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Margaret Hodge Q&A: “All politicians are failed actors and actresses”

The Labour MP talks Audrey Hepburn, Rosa Parks and Dennis Healy.

Margaret Hodge was born in 1944 in Cairo, Egypt, to Jewish refugee parents. The family settled in Orpington, south London, in 1948. She has served as the Labour MP for Barking since 1994, and fought off Nick Griffin of the BNP in the 2010 election. Her time chairing the public accounts committee led to a book about government waste, “Called to Account”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Coming here to the UK as an immigrant from Egypt and being allowed to go into the cockpit of this tiny little aeroplane, which had to land to refuel in Rome. It was a traumatic event in my life: I remember it being really squashed and the plane wobbling.

Who was your childhood hero?

Audrey Hepburn – I thought she was quite gorgeous and a little bit of an outsider. And Rosa Parks, who was modest and brave and changed the world.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Philippe Sands’s East West Street. It resonated with my own history and my own family.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Denis Healey. I went with him when he led a very small group to Russia in 1992. He was an incredibly impressive man. We went to a library in Moscow, where he spoke for an hour without notes about the impact of his love of poetry on his politics.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Tax avoidance or Schubert. I play lots of Schubert – and I’d like to take on the tax professionals to show that I understand it just as well as they do.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d love to be around the brilliant composers of the late 18th century: Mozart onwards.

What TV show could you not live without?

I never watch telly! I’m a Radio 4 listener – that’s how I consume most of my news. I watched The Handmaid’s Tale, though, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

Who would paint your portrait?

Gillian Ayres. She’s in her eighties and she paints in very, very strong, vivid colours. She’s incredibly optimistic. I met her when I was arts minister and I never tire of looking at her work.

What’s your theme tune?

I love Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, which reminds me of my husband. The piece I play the most often when I’m working is Beethoven’s third piano concerto: the second, slow movement. It’s very simple and utterly beautiful.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. The decisions I took, how I balanced my life – I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been able to do lots of things, as time has moved on.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit and the Labour Party. I’m not going to expand on that.

When were you happiest?

On holiday with my husband and four children. The oldest was ten and the youngest was one. I was pushing the buggy through the airport. I remember thinking, “God, this is utterly great.” I wished the clock could stop there.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

All politicians are failed actors and actresses in my view.

Are we all doomed?

No. I’m always glass-half-full about the future. Things can only get better. 

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist