Jo Swinson writes… Experiences of a Female MP: Overcoming the Ultimate Old Boys Club

On 8th April, 2009, Jo Swinson MP delievered the Elizabeth Wallace Memorial Lecture at Glasgow University, hosted by the Glasgow Association of University Women. It was entitled ‘Experiences of a Female MP: Overcoming the Ultimate Old Boys Club’, and Jo has kindly agreed for it to be published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Let me take you on a tour of Parliament

A couple of months after I was elected, I went on the official tour of the Houses of Parliament, as I figured I really ought to know a bit more about the institution I had been elected to serve in. Being shown around the building by an expert tour guide with a vast knowledge of Parliament’s history and heritage was absolutely fascinating; in fact I would recommend the tour to anyone (and it can be booked for free through your local MP).

Wonderful as it was to see the finery of the House of Lords, the grandeur of the chilly and cavernous Westminster Hall, and the macabre interest of looking at the death warrant of Charles I, none of these were my favourite part of the tour.

The best bit, in my opinion, is hearing the tale of one fairly unremarkable marble statue in St Stephen’s Hall, that of the second Viscount Falkland. The tour guide draws attention to a hairline fracture in the sword that Falkland is plunging into the marble plinth at his feet.

This is where on 27th April 1909 one brave suffragette, Miss Margery Humes, chained herself to the statue to protest to MPs about votes for women. In order to remove her, the sword had to be broken, and the repair is still visible today. It took another decade for women to win the right to vote, and it wasn’t until twenty years later, in 1929, that women could vote on the same terms as men.

Since then we’ve had twenty General Elections, and women now make up `20% of our MPs. In some ways, I think this is fantastic progress. When my 95-year old grandmother was born, women could not vote. Within her lifetime she has seen women win the vote, win elections, and hold key offices of state including Prime Minister.

At the same time, the pace of change can feel frustratingly slow. Parliament often seems stuck in a time warp – in more ways than one – and especially when you look at the gender representation. It affects the culture and the atmosphere: aggressive, confrontational, petty point-scoring. I’m not saying that no women MPs engage in this kind of behaviour in the House of Commons, but the puerile nature of some debates and question sessions is worryingly reminiscent of unruly boys in a boarding school. The etymology is revealing: puer is the Latin word for boy.

A wonderfully rewarding job

That said, the job of an MP is a fabulous one. Being able to devote your life to the causes you feel passionately about, and stand up for people in the area you live is a great motivation for getting out of bed in the morning!

Contrary to popular belief, being an MP is not all about making speeches. There’s an element of public speaking, but mostly to small groups in the constituency, and it gets much easier (and less stressful!) with practice. Most of my time is actually spent listening to the views of local people and trying to work out solutions to problems in the constituency, and then taking up those issues in Parliament.

Even Parliament is much more consensual and constructive than is portayed by the media. Sitting on a Select Committee means working across party lines, hearing evidence from experts and making recommendations to Government. PMQs aside, many sessions in the House of Commons chamber allow genuine, interesting debate instead of political theatre.

The skills of negotiating, empathising with people, and bringing people together are ones that come naturally to many women. While the timings of key events like votes or Committee debates are determined by others, as an MP you are essentially your own boss, which means much of your diary can be organised around your life and commitments. You can plan your Parliamentary and constituency appointments such that you guarantee time for the non-work stuff, whether it’s visiting your 95-year old grandmother or attending your child’s school parents’ evening.

Those involved in politics need to do better at “selling” the job of an MP, if we are to attract under-represented groups who currently think it isn’t for them. I very much hope that one of the outcomes of the Speaker’s Conference will be for Parliament to undertake specific outreach work to encourage people to consider standing for election.

Most women MPs I speak to would not have stood were it not for someone else suggesting the idea. I know that is certainly the case for me. Let’s face it, not many people wake up one morning and think “I want to be an MP”.

Needed: a confidence boost for women

Another issue which holds back many women and girls is confidence, or lack of it. I often speak to groups of local schoolchildren about the role of an MP and politics in general. It is disappointing when the vast majority of the time, it is the boys in the class who are first to put their hands to go up to ask questions. Sometimes the first eight or ten questions have been from boys and I have had to specifically ask the girls to contribute.

