Just three weeks ago, Jo Cox was stabbed and shot outside her local library. A week later, Pat Glass was told to avoid public places because she’d received a series of credible death threats. Graffiti is being scrawled on to the walls of constituency offices. Women MPs are being deafened by a daily cacophony of rape threats, intimidation and abuse. Women MPs, the pioneers for our rights, are no longer caucusing to discuss the pay gap and funding for women’s refuges, but to help each other find the strength to carry on.
It’s not hard to conclude that a small, extreme minority want to silence women with violence and intimidation. We can rationalise that. We can condemn that. It is their fault, it is not ours. But it is much harder to accept that violent hatred of women is just one end of the spectrum of a much wider problem. The systematic oppression of women in our society.
Our political culture has long been poisoned by the dismissal and belittling of women with opinions. The obsession with appearance over ideas. Women being told to calm down, while men are lauded for being passionate. Consistently low levels of representation across national and local government, particularly in leadership positions. And we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think this is a problem within the Labour Party as well, a problem I set out in a recent Fabian Society research report Practising what we preach. Women face harassment but have nowhere to go. A third of those who have stood for selection faced unwelcome scrutiny of their private lives. Where positive action is not used, women’s representation falls away.
While we have made huge progress as a Party, thanks to the perseverance of Labour women, too much of that progress has been superficial. We’ve had All Women Shortlists when it is politically expedient, and a gender balanced cabinet when it is easy to achieve. All while the Conservative Party are set to elect a second woman Prime Minister.
So when Labour Women’s Network call out Jeremy Corbyn for failing to keep his promise for 50:50 representation in the shadow cabinet, it isn’t party to a right wing conspiracy. It is simply saying that women’s equality shouldn’t be the first thing out the door when the going gets tough. It is not unreasonable to say we should have a standalone shadow minister for women and equalities. Surely, now, that post is more important than ever.
Oppression is a remarkable thing. It weighs you down, it knocks the self-confidence out of you, and it makes you doubt whether you should even make a fuss. Writing this, I’ve been fighting an urge to qualify myself. To say that, of course, there are bigger problems facing the country. To say that, of course, all of our MPs are having to tolerate horrible abuse. Of course we need action on both. But I’m fed up with women’s equality always playing second fiddle. And I’m furious that just when it felt like we might be making progress that we’ve been engulfed by this toxic and suffocating backlash.
I want leadership from the Party I love, and I want clear action to tackle abuse and to improve women’s representation. Practising what we preach sets out some simple steps that could be taken. But above all else I want Labour women to keep believing in themselves, to keep finding the strength to fight.
Jo campaigned for women in the Labour Party. She would have celebrated the election of Rosena Allin-Khan, who would have been Labour’s 100th woman MP. Jo’s successor must be a woman so that we can reach that milestone. But let us find strength from these dreadful few weeks to empower thousands more women like Jo to try and change the world.
Olivia Bailey is chair of the Labour Women’s Network. She tweets as @livbailey.