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13 March 2019

Women in power: the unfinished revolution for female MPs

Even after two female prime ministers, the model of politics we offer ourselves remains resolutely male. 

By Mary Beard

In 2010 the Speaker, John Bercow, closed Bellamy’s Bar in the Palace of Westminster and installed a nursery in its place. It is hard to understand how in the 21st century there could be any serious objection to the principle of on-site childcare for the benefit of members of parliament and staff. But it proved a controversial decision.

In the press, Bellamy’s Bar was given the plaintive adjective “much-missed” (as if there were not other bars in Westminster); and there was no end of blustering in the usual places about “a waste of taxpayers’ money”. Nor was it just those on the right who raised objections. Some on the left also joined in, on the grounds that it was providing a perk for those who worked in parliament that was not available to local residents. That may have been fair enough in a way, but I doubt if there had ever been much clamour to share the bar with Westminster’s neighbours. The point is that nurseries tend to be seen as a perk for women, and as such more a privilege or a luxury than a basic essential. To listen to the complaints, you would think that men had nothing to do with the creation and care of children.

The architecture of institutions and their use of space (nursery or bar?) are often revealing guides to social hierarchy and exclusion. I remember vividly when the ladies’ lavatories in most Cambridge colleges were located as inconveniently as possible, across several courtyards and down in some drab basement. The message was clear: this was not a place where women really belonged.

Even worse was true for the early women MPs. As soon as there was a prospect of female members in the House of Commons, there was the question of what facilities should be made available to them. When Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in parliament in 1919, she also became the sole denizen of the “Lady Members’ Room”, uninspiring quarters located – predictably enough – in the basement: in fact so uninspiring that it was known as “the dungeon”. When, over the next decade or so, a few more female colleagues joined Astor, the dungeon – with its seven desks and two couches – had far too little space to accommodate them all. It was standing room only, and (to judge from most descriptions) a terrible mess.

For someone of my age (I’m writing this aged 63), the experience of these early women MPs feels instantly recognisable. There were still “male spaces” (by convention rather than rule) in the university in London where I had my first job. I can instantly feel the triumph of Ellen Wilkinson (Labour MP from 1924) when she walked into the House of Commons smoking room. She said to the policeman who tried to stop her with the “sorry, not for ladies” line: “I am not a lady – I am a member of parliament.” And all those bottom pinches that Shirley Williams and others reported in the division lobby are familiar to many of us in other contexts, from photocopier to library or dance floor. I like the story of the female MPs in the 1960s responding to this unwanted attention by stabbing their stilettos into the foot of the often unseen pincher, and looking out for who was limping later.

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Things are a lot better now, though not quite as “better” as we might hope. Most of the more than 200 women who are currently members of parliament have the same old stories to tell: being asked to get out of a lift that is for “members only”, or being assumed to be the MP’s wife, not the MP.

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It is not unlike when I answer the telephone in my university faculty office and am regularly assumed to be a secretary: an insult both to our secretaries and to me! And, even if the women are no longer consigned to the Westminster dungeon, or kept out of the smoking room (which has ceased to exist anyway), the dispute over the nursery shows that the division of space is still an issue.

Some unexpected consequences, however, did come from putting the ladies in the dungeon in those early years. I am not for a moment suggesting that it is a good idea to give women worse accommodation than men (in fact I could make a pretty good case for systematically giving them the better). But it does seem that being thrown together in that way, under the often disapproving eyes of their male counterparts, helped them to create a rather different style of politics: much more collaborative, across the lines of party and class.

It is wonderful to picture the extraordinary trio of the extremely posh Duchess of Atholl (MP between 1923 and 1938, sometimes as a Conservative, sometimes as an independent); Ellen Wilkinson, the working-class hero of the smoking room triumph; and Eleanor Rathbone (Independent MP from 1929 to 1946 for “the Combined English Universities”, which then had their own parliamentary seat). They were all three strong supporters of the republicans in Spain, went out there to see what was going on in 1937, and together were vociferous in their opposition to Nazi appeasement throughout the 1930s – a view that cost Atholl her parliamentary seat.

Of course, these early women parliamentarians did not always agree, even on “women’s issues”. Rathbone was a campaigner against what we would call female genital mutilation, a subject that did not cross the minds of most of them. Atholl, meanwhile, did not even think that suffrage should be extended to women on the same terms as men (the 1918 solution, which effectively restricted voting in general elections to propertied women aged over 30, was quite enough for her). But between them they introduced important reforms that we take absolutely for granted as part of our social bedrock, from family allowance (which we now know as child benefit – the brainchild of Rathbone) to widows’ pensions and the establishment of the fundamental principle that mothers and fathers have equal rights to the guardianship of their children (before 1925 women who separated or divorced had no rights to their children at all).

In taking the lead in all this (including the dream of equal pay from the 1930s), they paved the way for the better-known names of the later 20th century, from Barbara Castle to Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Williams to Diane Abbott.


I have lived through a period of revolution. My mother was born before any women had the right to vote in general elections and she lived to see a female prime minister (albeit one that she did not have much time for). When I was growing up in the 1960s only around 4 per cent of MPs were women; as a child I got the strong, and in some ways correct, impression that the country was governed by white men in suits. Currently just over 30 per cent of MPs are women. This is a big cause for celebration, not just because it is a victory for fairness, but it means that the country as a whole is no longer missing out on the political talents of half the population. And yet there is still a long way to go.

That is partly to do with the positions we entrust to women. Admittedly there have now been two women premiers, but not yet a chancellor of the exchequer; we are still much more likely to find women in the “caring” jobs. But it is even more to do with deeply embedded assumptions about the nature (and gender) of power. In our heads, I am afraid, politics is still often thought of as a man’s world. Why else do female politicians, like Margaret Thatcher, get taught to lower their voices? And what do even I see when I shut my eyes and try to imagine a prime minister? Answer: a white man in a suit. The same thing happens, I confess, when I try to imagine a professor. Even though I am a female professor, it’s a slightly batty-looking bloke in a lab coat that I see.

There could be no clearer glimpse of this than a tweet put out recently by a prominent (Labour) politician in which he listed, from one to ten, his selection of the “best politicians” of the last century. From Churchill at number one, via Aneurin Bevan and John Major and other assorted worthies, to Edward VII at number ten, every single one of them was a man. No Castle, no Thatcher – though Theresa May did scrape in at number ten of the parallel list of the “most irresponsible and dangerous politicians” of the last century. This is the kind of mistake that it is, believe me, easy to make on Twitter. But it is revealing none the less. Even after two female premiers, the model of political power we offer ourselves remains resolutely male.

So how shall we know that the revolution has really worked?

When we shut our eyes, think of a prime minister and see a wonderfully tough, eloquent and resplendent woman.

“Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics” by Rachel Reeves with a foreword by Mary Beard is published by IB Tauris