Visible Women

4 female MPs on what it’s really like to be a woman in parliament

Women won the right to become MPs 100 years ago today. But do our current crop of female MPs feel that everything is equal? 

It’s easy enough to name a female MP. You can picture Stella Creasy fighting for abortion rights. Anna Soubry making short work of Brexit arguments. Wera Hobhouse launching a bill to outlaw upskirting. Mhairi Black showing that the youngest member of parliament in 350 years can deliver a storming speech. 

But we still only have 209 female MPs, out of a total of 650. The hours are unsocial, bullying – as shown by a report last month from former high court judge Dame Laura Cox – is rife and Amnesty International proved by tracking tweets that female MPs, particularly those from BAME backgrounds, received substantially more abuse than their male colleagues. In 2018, this isn’t good enough.

It was 100 years ago this very day (21 November) that British women first gained the right to stand for election, nine months after some women won the right to vote. To mark this anniversary and to highlight the ongoing gender disparity, women across the UK are joining their MPs in parliament as part of the #AskHerToStand Campaign, backed by The Fawcett Society, The Jo Cox Foundation, the Centenary Action Group and 50:50 Parliament. Stylist asked four MPs – Conservative Kemi Badenoch, the SNP’s Angela Crawley, Labour’s Preet Gill and Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson – for their thoughts about the lack of women in parliament and what they and their parties would do to balance the deficit. 

How does it feel to be in parliament as a woman at the time of this anniversary?

Kemi Badenoch: I was only elected last year. The anniversary highlights how much has changed and how much better things are for women. It’s a real honour to be part of that.

Jo Swinson: I remember back in February, when we had the centenary of the legislation being passed for votes for women, the debate that happened that day felt very special. But there’s also that responsibility, we need to get out there and get more women in.

Angela Crawley: There’s so much more work to do. The suffragettes 100 years ago, I think they would have imagined things would have moved on a bit more by 2018. We need to keep pushing at that door and widen access, as Jo said. And not just here at Westminster, which is a privileged institution, but across all areas of politics.

So do you think we should push for equal representation of women in parliament?

Preet Gill: The fact we have 209 women out of 650 MPs 100 years later doesn’t feel like we’re winning in terms of gender equality. The Labour Party MPs are 45% women, which is absolutely amazing, but I think we need to get to 50:50 to say we’re really serious. 

Angela Crawley with Nicola Sturgeon

KB: In the Conservative Party, we look at it in terms of candidates. We could put forward women and then, if their male opponents win, that’s what people have voted for. The pipeline of people coming through to stand should be 50:50. My role within the party is vice chairman of candidates, so it’s my job to find the next generation of MPs. It’s been a real eye-opener looking at the way women approach wanting to become members of parliament. It took me two years from when a party chairman said, “I think you should be an MP” to when I did apply, and a lot of women take that amount of time. For men, it’s about 48 hours.

AC: I do think having female leadership helps. Also, it’s more than being female. I was young when I was elected, I’m lesbian, so being young, being LGBT, being female, it’s about different experiences. Having intersectionality is important – it’s about representing society.

JS: It would be a shame if we got to 50:50 women and we didn’t have representation more widely in terms of age, religion, sexual orientation, disability and so on. But, also, one of the things that took me quite a long time to understand is how much is done through informal power structures. You think you know how something works from the outside, but you realise it’s a small cabal, a small group of individuals, where the power might be located. 

Labour’s female MPs, including the first black female MP Diane Abbott, celebrate the centenary of the women’s right to vote in the UK

We all agree we need a more diverse, more intersectional and, therefore, more female- heavy parliament. But why do we think that?

JS: You should have proper representation of women and other groups in society. Because it’s right: there’s a moral argument. I think you get better decision-making. You need to have those different perspectives, particularly when you’re making decisions about everybody’s lives in the country.

KB: One of the arguments people used to make was if you had more women in parliament it would be less confrontational. We have more women than ever, it’s still just as confrontational. You want women having an equal voice in parliament because our life experiences are different to men’s. But – and this does worry me – I get a lot of women coming in who only want to talk about their experience as a woman. What are women’s views on defence? How do you feel about national security?

AC: There are different composites of society. If parliament doesn’t look like society, then is that reflected in policy? Something like universal credit, where if it’s not thought through, there are flaws. Could that have been counteracted by not having men in a room drafting policy, but having a parliament that reflects society challenge it from the beginning? 

PG: The fact of the matter is women are equal. Why should it not be that our parliament is 50:50? What message are we giving to young people out there? “Oh, the fight for gender equality? We’re losing it.” 

We’ve talked about women bringing different experiences, but the counter argument is that women often get stuck with education or welfare or health. Can it limit a woman’s career?

AC: Well, have we ever had a female chancellor of the exchequer?

JS: Or defence secretary? Women do get pigeonholed. I used to let that stop me. Obviously, I want to talk about the economy too.

PG: I think you just have to do both.

