Here’s to more woman power

All the evidence shows it: more female MPs = more childcare = more women at work + higher birth rate

I don't suppose there is a working mother who did not sympathise with Yvette Cooper's plea that she would prefer to read bedtime stories to her children than lead the Labour Party - for now. Still, it was a sad day, because she would have been the best female candidate by far, possibly the best candidate altogether.

Allison Pearson, author of I Don't Know How She Does It, about the pressures of combining work and motherhood, resigned from the Daily Mail recently, citing depression caused by . . . the pressures of combining work and motherhood. She said she wanted to go on picnics with her kids, although why she didn't have time to do that is beyond me. It's not as if writing a column is running the country or single-handedly juggling part-time jobs and children on a weekly income that wouldn't pay for a Fleet Street columnist's haircut.

Irritated? Yes, I am. Because Pearson was responsible for launching a whole new genre of whingeing-women journalism: columnists with high salaries, cleaners and nannies, moaning about how they couldn't manage the school run, or their husbands, or both. I think if I was doing that for a living, it would make me depressed, too. For those who judge this harsh, note that two days after her sad farewell to the Mail, it was announced that Pearson had signed up for a new column in the Daily Telegraph. She'll be able to write about those picnics.

Purple protractors

It's not that I am unsympathetic to women's claims of stress, mental or financial. But women in comfortable positions complaining about the pressures of getting to the school Nativity play belittle the real problems that millions of women face. I preferred Cooper's simple declaration, moan-free, that she wanted to have time for bedtime stories.

Women fare much better under Labour governments. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the poverty rate for families with children in the UK doubled; under Labour, 600,000 children were lifted out of poverty and our spending on family services is now well above the OECD average, due in particular to investment in Sure Start and pre-school care. Women are disproportionately dependent on tax credits and on investment in public services, being much more likely to work in them than men, and many Lib-Con spending proposals will be regressive in this respect.

The Lib-Con takeover, almost entirely male, has been terrible for women. Within days of taking up her post, the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, was belittled after she addressed the Police Federation of England and Wales when the BBC reported she had been asked questions about her shoes. Never mind that she had made a pretty impressive speech ranging from police accountability to pay constraint.

The BBC itself is routinely misogynist. It humiliates women, confining them to discussions about purple protractors (an example from the Today programme), while the men get on with the serious business of politics. I think there is a case to be made that women, kicked off screen as they are at the first curl of a wrinkle and patronised as sidekicks to male presenters, should refuse to pay the licence fee until the BBC shows it can represent them equally.

Now Diane Abbott has been derided for entering the Labour leadership race because apparently she's the wrong kind of woman. Silly or loud or fat, whatever insult her critics can get away with and avoid being called racist (miso­gyny is fine, there's no law against that), Abbott has committed the crime of having opinions, being left-wing, surviving in parliament for 23 years (as a black single mother; just think about that). Oh, and she sent her child to a private school. Abbott's own comment on that choice was honest: it's "intellectually incoherent", but she needed to do it for her son.

Fertile economy

We need Abbott to get on that ballot paper for the Labour leadership, because if women appear to have given up the game altogether, others will not come forward for public life. And that will hit not just other women, but the whole economy. Here's why. There is a direct correlation between the numbers of women in a parliament and public spending on childcare services, pre-primary education, daycare, home help, all the things that enable mothers to work and drag their families out of poverty. Two highly respected Swiss academics, Giuliano Bonoli and Frank Reber, analysed the wide variations in childcare policy across OECD countries and found that the presence of women in parliament, whether on the left or right, is the most robust predictor of public spending on family services.

Here comes the economics: if you do not enable women to combine work with motherhood - and economic growth flows from increased female work, largely in the service sector - they stop having children, and fertility rates fall to levels that make welfare states unsustainable. A rapid decline in fertility occurred throughout the developed world in the last four decades of the 20th century, as women chose work over motherhood. Today, there is a clear positive correlation between higher female employment and higher fertility rates: you can see it at 36144248.pdf if you're interested. So, more female MPs equals more childcare, which equals more women at work plus higher birth rate, which equals future economic growth.

There. That's it. That's why Diane Abbott needs to get on that ballot paper. She needs to show that women haven't given up on politics, and Labour needs to show it hasn't given up on women. Apart from that, she has to save the British economy and the welfare state. I look forward to reading the support of all columnists who profess themselves on the side of equality. Particularly the female ones.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela