As the Labour MP cancels her Caesarian in order to take part in a crucial Brexit vote, childbirth rights campaigner Rebecca Schiller asks whether women will ever be truly equal in parliament - and the rest of the UK.
Political freedom or physical safety? It’s a choice we aren’t supposed to have to make in this country. But this week, Labour MP Tulip Siddiq has been forced to delay her elective caesarean – against medical advice – to enable her to participate in a crucial Brexit vote.
As a childbirth rights campaigner, I support Siddiq as she makes this incredibly difficult decision, and have no doubt that it was carefully thought through. The politician, now at the end of her second pregnancy, has every right to make this complex choice, balancing both hers and her foetus’ health with her beliefs, her life and her career.
But she shouldn’t have to.
Whether you want to be a parent, are a parent, haven’t given parenthood a moment’s thought, have chosen to be childfree, or opted for the many other realities in between, Siddiq’s enforced balancing act (brought about because of the lack of a proxy voting system) has a direct impact on you.
Our democratic system rests heavily on the idea that we are represented by those in positions of power. Though progress is being made on diversity in the House of Commons, the reality is that white, straight, able-bodied men still play a far greater role in political life than they should. According to the 2017 general election results, there are 51 black and minority ethnic MPs – half the number that would represent the population. Nineteen per cent of working adults in the UK have a disability but there are believed to be only five disabled MPs in the House of Commons – less than 1% of our 650 Members of Parliament. It is little wonder that political decisions often continue to privilege those already in the most privileged groups.
The 2017 general election saw a record number of female MPs enter the House, but with only 32% of MPs being women, we have not even reached equality in numbers. And as Siddiq’s situation demonstrates, true equality is being hampered by the unfriendliness of political life to women who happen to be mothers.
Eighty-four per cent of women become pregnant during their lifetimes and the average age to have your first baby in England is 30, meaning that women rising through the ranks of the political system are highly likely to be pregnant at pivotal moments during their career. If the system makes it difficult for them to do their jobs and be mothers, women up and down the country will never be truly represented by their MPs.
In response to Tulip Siddiq’s announcement about delaying her birth, the speaker of the house, John Bercow, highlighted the “lamentable” lack of progress on ensuring that proxy voting (allowing MPs on maternity leave a vote in their absence) can take place. Bercow more than hints that this may be in part due to deliberate obstruction from what he calls “reactionary forces” acting “murkily behind the scenes” to “oppose progressive change”.
It is astonishing that enabling MPs to vote whilst on maternity leave is seen as progressive, and it’s symptomatic of how determinedly old-fashioned political life remains. Old-fashioned things are not always bad. But when the old boys’ club still has such a firm grasp on some of the most important decisions in our society, it’s time to replace unnecessary anachronisms (such as the pairing system which failed Jo Swinson during her maternity leave) with something fit for purpose.
Until MPs who are mothers find it as easy to do their jobs as MPs who are fathers, women will not be adequately represented by our government or opposition. Even if we have a 50/50 split in the House, women will not have the same power as their male counterparts while they have to choose between their health and the most important vote of a generation.
Women’s maternity-related rights aren’t given enough territory within the broader women’s movement. Yet it is women’s capacity to become pregnant that is used against us time and time again. The very fact that we could become mothers, even if we choose not to, has always been at the heart of why women are treated as second class citizens.
The gender pay gap increases after the age of 35 – by which time many women have become parents. For jobs such as financial managers and directors, the disparity is as high as 31%, with men earning an average £28,000 more than women. Seventy-seven per cent of working mothers have reported negative or discriminatory treatment at work, while 40% of employers admit to avoiding hiring women of childbearing age. Getting things right for mothers is vital to the bigger success of the feminist project.
It’s no coincidence that parliament lags behind on making work actually work for its female MPs. It is the perfect way to nod publicly to equality whilst making the reality as difficult as possible - not just for women who want to be MPs but for all women who want a government that understands, cares and fights for the issues that affect them.
One of the longest serving MPs in the House, Harriet Harman (whose three children were all born during the Eighties, in the early days of her political career), has recently taken on a new and initially jokey role as ‘Mother of the House’, explicitly to look after the interests of women in parliament. She has asked that Tulip Siddiq be allowed to “have her vote and her baby”. It doesn’t seem too big of an ask to me.
Her words surely resonate with many women who want to have their say, their equal place in society, the chance to earn as much as they deserve, to rise through the ranks fairly and, if and when they choose, to have a family. Or not.
In the House of Commons and in every workplace across the country, we need to know that our status as a woman who could become pregnant will only alter our career plans if we want it to. Only then can our political system – and all that sits underneath it – claim to adequately represent and enable half the population.