What's changed in 100 years?

It has been 100 years since the first woman could vote and the UK saw the first woman in parliament. Significant progress has been made over those 100 years and the number of women active in politics in the UK and globally has grown significantly. But in 2018 women remain underrepresented in all levels of politics.

So, what has changed in 100 years and what more still needs to be done?


The Representation of the People Act is passed to reform the electoral system in Great Britain. It gives voting rights to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 who own property. This marks a major advance for women’s political participation and empowerment, making 8.5 million women eligible to vote in the December 1918 General Election.

The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act gives women over the age of 21 the right to stand for election as a Member of Parliament.


Nancy Astor (Viscountess Astor) becomes the first female MP to take up a seat in the House of Commons. She is elected as a Coalition Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton on November 28 1919, taking the seat previously held by her husband.


The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act widens suffrage by giving women electoral equality with men. It gives the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership.


Barbara Castle becomes the first female Secretary of State as Secretary of State for Employment and goes on to hold a number of posts in government from 1964 to 1970.

Barbara Castle, the first female Secretary of State

Barbara Castle, the first female Secretary of State


The Women's National Commission is set up to advise the UK government on women’s equality issues and to act as an umbrella body for UK-based women’s organisations and groups to connect and work with government.


The Equal Pay Act prohibits any less favourable treatment in terms of pay and conditions of employment between men and women.


Margaret Thatcher becomes the first woman in history to ever hold the role of UK Prime Minister.

The UN’s The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is established.

Margaret Thatcher, the first female UK Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher, the first female UK Prime Minister


The Beijing Declaration is signed, a global commitment to achieving equality, development and peace for women worldwide


Wales becomes the first nation in the world to achieve 50:50 representation.


The House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee is founded.

The UK Houses of Parliament

The UK Houses of Parliament


Regulations are issued on implementation of Gender Pay Gap reporting (legislated in Equality Act 2010).

Our report

The British Council commissioned our Women Power Politics report to reflect on what has worked in the past 100 years and what has not. We hope this will enable us all to learn from each other and collaborate more closely to achieve success in the future, building up to the centenary of universal suffrage in 2028.

We engaged a range of participants from the UK and internationally through 40 individual interviews; six roundtables with 77 stakeholders and over 60 talking head short films to reflect many different experiences and a range of expertise. Participants were mainly women and ranged from those with direct experience as politicians, to those who are experts as academics, international consultants and activists in the field of women’s political participation.

Our report focuses on the following themes:

1. Women’s tenacity, activism and sisterhood

From the suffragist and suffragette movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the second-wave of feminism of the 1960s and 1970s; to more recent demonstrations, strong women have paved the way for change. Women activists and the women’s movement have played an important role in connecting politics to the everyday lives of ordinary people.

2. The rules

Significant progress has been made through legal changes over the last 100 years to achieve equality in representation in the UK and its nations. There is much to celebrate in these landmark rule changes and their impact on women’s representation.

But rule changes are still needed to make the process fair and, archaic rules (even informally) can still act as a barrier to women.

3. Political workplace

There has been positive change in the UK in the conditions for women within the political workplace in both the national and local legislatures. But achieving a cultural change has taken longer and patriarchal ways remain ingrained in the fabric of political institutions in the UK. For many women it has at times felt like two steps forward and one step back.

4. Leadership

Over the last 100 years the UK has had two women Prime Ministers and a growing number of women in political leadership roles. In 2018 women are leading, or co-leading, half of the political parties represented in the UK Parliament and/or devolved administrations, and women hold the positions of First Minister in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as UK Prime Minister. This is a dramatic change, but changes to the way women leaders are treated and perceived have been much slower.

5. The results: change for women’s lives

Politicians spoke consistently about the changing nature and tone of political debate as, with increasing numbers of women within parliamentary structures you could hear a much stronger women’s voice. This is echoed by parliamentarians across the world. Growing numbers of women, working together, have successfully changed the political agenda and the law to improve the lives of women and girls.

6. A changing world?

We have seen sweeping changes over the last 100 years in the UK and internationally on big themes like voting, the economy, care, education, justice and violence, culture, technology and attitudes to gender equality and the impact these have had and continue to have on women, power and politics.

Image for The results: change for women’s lives
© NurPhoto/Getty

We asked participants what changes they'd like to see in the next ten years. Here's what some of them had to say.

Some participants felt that increasing diversity is crucial:

Bethany Young from Sisters of Frida, an experimental collective of disabled women.

Ruth Boyle, Policy Officer (Public Affairs), Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Whereas some felt schools should introduce conversations about gender as early as possible:

Harriet Andrews, Director/Founder, The Politics Project, a youth democratic education organisation.

Mike Nesbitt, Treasurer, All party group on UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security

Some thought we need to introduce quotas:

Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Chair of Women and Equalities Select Committee

And others felt we need to find ways to give women and girls a more confident voice:

Mikalya Jones, Birmingham Senior Programme Manager at UpRising, a national youth leadership development organisation.

Laura McAllister, Professor of Public Policy at Cardiff University

What do you think?

Download the full report to find out more and then join the conversation.

What change would you like to see in the next ten years?