady Ada Lovelace—a gifted mathematician but condemned to obscurity—was providing the basis of the first computer programmes.
We are also trying to ensure that girls and young women are educated and trained for jobs which would in the past have been the preserve of men. Around half the students in medicine and dentistry are now women, and the latest figures for the legal and accountancy professions show a similar picture. Alas, in engineering we still lag far behind in spite of the fact that it is over seventy years ago that DameCaroline Haslett founded the women's engineering society and set such a marvellous example herself.
This is doubly ironic because science and technology have done so much for women throughout this century. The spirit of enterprise has translated their advances into equipment which has removed most of the drudgery from household chores, leaving so much more time both for the family and for work outside the home. And technological progress and push button equipment has opened up for women jobs once physically impossible for them to do.
But legislation has been necessary too, both to stamp out discrimination and to tackle other problems.
One of the most important tax reforms of this government has been the introduction of independent taxation for married couples—giving them two separate personal allowances as well as a married couples allowance. This means that up to £7700 of the family income is now tax free.
Three million married women will pay less as a result of these changes, three-quarters with incomes less than £5,000 per year. These reforms have promoted women's independence and protected their privacy.
Where we are now
So there is much to applaud. The horizons of women have widened immeasurably. And women's way of life has changed accordingly.
Far more women now go out to work. Some married women are working because they prefer a career to having children. Others want to combine a career with having a family. Others, of course, are working at least part-time to bring in extra money for the family.
And of course many of us want not only to spend time bringing up our family, but also to be able to use our talents and abilities elsewhere, feeling that otherwise they would be wasted and we should lose the satisfaction, stimulation and independence that such work brings. [end p3]
But let me say this. It is wrong to describe the choice as between working and not working. Anybody who has tried to bring up children knows that there is no more demanding—and fulfilling—work. And if we do not make enough time to be with our children we should regret it forever.
There can be no single solution that applies to everyone: family and economic circumstances are so different, and so are temperaments and aptitudes. It's not for the state or anyone else to dictate whether and how much women should work. It is a decision for the husband and wife to take together. Otherwise there will be friction and nothing could be worse for the family.
Sometimes I am asked how I managed to combine a successful career with a family. I can only draw on my own experience.
I've always found that to get the most out of life you have to work really hard. And the more effort you put in, the more satisfaction you get out.
But you have to think ahead: you have to organise your life and your family's life with great care. You have to make swift decisions—and right ones—often at the start of the day, or quite late at night. And you have to see they are put into effect with the minimum of fuss. Yet, no matter how hard you work or how capable you are, you can't do it all yourself. You have to seek reliable help—a relative or what my Beatrice Robertsmother would have called “a treasure” . Someone who brought not only her work but her affections to the family. And as at other times, the existence of the wider family is so very important—the grandparents, the uncles and aunts and the friends who help us to cope.
It is also clearly in the interests of business to give women the chance to combine bringing up a family and having a job. Major companies such as ESSO, BP, ICI, IBM, the leading banks, and the government as an employer are providing flexible conditions, career breaks for children, good quality nursery facilities, working from home and part-time working. These are setting an example. And I would like to see many more employers follow their lead.
Families under pressure
And there is a less happy aspect of the background against which women today must balance their responsibilities.
Sadly, no fewer than one in five children will experience a parental divorce before they are sixteen. And one in four children are born to unmarried parents. Last year nearly 800,000 lone parent families were receiving income support. And these families are often concentrated in areas where children can hardly know what an ordinary married family is like. In the United Kingdom we have one of the highest proportions of lone parent families of all the European Community countries.
No matter how sympathetic we are to the difficult circumstances which lie behind these figures, they should cause us the greatest unease. [end p4]
Unease because of the interests of the children—and uase because of the effects on the life of our country as a whole.
Of course, there's never been a golden age of universal marital bliss. But the worry is that what was once the exception may now become the rule.
And it is, of course, the children who suffer most. I remember the late Mia Kellmer Pringle stressing again and again that children must to be brought up in a stable, loving environment in which parents offer time, affection and guidance. The children need security. These things are most likely where the parents are married—and stay married.
In some cases that ideal is just not attainable and in others—where for example there is violence—it is undoubtedly better where the parents are separated.
We must be supportive of lone parents left to bring up children on their own.
Just recently I met Mrs Margaret Harrison who runs Homestart, an organisation with some 6,000 voluntary workers who are themselves parents. They visit families in their homes giving other parents—especially single parents—friendship and support in the practical things in running a home and bringing up their children. It's not officious, it's not intrusive, it's not patronising: Homestart volunteers put the people they help on an equal footing right from the start by indicating that perhaps they too in time could use their experience to help others—and they do.
Homestart seeks to break the cycle of deprivation, by helping today's children grow up in happiness and security to become tomorrow's parents.
Government too must be concerned to see parents accept responsibility for their children. [Beginning of section checked against BBC radio news report 1800 18 July 1990:] For even though marriages may break down, parenthood is for life. Legislation can't make irresponsible parents responsible. But it can and must ensure that absent parents pay maintenance for their children, for it is not fair for them to expect other families to foot their bills too. [End of section checked against BBC radio news report 1800 18 July 1990.]
At present, only one in three children entitled to receive maintenance actually benefit from regular payments; and three quarters of lone parents have to rely on social security.
Earlier this year I announced that we were looking at ways to stop absent parents just walking away from their duty to maintain their children. We have been examining the policy and practice of other countries; and we have decided that we must have a simpler system of maintenance available to all. The present one is too inconsistent, too slow and too complicated. In future: —we will set up a new child support agency which will [end p5] have access to the information necessary to trace absent parents and make them accept their financial obligation.
—We will move to assessing maintenance through a standard administrative formula which will take account of the parents' ability to pay, of the cost of bringing up a child—and the right of that child to share in their parents' rising living standards. Complicated cases may still have to be referred to the courts but the existence of such a formula will help in these cases too.
These proposals will help lone parents—who are often overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task of making absent parents face up to their responsibilities. The whole process will be easier, more consistent and fairer. Our aim is to give the lone parent back her morale and her confidence. Then she will be able the better to use and develop her own abilities for the benefit of her children and herself. She can then break out of the cycle of loneliness.
We will publish the full details of these proposals in a white paper this autumn.
Today I have covered a wide range of issues: and I have tried to put them in the context of balancing responsibilities.
What Mrs Pankhurst would have made of questions like this it isn't easy to know. And certainly, I don't claim to. But I am interested to note that her daughter Christabel PankhurstChristabel wrote of her mother that she was “no revolutionary in her views of marriage” .
The great and valuable revolution which has taken place since Mrs Pankhurst 's victory over the forces of prejudice and reaction which has allowed us to be here today will go on. The vistas of opportunity for women will continue to widen.
There is an enormous reserve of wisdom and ability on which to draw. Let's have 300 women members of Parliament to do just that!