“The only spinster in the House of Commons”: how women have fared in Parliament

It took 80 years to get the level of female representation we have now. We must do better in the coming years.

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Now that Parliament has been dissolved, 149 women MPs will step outside the powerhouse, along with 501 male MPs, also departing. The cohort will head out across the land to vigorously defend their seat or help those seeking to replace them.

The latest Electoral Reform Society analysis predicts a record number of women will be returned to Parliament, accounting for almost 30 per cent of all MPs (more later on why it is crucial to meet this figure). Even if the 30 per cent is reached this would still leave us in the world ranking of female political representation at position 36, which is only slightly less embarrassing than the 56th place at which we currently stand.

During the last Parliament both government and MPs failed to address the country’s poor female representation. Despite just 22 per cent of Britain's parliamentary representatives being women little national debate has taken place. As a group, women are no less politically engaged than men although at the last election 9.1 million women failed to cast their vote opposed to eight million men.

Not all women enjoy the adversarial nature of political debate which can be off putting to those considering a future career in Westminster. While some effort has been made to deal with practical issues such as introducing more sociable working hours and addressing the lack of childcare facilities, it has done little to affect the scandalously low numbers of women entering Parliament.

Sorting practicalities is one thing, but seismic change is required. The Nordic countries, often credited with having the right balance, and with near on parity between the sexes when it comes to political representation, have normalised women as leaders.

However, change was slow and it took almost 80 years to get to this point. In addition, a strong welfare state in these countries supported and enabled women to return to the labour market and/or a life of politics.

Achieving a more gender balanced Parliament is a numbers game and returning a cohort of 30 per cent women MPs is central to this. Once a critical mass is achieved, approximately a third, then the presence of women becomes the norm and therefore accepted. They are no longer maligned or ignored, instead they are better able to get on with the job and achieve.

Here is a quote from the Daily News in 1926 describing one of the first Labour women to be elected to Parliament which appears in an extract from my book, Parliamentary Pioneers: Labour women MP’s 1918-1945: “Ellen Wilkinson, till quite recently the only spinster in the House of Commons, has red hair and very Red (sic) opinions…the question arises whether celibacy has the same effect on women in politics as that which exercises on public men.”.

This insight into social attitudes 90 years ago begs the question, ‘How far have we really moved on from this sexist derision?’ Only last month Speaker Bercow was berated for referring to a senior female Tory MP as a washing machine (meaning you think the washing machine will stop but it does not). In the same month a Tory MP got into hot water when he suggested Rachael Reeves, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, would be unable to commit to a cabinet job following the election because she will have two young children to look after.

The Tory MP, Andrew Rosindell, said: “I don’t want to say someone who is having a baby is not eligible to be a cabinet minister, but I certainly think perhaps the demands of that particular job will require someone to give it their full attention.

“I don’t expect Rachel Reeves to be in the cabinet after the election because I expect the Conservatives to win, but clearly people need to be put in the positions they can handle.”

Attacks like this deter women from seeking elected office, because the suggestion is that if you want to be an MP you must make a sacrifice; there must be some sort of trade-off.

For the first women who entered Parliament, this was certainly true. Parliamentary Pioneers, explores the very personal sacrifices these women made in order to pursue their parliamentary ambition. They dedicated their lives to the socialist movement yet they were limited in the ability to create significant change, which again explains why a critical mass is so important.

However, the contribution made by the first women MPs must not be underestimated. They fought for working class women’s right for birth control, for example, and vigorously supported women’s paid employment.

One of the better known women MPs, Margaret Bondfield, defended domestic service with customary eloquence: “I take domestic service to be a highly skilled profession…there is not a member in this house who does not depend on domestic service to serve him, feed him or to keep him clean. If it were not for domestic service we should all die of the plague or starvation. I resent most bitterly the serfdom and stigma put upon what ought to be one of the most honoured professions in the country.”

Without knowing it these first Labour women MPs who were unapologetically doughty, feisty and individualistic made Parliament accessible for future generations of Labour women; accessible but not inviting.

Coming from the trade union and labour movement women's organisations, they had the grounding to be elected to Parliament. Inevitably, they faced much hostility from existing male MPs who believed they shouldn’t be there in the first place but since they were they had better behave like gentlemen.

Indeed they were excluded from many debates and because there were so few women MPs they were not in a position to challenge it.

In the final chapter of the book current women MPs, Harriet Harman and Stella Creasy, share their experiences. Both were serving MPs in the last Parliament although they started their political careers in different social climates.

Despite this Stella still experiences derogatory remarks, usually, aimed at her gender. One such anecdote concerned a debate on cyber-crime where she attempted to participate in her capacity as a shadow minster, yet every time she tried to contribute she was accused of being emotional and irrational.

Creasy was even derided in a tabloid for the clothes she chose to wear- not too far removed from the commentary Ellen Wilkinson endured in the Daily News.

Despite the obvious derision still in existence, Harman believes a transformational change occurred between her own and her mother’s generation. She explores life as a woman Labour MP in the 80’s, during which she attended a Labour women’s conference at where, the then leader Michael Foot, gave what she refers to as an “intellectually exceptional speech”. Harriet was impressed by the speech but most definitely not by the fact that in the whole of his 45 minute address Foot did not once mention women. I can’t imagine that level of insensitivity by today’s Labour leader or that any women’s conference would stand for it.

It will be interesting to examine what May 7 will bring, and hope that the sacrifices those first Labour women made wasn’t in any way futile.

Mary Honeyball MEP is Labour’s spokesperson in Europe on women and gender equality. Her book Parliamentary Pioneers is out now, published by Urbane.

Mary Honeyball is the Labour MEP London and is the vice chair of the of the women and gender equality committee in the EU. She is Labours spokesperson for women and equality in Europe.