It is 2015. Yet out of the 650 MPs in Parliament, only 148 are women. Perhaps what is more shocking is since the first female MP was elected in 1918, there have only been 370 female MPs in Parliament, despite there being more women than men in Britain. Even if you were to double the number of female MPs currently sitting, you would not get that number.
As a young woman who is very opinionated, comfortable with expressing those views and who has a keen interest in politics (and no, I didn’t need a pink bus to gain an interest – or was it magenta?) I am often asked if I want to be a politician. Unfortunately, as much as I see politics as a beneficial way to make change, I do not want to put up with the institutionalized sexism and misogyny in Westminster. It is not because I can’t, but because I would rather not have to. Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham described Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) as a “very, very testosterone fuelled” environment . Watching PMQs and I feel a desperate urge to break my television screen because of the way female MPs are treated. The heckling, the unnecessary comments about their bums and boobs is microcosmic of how we treat women in wider society.
Arifa Nasim, a young campaigner against ‘honour’ based violence from Walthamstow who wants to get involved in politics believes there may be many barriers to break before she is to succeed. “I feel that my journey will be twice if not three times harder. I am a woman and I’m from an ethnic minority group. My loyalty to my country may be questioned – am I British enough to be an MP if I’m also a Muslim?” The problem is not that young women don’t want to get involved in politics. The problem is the environment is very white, middle class, male dominated and has been that way for a long time too – and there are some people who are reluctant for this to change.
Speaking to Catherine Aktinson, the Labour candidate for Erewash who famously spoke at the Labour Party conference with her son in her arms, it is clear that she believes sexism exists and change is imperative if we are to go forward. “I never felt that politics was something I couldn’t do. Sadly I think there is still sexism in so many areas. I have experienced sexism, often completely unwitting sexism”. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped the working mother who works relentlessly in her constituency and is getting other mothers on board as well.
“The Labour team we have built in Erewash is probably what I am most proud of. I’ve brought others (including local mums) into politics and I believe we are a stronger team for it. Many said they had been told that politics wasn’t something you could combine with having children. I am very proud that in a small way I have been able to encourage more women to get involved in politics. My son Jacob comes everywhere with me and so I have done all sorts of things with him in my arms, not because I was seeking to make a particular point, but just because I am the one looking after him at the moment”.
Sadly, the political environment is still one in which we doubt, ridicule and silence women. Recently, Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell commented that Labour MP Rachel Reeves might not be able to “handle” becoming a Cabinet Minister and give it her “full attention”due to her being pregnant. As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project pointed out in her Guardian women’s blog, #NotAllPregnancies are the same. But bloody ‘ell, have we forgotten something here? Women are all the same – we come from Planet Women. So pregnancy and childbirth inevitably means you go back to the kitchen and do what a good woman would do – stop working, stop your life and make all those sacrifices. So what did you expect, Rachel darling? You should know by now you clearly can’t ‘have it all’.
There are numerous other incidents too. Our Prime Minister asking a woman to “Calm down, dear” – make of that what you will. Labour MP Austin Mitchell tweeted to Louise Mensch:“Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics”. Then there’s the catwalk the Daily Mail made when Cameron reshuffled his Cabinet, the obsession with Theresa May’s shoes or the Conservative MP who ordered Stella Creasy out of the lift for MPs because he couldn’t possibly believe that a woman could be an MP. This attitude by some men – not all men in politics where they act like Westminster is a playground and treat the women like footballs is quite disgusting.
I appreciate there are men who support women in Politics which is brilliant and we need more men like that but this is not about men. It is this whiney “What about the men?” and “#NOTALLMEN!!” attitude which appears everywhere when we start a conversation about feminism and women’s rights and it drives me up the wall. Men, I’m sorry but you cannot be the centre of attention because this about the representation of women and the encouragement of women into politics. Yes, you do have a part to play in achieving a 50:50 Parliament but your pathetic cries drown out the voices of women we so desperately need to hear. (And representation does matter – when talking to Arifa Nasim she cited Stella Creasy MP as being a “champion” and felt that becoming an MP was possible because she had done it).
It’s this pre-historic attitude, what do these silly little wimmin think they’re doing? How DARE they? So we accuse Jo Swinson of hating women, send rape and death threats to Stella Creasy , create a ‘wrecking ball’ image of Nicola Sturgeon and talk about their patterned dresses rather than their policies. It’s the age-old way of silencing women – or making them look stupid. As Jo Swinson MP points out at Liberal Democrats Spring Conference 2015 , we also need a societal shift in the way we bring up our daughters. “From a very early age girls are socialised not to put themselves forward, not to put their head above the parapet, not to have that confidence, so it is any wonder that twenty years later when it comes to negotiating a pay rise or putting themselves forward for promotion, the women might be less likely to do so?”
Women of Britain – Westminster needs you. Whether that is through voting in the General Election, running for Councillor or MP or calling out sexism, especially media sexism when you see it, without you we cannot go far enough quickly enough. Don’t let the willies scare you. The next time you’re asked if as a woman you’re “good” enough or “tough” enough, do it like Ed brazenly did last night on Battle for Number 10. Hell yes, all women are tough enough.