Women MPs: judge us on what we do, not on how we look

Fay Weldon's article ("Women don't deserve to be on top", 27 September) is bizarre. Women MPs stand accused of dressing too well ("nicely coiffed and smartly skirted"), following emotion not reason ("you let your hearts overwhelm your reason") and, most entertaining of all, falling in love with men.

From Fay these are strange accusations indeed. You would think she would be the first to complain about an article speculating on women's appearances and emotions, rather than the job they do.

Instead of these stereotypes, the best way to judge women MPs - and women ministers - is by results. In July I asked a parliamentary question about the impact of all the Budget measures since the election on women and men. The answer came back that women have gained on average £275 a year, compared to £120 for men.

Since women are still far more likely to be living in poverty, earning low wages and looking after children, they were bound to gain more from many government policies. Rising child benefit, the national minimum wage, the childcare tax credit and extra cash for the poorest pensioners all help women more than men.

But if these government policies are not sufficient testimony to the impact of women at Westminster, consider the work backbench women MPs are doing, too. Ann Keen led the campaign to equalise the age of consent. Debra Shipley's private member's bill has tightened up protection against child abuse. Concerted lobbying by several back-bench women led to changes in the Immigration and Asylum Bill to benefit children. Then there is Ann Cryer's campaign on forced marriages, Linda Perham's work on age discrimination, Ruth Kelly and Harriet Harman on parental leave . . . I could go on and on.

Of course this doesn't solve all the problems women face. Far from it. Women are still in poverty, still suffering abuse, still underpaid, still struggling to balance work and family.

Inequality among women of different backgrounds has grown. More than 86 per cent of women with higher education have jobs. But the chances of entering the workforce for women with no qualifications have dropped over the past 15 years from 59 per cent to 52 per cent. And your chances of becoming a teenage mother are nine times higher if your parents were unskilled, than if your parents were professionals.

Of course more should be done. As just one example, single parents need more help with education, not just employment opportunities, if they are to get well-paid jobs later on. These are issues that should concern all MPs - not just the 18 per cent who are women.

Fay Weldon calls for an end to the "locking of male antlers, pointless confrontation". Yet at the same time she seems to be arguing that nothing short of full-scale public confrontation between women MPs and the government will prove that women are making any difference at all. I hope Fay will be the first to agree that all MPs - women and men - should be judged on what they each do, rather than the size of their antlers.

Yvette Cooper
MP for Pontefract and Castleford

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children