Festival of ideas: Rachel Reeves on women who changed politics

By BWV reporter Monika Komar

I recently had the unique opportunity to listen to the MP for Leeds and labour politician Rachel Reeves talk about women in Parliament and her new book, Women in Westminster. Through interviews with females frequenting the halls of the British Parliament and throwbacks to the times of her precursors, Rachel shared what it’s like to be a woman in politics.

One of the first things Rachel pointed out was that misogyny in politics is ingrained – and that’s something women have been fighting for generations. From practicalities to wider issues, the Parliament was designed to be a man’s territory. Times have changed, politics diversified and women entered the political stage, but it wasn’t any easier once they got in. 
Rachel recollected the story of Dawn Butler, Shadow Women & Equalities Secretary, who was mistaken for a cleaner by a Commons member. Because what else would a black woman be doing in a members-only lift?

Experiences of this kind don’t help much with the imposter syndrome many women in power experience. With twice as many men in the Parliament as women, female MPs often feel like they need to mark their space. The constant expectation to prove their worth, combined with challenging hours making work and life balance a mission impossible, result in female politicians having to do the same job as men – and more.
So much so, as Rachel shared, that labour politician Edith Summerskill, one of the first women admitted to medical school before taking office in the 50s, joked that she had three man-size jobs: a doctor, an MP and a housewife.

The pressure isn’t just on making it work but also on the type of work women do. In politics, they’re often expected to focus on specifically female themes. After all, wouldn’t that be what they know best? But pigeon-holing makes female politicians angry. Sure, they want to maximise the opportunity to raise issues which in the male-dominated environment used to be overlooked, but they also want to work on other problems they care about. Just like men do. So, many end up doing the work their male counterparts do to fulfil their career goals – and, in addition, use their power to drive change for women’s issues.

Rachel fondly talked about the women who decided to work in politics – from Nancy Astor paving the way, Barbara Castle’s fight for equal pay, Harriet Harman’s legislation on the gender pay gap, to the two female Prime Ministers who have reshaped the UK’s political landscape for ever. 

Asked why more women don’t put themselves forward in this space, she talked about the abuse which may put them off. The murder of Jo Cox sprang to mind and while her tragic death is an extreme situation, it isn’t entirely isolated. Rachel mentioned social media sites which make an efficient communications channel to engage audiences but which can – and often have – turn into a violent source of bullying and harassment. In her opinion, they need to take more responsibility for their content, in the same way papers do.
Britain has come a long way since the first female MP took a seat in the Parliament. Politics is no longer a male-only game and it’s worth remember the courageous women who made it happen.

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