The proportion of women in the House of Commons is at an all-time high. But with female MPs still only making up a third of the total, the battle for parliamentary equality is far from won. The UK sits 39th in the international league table for the proportion of women in its parliament – a long way behind Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia, where female MPs are in the majority.
Rachel Reeves’ new book provides compelling evidence for why this matters. Women of Westminster tells the tale of some of the 491 female politicians who have been elected to parliament since women were first eligible to stand in 1918 and the profound impact they have had on our national life. So many of the advances for women that we now take for granted – equal franchise, equal guardianship of children in the case of divorce, child benefit, equal pay – were fought for and won by women MPs, often in the face of fierce resistance from their male counterparts.
Some of the MPs’ stories are well-known, but many less so – while Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher loom large in the narrative, Reeves also shines a welcome light on the contribution of a host of other female politicians, such as Labour MP (and Fabian) Susan Lawrence, who ‘drank in facts as some men drink whisky’ or Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet-Keir, who played a big role in the campaign for equal pay. There are intriguing snapshots too of what life was like for the earliest pioneers. Women MPs survived their all-night sittings wrapped in furs or munching chocolates from their handbag and were barred from many of the House of Commons facilities male MPs were able to use.
But Reeves really comes into her own when recounting the story of women MPs in the last few decades, where she has been able to talk to some of those involved. Insights from Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and of course Reeves herself show how casual – and not so casual – sexism has continued to make the life of women MPs difficult as they seek to improve the lives for women outside the House. Harman’s reflections on how Gordon Brown broke with tradition by not making her deputy prime minister when she became Labour’s deputy leader – and how Brown delivered for women ‘but didn’t really work with them’ – are particularly telling. The reflections on the ‘Blair’s Babes’ generation from those involved are fascinating too. As Smith points out, the election of 101 Labour women in 1997 was a huge moment, but there was something ‘handmaidenish’ about the way in which they were portrayed.
As Women of Westminster reminds us, even now women who want to make their mark in politics find it tough to be taken seriously. Questioned about their childcare arrangements by selection panels, paraded as arm candy at party conferences and judged in the press for their fashion choices, female politicians still have to put up with treatment that men just don’t have to. At its most extreme, this can have appalling consequences in the shape of sexist abuse and rape and death threats. Reeves tells us how Jo Cox, murdered by a neo-Nazi in June 2016, received five times as much online abuse as fellow Labour MP Neil Coyle after they wrote an article together. Cox’s husband Brendan tells Reeves: “I think all the evidence suggests that women with opinions are more likely to be attacked than men with opinions.”
Yet, Reeves suggests, there is hope that the more collaborative, humane and co-operative style of politics which Jo Cox embodied can prevail. The women who illuminate this book have achieved great things. Those who follow them will have much to live up to.