You’ve just published a book, Honourable Ladies, profiling every woman MP between 1918–1996. It features female contributors such as Mary Beard, Caroline Lucas, Margaret Beckett and Yvette Cooper and aims to ensure the achievements of women in parliament are not forgotten by telling their stories.
What is your favourite example from your book of women disrupting politics at the margins to bring about change?
Lots of the women we looked at campaigned for some of the issues that we now take for granted, around minimum wage, equal pay, and childcare.
For example, Irene Ward, who was the longest serving Conservative MP, took up the case the staff in the House of Commons library. Women were not allowed to work there because there was an idea that they were too weak to move the ladders. So what Ward did was to walk through the corridors of parliament carrying a ladder, obviously making sure she was being photographed. I quite like that slightly direct disruption of parliament.
That’s a fantastic image. Research has shown that women are half as likely as men to consider themselves potential candidates for elected office and that they need to be asked three times before they will consider standing. The campaign #askhertostand is trying to encourage women to stand. Is this enough, or are there other obstacles on the long road to becoming an MP?
I think it’s a necessary but not sufficient thing to do. There is also essentially institutional sexism in the selection processes of all of the major political parties. If you look at the evidence in the Labour Party, for example pre-1997, women were being asked to stand. There was a policy of one woman on every shortlist, yet there was still minimal progress made. I mean, we had barely more Labour women MPs being elected in 1992 than we did 1945, for example. It wasn’t until the implementation of positive action to all women shortlists that you saw a real breakthrough.
I was really surprised in the book to find that women who had struggled to be elected, who were clearly successful politicians, nevertheless backed off taking on a bigger challenge. Margaret Bondfield turned down a cabinet position and said she wanted to stay a more junior minister. Shirley Williams didn’t stand in 1982 to be the leader of the Social Democrats despite being supremely well-qualified. Very successful women sometimes lack the confidence to take that next step.
I completely see that. And it seems that having that broad overview, that historical context, shows you patterns and common traits that some of the women shared even though they were different in terms of party and area of specialism. So has the presence of women in politics changed the behaviour of men in politics?
I don’t think there’s much evidence from volume one of Honourable Ladies that the presence of women has really changed some of the behaviour in parliament. I mean, I arrived there in 1997 and I can say it wasn’t obvious to me that men in parliament had changed. I would say that it’s not just the presence of women in parliament that matters but actually general attitudes about what behaviour is appropriate. There are men in parliament now who behave differently from those in the 1980 to 1996 period. But men are still the vast majority of MPs.
How secure is the progress that women have made in politics? How likely is it that progress could be reversed? Under what circumstances might such a reversal take place?
We have an example of a reversal. In 1997, Labour used all women shortlists, and we had 101 women elected. In 2001, when that policy had been ruled illegal but before Labour had changed the law to enable them to reuse it again in 2005, what we found was a reduction in the number of women getting elected.
Within the Labour Party, very few women are selected on open shortlists. What that suggests to me is if Labour were to shelve their all women shortlist policy, if the Tories were to stop the very high profile emphasis they’ve placed on increasing the number of women, we may well go backwards.
So you feel we’ve made very fragile progress in many ways.
I would say it is not yet absolutely embedded.
Listening to the US mid-term results, it sometimes seems as if the Republicans have become the party of white men and Democrats the party of women and minorities. In your book you emphasise women’s aptitude at cross-party cooperation, but is possible that women’s interests would be better served by a stronger partisan division? What I’m getting at is, might less cross-party cooperation be better in the long run?
Very good point. And of course, I think at the point where you had relatively few women in parliament, essentially they needed to organise cross-party in order to achieve breakthroughs on things like the 1944 equal pay for teachers legislation and the other small steps that that they took.
But of course, post 1997, there was pretty limited cross-party work. A party in power with a large majority that believes in progressive measures is more likely to be successful than women MPs working together cross party.
The interesting thing was post-2010 we saw a rebirth of cross-party work; for example, the proposal to remove the anonymity for rape victims. That was defeated by a cross-party women’s campaign.
Labour created the first woman Cabinet Minister, first woman Foreign Secretary, and of course the first woman home secretary (you). Why, in your view, has Labour never elected a female leader?
The only explanation I can give to this is that for Labour, the collective is significant. Therefore there has been a focus on getting more women into parliament. As a result of that, you had the first woman Foreign Secretary, the first woman Home Secretary. For the Conservatives, it’s always been much more about the heroic woman that makes it through in against adversity. So they have had two female leaders but far fewer women ministers overall. Frankly, I suppose you could say that’s my excuse!
How do you think Corbyn is doing on that count?
Remember his first cabinet? That was not a good start, I have to say. But he’s recognised the problem since then and tried to ameliorate it. Arguably, he has not done as well as we did when we were in government. That’s partly because some of his most of vehement critics, those that stepped down from the front bench, have been women.
Margaret Beckett said: “Being effective is more important to me than being recognised”. How would you like to be remembered? Is recognition important too?
I think Margaret Beckett is not completely telling the truth! Haha. I actually did a session with her about the book. She, of course, was responsible for the policy development and legislation that implemented the national minimum wage when Labour were in government. And she said: “It must be a big achievement because so many people have tried to claim it as their own.” She was very rueful. I think she would have wanted recognition.
I think there’s something about women politicians, where recognition alone is not enough. There is a focus on actually: ‘What am I getting done?’ But I am pleased that I have recognition for being the first female home secretary not purely from a position of pride, but also because women have not received recognition for their achievements.
Alice Bacon, for example, played a really active role in this legislation that brought about the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of abortion, the abolition of the death penalty. But she gets no credit for that whatsoever. All goes to Roy Jenkins and the men around him.
The trouble is that it writes women out of the story.
It’s about inspiring other women and showing that it can be done. Who would you like to write your entry?
I already know the person who is going to write my entry. It’s Sarah Hayward, who was the leader of Camden Council. I’m chuffed. She’s an impressive politician, and I know her because we have worked together in Jordan. She’ll get the lowdown.
The Honourable Ladies, Volume I: Profiles of Women MPs 1918–1996, edited by Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith is published by Biteback. 672 pp. £30.00.