Yet I remember that feeling in class myself, and later in life in a political context, such as fringe meetings at party conference. Thinking of a question or comment in your head, and a little voice undermining you, saying it would sound silly. Weighing up whether or not to be brave and speak up, and in the meantime one of the blokes asks it – in a less eloquent way – and everyone nods in approval.

We need to teach girls from an early age how to make their voices heard, and recognise that the habits of a lifetime may mean that women sometime need an extra encouragement or nudge to get involved.

That’s why Michelle Obama was spot on recently when she spoke to 100 London schoolgirls, encouraging them to aim high, and be the best they can be. Afterwards many of them spoke about how powerful that message was. There are millions of women and girls in the UK who need that message, who will flourish with that confidence boost.

At the risk of controversy, I’d say that no doesn’t always mean no – at least when a woman is talking about getting involved in politics. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve suggested standing for Parliament to someone, and they’ve dismissed the idea, only to end up going for it months or years later, after similar overtures from more people. Sometimes the idea needs to be sown in the back of their mind, to niggle away until it finally takes root.

Performing the juggling act: childcare and politics

One serious and stubborn barrier to women’s full involvement in our political life is the continuing inequality over caring responsibilities, in particular childcare. Being a Parliamentary candidate and having a full-time job is demanding enough – throw children into the mix and you can see why so many women opt-out. In particular, women opt-out just at the point that many of their male counterparts are getting elected.

It is revealing that of the 9 Lib Dem women MPs, all of us either have no children, or have grown-up children. Even the number of Labour women MPs with young children is small. Look at the male MPs, however, and it’s a very different story.

Societal gender imbalances in who shoulders the childcare responsibility put women at a huge disadvantage. Changing the way society looks at bringing up children will not happen overnight. However some basic changes could be made to improve the situation, not least creating space for childcare facilities in the House of Commons (yes, we have a shooting gallery, but no crèche!). Sitting until the early hours of the morning is a thing of the past, but the House still sits until 10pm twice a week, with the timing of votes often unpredictable.

If we don’t have mothers and fathers of young children able to both play an active part in their children’s upbringing and do the job of a Member of Parliament then our democracy will be the poorer for it.

The next wave of women MPs

Commemorating the 1929 election brings a good opportunity to assess what has been achieved in terms of women’s involvement in politics in the last 80 years. Although we can and should celebrate how far we have come, we must recognise that we’re far from the end of the journey to secure equality. Politicians, Parliament, the media and the public all have a role to play in encouraging the next wave of women activists, Councillors and MPs. Pioneering women have shown it can be done, but now we need to make politics a mainstream pursuit for women from all backgrounds. With innovative approaches to combing politics with family, additional effort to promote politics as welcoming to women, and lots of encouragement, I am certain it can be done.

* Former marketing manager Jo Swinson was elected MP for East Dunbartonshire in May 2005. She is Lib Dem Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, and serves on the Environmental Audit Select Committee. Jo chaired the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance from 2006–08, and is a member of the Speaker’s Conference looking at ways to increase the number of women and BME MPs. Jo is currently the youngest MP.

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8 Comments

  • Am I the only one who hates the phrase BME MP’s, Nearly as bad as AFPAK.

  • David Heigham 26th Apr '09 - 3:49pm

    “Pioneering women have shown it can be done,…”

    Women were elected to Parliament 90 years ago. I am 75. My grandmother was elected to her local Council 90 years ago. 90 years of pioneering are a damn sight more than enough.

    For more than 80 years we have had Tory-Labour dominance in politices. A lot of necessary political change has bee stuck during that time. Is women still feeling they are ‘pioneers’ in national politics a part of that?

  • Bruce Wilson 26th Apr '09 - 6:16pm

    Nice article Jo. Creches and social change. The creche will probably be easier.

    Footnote: I have noted that few of the commentators on this site are woman. Where are they all?

  • Dinti Batstone 26th Apr '09 - 9:53pm

    Excellent article Jo.

    The UK lags behind many European neighbours when it comes to female parliamentary representation. Earlier this week I met parliamentarians from around Europe, one of whom had succeeded in changing the law in her country in order to take maternity leave while serving as an MP; another currently serves as a ‘substitute’ MP for colleagues on parental leave.

    There is much we can learn from how other countries (not to mention businesses and professions such as law and medicine) have succeded in attracting and retaining talented women.

    I’m thrilled to hear you’re serving on the Speaker’s Conference and look forward to some bold proposals!

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