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“Why exclude the whole female sex from all participation in the constitutive power? Because the prepossession against their admission is at present too general, and too intense, to afford any chance in favour of a proposal for their admission”

Judith Stephenson, Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Programme Director for Maternal Health.


Illustration Hanna Melin

Society is, often unconsciously, still stacked against women being absolutely afforded the same privileges and access to power as men. There are strong forces at work on both sides of the struggle for power to allow us to decide what happens to our own bodies, and for power on a wider political and global scale. While Trump has reinstated and expanded the ‘global gag’ rule, which blocks US funding to the world’s largest NGO providers of abortion-related activities, in Ireland they have just repealed the Eighth Amendment (the constitutional ban on abortion).

So this fascinating quote not only demonstrates that Bentham (1748-1832) was somewhat ahead of his time, but also a bit of a feminist. The idea that prejudice against women has prevented promotion into real power is both historically accurate and still relevant today.

The ‘SheDecides’ movement, for example, uses social media to spread its message that every girl and every woman has the right to do what she chooses with her body, including the right to modern contraception and safe abortion. These things are absolutely fundamental to women’s ability to achieve positions of power and to be truly represented.

Here at UCL we have a hospital named after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She had a tremendous struggle to become the first qualified female doctor in England and was refused admission at almost every point. Men have typically dominated traditional professions, but times have changed and women are taking up their rightful places.

Many of the prestigious medical bodies are now, or have recently been, headed by women, including the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of Physicians and of General Practitioners.

However, we’ve got a long way to go – while there are a number of parliaments around the world where 50 per cent of the MPs are female, in academia, only about a quarter of the professors are female. Things are still stacked against women achieving these positions and this is partly due to issues around maternity leave, which is still problematic for some. Many women’s careers are thwarted. We need to do something about this if we don’t want to lose a huge talent pool.

Contraceptive advancements have had a massive impact on the participation of women in government – Bentham’s ‘constitutive power’. You can’t do much if you can’t get out of the front door without one baby on board and three children round your ankles. Women used to live in fear of their next pregnancy, and it wasn’t until 1974 that contraception was available on the NHS. Now everybody is entitled to family planning. Extraordinary.

We might not, as Bentham said, have complete admission to constitutive power just yet, but we are at a hopeful point in history.

Judith Stephenson is Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Programme Director for Maternal Health at UCL, and leads the Vote 100 programme to celebrate the pioneering work of women at UCL since women first won the right to vote.

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Portico Issue 5. 2018/19