In a lecture marking the centenary of the first women gaining the vote in Britain, Fellow of the British Academy Professor Anne Phillips stressed that we cannot assume that modernity is on our side when it comes to gender equality today.
Gender equality is often assumed to be part of the ‘inner logic’ of modernity and a core value of Western society. Yet, Professor Phillips argued, this has challenging undertones of the moral superiority of ‘Western values’.
Despite the 1918 Act Representation of the People Act, which gave the right to vote to a select group of women, the story of the past century has not been one of a “steady progress towards equality”. While the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, Lady Nancy Astor, did so in 1919, it was not until 1987 that the proportion of women in Parliament inched above 5%. And beyond the corridors of political power, women still face discrimination and stereotyping, even in sectors thought to be ‘hyper-modern’, like the technology industry.
“Modern life may have appeared to have opened many doors, but it does so in a constrained manner”, said Professor Phillips. For a supposedly key principle, gender equality is taking a long time to realise itself.
Many theorists have argued that the unequal treatment of women is a hangover of a past society, a “single relic of an old world of thought”, as J.S. Mill put it in 1869. Inequality is interpreted as a sign that modernity has not quite arrived; that civilisations are on their way to a more equal future.
Tracing the language of equality and rights back to the French Revolution, which is often assumed to have ushered in modern society, Professor Phillips argued that modernity and gender equality did not go hand in hand. New patterns of gender relations in the ‘modern period’ from the eighteenth century actually intensified inequalities between men and women.
Claims about gender equality being a key principle of modern society encourage a complacency about how far we have progressed she said, but also show exaggerated confidence about our superiority to other cultures and societies.
Political struggle, like the suffragette campaign one hundred years ago, are key to realising equality - “modernity did not do this for us”, said Professor Phillips. Political and social arguments for equality have to be fought and re-fought: “we cannot assume that things will change if we just wait long enough.”
To mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, next week the British Academy will be celebrating women in the Academy, in higher education and public life. Follow the British Academy on Twitter for more.
Professor Anne Phillips FBA is the Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. She is a leading contributor to feminist political theory, including through such works as The Politics of Presence, Multiculturalism without Culture, and The Politics of the Human. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003. The event was chaired by Professor Pat Thane FBA, Research Professor in Contemporary British History, King's College London