KB: We hadn’t had a female prime minister and now we’ve had two Conservatives. I’m less worried about that impact because there are women in the team. Yeah, the Chancellor’s not a woman but the prime minister is and she gets the final say. It’s more about why women aren’t taking on certain jobs. A select committee, for example, is voluntary, unlike a cabinet where you get appointed. If you look at the defence select committee, it hasn’t been that the boys took all the jobs and kept the women out. 

Jo Swinson

Why do you think that is?

KB: We want to be experts. We have lots of women who’ve been teachers, who have worked in the public sector, so they will talk more about education. Whereas men will feel that they don’t have to have been a soldier to go into defence. It’s an area of interest, not an area of expertise. I think encouraging women is the way to share the load.

PG: We’ve got a female defence secretary Nia [Griffith]. We’ve got a female foreign secretary.

KB: Shadow secretary.

PG: Yes, sorry, shadow, we are in opposition. There does need to be encouragement from the leadership around identifying women in their party and helping and nurturing them. What nobody ever tells you is that when you get here, you never get any support to learn the job. In opposition it’s so tough because you don’t have all the civil servants. That means spending a lot of your own time trying to do the reading and the writing and finding space to think about stuff.

JS: We can fall into saying, “Well, women should just go for it,” and I am very much in favour of that. But I think we should also recognise it’s not irrational for women to take that approach. There’s a double standard. There’s an assumed competence for men. You know, Liam Fox stands up – apologies, he’s one of your colleagues – but it’s not like he’s got a great background in international trade, he’s a doctor! Nobody questions his ability. Whereas a woman, even a businesswoman, would have lots of people questioning whether or not she knew enough about trade.

KB: But that’s an assumption. Who’s the woman who we have questioned in that way?

JS: During the election campaign last year, we all saw Diane Abbott give an interview – where I am sure we all felt ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ – and forget a figure. We all have those days. The treatment she had as a result was entirely disproportionate. Women learn if we get something wrong the penalty is much higher. What happened to her was sexist and racist.

KB: Jeremy Corbyn had lots of terrible attacks when he couldn’t name his party’s six Brexit tests. I think we forget when men have these issues.

JS: They don’t get attacked as much, and for as long, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

Are there practical concerns that prevent women wanting to stand as MPs?

PG: It really is a lifestyle shift which impacts your family. Suddenly mummy is no longer at home three to four nights of the week. Some weekends I have to attend events. I still get homesick but having Facetime helps. For many women, this deters them from standing and that’s why support from your partner, family and friends is absolutely key.

JS: One practical way to make parliament a better workplace is to introduce proxy voting. MPs do not enjoy the benefits of formal maternity and paternity leave. While I have been taking care of my newborn, my constituents have not had their views represented. Proxy voting would give new mums and dads the confidence that one of their key duties as an MP is being fulfilled, and that their constituents won’t be cheated out of crucial votes like I was this summer.

KB: For me, being an MP actually gives me greater flexibility than I have had in other jobs. I’m able to take my kids to school a couple of days a week and can make the job fit around me and my family as much as possible. 

Rwanda has the highest proportion of women in their lower house in the world: 61.3%. That’s done by a quota system. How do you feel about quotas?

AC: I am pro quotas. Unless you have the mechanisms in place to bring about that change then it’s not going to happen organically.

JS: I have changed my view 180 degrees since 2001. You need to think about the people in the voluntary parties. They’ve got a lot on their plate and they’re doing it in their spare time. Although they probably want to see more women, more BAME candidates, has it been their top priority? I think an all-women shortlist forces the issue.

KB: Using quotas can create a backlash from the electorate. It can look like naval-gazing. You need someone who represents your values. I think for the Conservative party, that’s what we’re going for. Who represents you on the inside, not just on the outside. And the quotas deal with the outside. You can’t have a quota on diversity of opinion. 

What would be your promise to Stylist readers to help encourage more women into parliament?

JS: We’re committed to having candidates who are representative of the population as a whole. For the next general election, our target is for women to make up 50% of our candidates and for 10% to be BAME.

PG: I recently wrote to the equalities minister Penny Mordaunt to implement section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which would require political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections. One of the major obstacles to achieving a fair share of seats for women is that they are under-represented among candidates. It’s a simple but important step in ensuring all parties do their bit to improve representation.

KB: Our party chairman has stated his ambition to make our candidates list 50% women, which I think is really important in giving women an equal chance to succeed. This really fits in with my role as vice chairman for candidates. I am going out there, approaching women’s groups, to find the brilliant women to sit with us in parliament. I’m the person to come to, so if any Stylist readers are interested, get in touch!

AC: As far as the SNP is concerned, we can continue to do more. I would like to see us broaden diversity – including people from disabled, LGBT, black and ethnic minority, and low income backgrounds. I think the challenge is to grow and keep on with that mentoring programme that gives people the skills and the confidence to think they can go on and become the first minister of Scotland. I am personally happy to commit to continuing my
paid internship programme for young
women who are keen to enter politics.

If you know an amazing woman who would make a great MP, join the #AskHerToStand campaign. 

Images: Getty