WHEN a motion went through the House of Commons in July about plans for Westminster to host a global gathering of female parliamentarians in celebration of the centenary of women’s suffrage, it almost failed.

The obstacle in its way was, perhaps symbolically, the 71-year-old white male Conservative MP Christopher Chope, best known for also opposing a bill which would have outlawed the act of taking a photograph under a woman’s skirt. An intervention by Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt saw the motion pass at a later date and the Women MPs of the World event will take place this Thursday. When hundreds of women from around the world take their seats, it will be a powerful visual image. UK audiences in particular are used to scenes from Westminster akin to “spot the woman” as the rare few jostle to be heard amid a sea of middle-aged white men in standard-issue suits and spectacles. The election in 2017 brought the highest number of women ever elected, but that number is still only 208, 32% of MPs. Women make up 35% MSPs – and there has never been a non-white female MSP.

Clearly, then, there is lots for Thursday’s conference to discuss, and for our representatives there to learn. Women’s representation in Parliament is firmly on the agenda, with sessions planned for working groups to discuss issues affecting women parliamentarians, such as bullying and harassment, and the support following election. But, hinting at the true scale of the problem, the afternoon will also see attendees look at topics as

far-ranging as violence against women and girls, economic empowerment, family planning and education. The overall aim of the day, Mordaunt says, is “to make women’s empowerment a global priority”.

And herein lies the difficult reality for female parliamentarians: that in the battle for women’s liberation, the ballot box has only taken us so far. The right to vote, extended to us in a piecemeal fashion on the basis of class and relationships to men, has led to the election of many a man intent on keeping women exactly where they are – not least Donald Trump, who can owe his election as president to the white women of America.

The right to stand for political office has led to two hard-right female UK prime ministers more committed to policies that hurt women than many of the men before them. None of this is to say that there aren’t committed feminists in Parliament, or competent and inspiring women roles of political leadership – Nicola Sturgeon, of course, among them – but democracy has never been a silver bullet for solving the problem of gender inequality.

Rather, faced with female parliamentarians who often have more in common with their white, middle-class male counterparts than their female constituents, women have often had to fight for equality in spite of or against parliamentary democracy, rather than within it.

When Glasgow’s lowest-paid women workers went on strike last month they were resolute that their action was about demanding what they were owed from state powers, regardless of what colour rosette they might be wearing.

When activist group Sisters

Uncut lay down on the Baftas red carpet earlier this year, it was the domestic violence bill proposed by Theresa May they were opposing. Women know the radical redistribution of power necessary for us to achieve gender equality won’t be easily handed over by those who currently wield it. Feminist democracy has always been about more than suffrage.

The image of women parliamentarians dominating a cold, unfriendly room in a building and institution which has always been hostile to them and invested in their subjugation will, therefore, be a thought-provoking one. On the one hand, it’s a room which should absolutely be reclaimed by clever, capable women from all walks of life who reflect those they represent. On the other, the structures in which they will be participating are the very same which have held other women back and inflicted real hardship upon them.

I hope Thursday’s delegates are willing to examine the roles of their own institutions and colleagues in the inequalities they are there to discuss. I hope they can recognise that women’s empowerment means more than an increase in women

like them having access to power.

I hope they are prepared to discuss meaningful solutions regardless of their political expediency: strengthened trade unions, even though it might rile up bosses and business; equal pay, even though a lack of it currently holds up the entire economy; humane and compassionate social security systems, even though it means acknowledging not everyone can just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The ideologies that win elections have traditionally been those who maintain the status quo, but upsetting it has to be a prerequisite for meaningful change.

Our parliamentary democracy is still an institution of a state which has inequality and division built into its core. We need great women on the inside, keeping a check on the unbridled power of posh white men, and doing what they can for those outside the door. But we also need to keep holding all power to account, no matter who guards it, until it is redistributed radically.

Bringing together female parliamentarians is a fine way to mark the women’s suffrage centenary, and I hope it achieves its aim of making women’s empowerment a global priority. Whether such an objective is possible within the ancient, patriarchal walls of Westminster, though, remains to be proven.