Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, Stylist.co.uk writer, Moya Crockett, applauds the news that female MPs may soon be allowed to breastfeed during Commons debates – and argues that the move is crucial if we want more women to succeed in politics.
Feminist Moya Crockett says:
Good news: women may soon be allowed to breastfeed during debates in the chamber of the House of Commons. An independent review, commissioned to tackle sexism in Parliament, has recommended that the current ban against breastfeeding be scrapped, in a “symbolic” move to showcase the Commons as a “role-model parent friendly institution”.
The Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, will chair a committee looking at how to implement the suggestions, according to the Telegraph. He said that the report “will prove to be both important and enduring”, adding: “We do tend to preserve, by laziness, rather antiquated practices and prejudices.”
Labour MP Jess Phillips, who has two children, has pointed out that breastfeeding in the Commons isn’t simply a matter of making a feminist point – it’s a legitimate health issue. During a debate about parliament’s un-family friendly nature in October 2015, she said: “I can tell you from years and years of experience, putting off breastfeeding your baby makes you feel like you are going to die.”
She wasn’t being melodramatic. If new mothers don’t express milk frequently, either through feeding or by using a pump, their breasts are likely to become engorged: swollen, hard, and painful. A fever can develop, limbs become achy, and in extreme cases, milk ducts can actually swell shut. If you struggle to focus at work when you’ve got a bit of a hangover, imagine trying to take part in a complex parliamentary debate while your breasts feel like they might actually explode.
But beyond medical necessities, allowing breastfeeding during debates will be crucial in enabling more women to advance in politics. As it stands, Westminster’s macho, old-fashioned culture makes it an incredibly inhospitable environment for working mothers – from the breastfeeding ban, to the frequent late night votes and the fact that MPs cannot vote in debates if they are on maternity leave.
And research carried out in 2013 showed that it’s much harder for mothers than fathers to make it into parliament. Almost half of female MPs were childless, compared to just 28% of men. Meanwhile, having young children was a barrier all of its own: the average female MP didn’t enter parliament until her eldest child was 16, compared to 12 for male MPs. Today, the majority of British women at the top of their political game don't have children, from Theresa May (who has said that she would have liked to be a mother) and her cabinet of Tory women, to the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon.
Few politicians – with the exception of the ill-fated Andrea Leadsom – would dream of saying that being a mother automatically makes you a better politician. But by upholding archaic rules like the breastfeeding ban, Westminster has actually been sending the opposite message: that being a mother, particularly the mother of young children, is incompatible with a political career.
And it isn’t, of course. Look at Anneliese Dodds, Labour MEP for the South-East of England, who in June made a blistering speech about tax dodging at the European Parliament – where politicians are allowed to breastfeed during debates – with her four-month-old daughter Isabella casually slung over her shoulder. Look at Argentinian politician Victoria Donda Pérez, whose photo went viral last year after she breastfed her baby in parliament, or Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli, who frequently brings her toddler Vittoria along to votes.
For these women, family-friendly legislation has enabled them to juggle a political career with caring for young children. That Westminster is finally heading in the same direction is something to celebrate.
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