Sal Brinton’s call to action on women’s representation – and tales of BBC bad practice and great Liberal women

On Monday there was a debate in the House of Lords on Women in Public Life timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. There were many Lib Dem contributions and we’ll be putting them all up over the next few days.

First up is Sal Brinton. Her wide ranging speech included tributes to fantastic Lib Dem women like Nancy Seear and Shirley Williams, horrifying stories of appalling employment practice at the BBC and fond memories of her family member who had been on the Mud March as a 16 year olds and was a passionate suffragist.


The debate took place before she started her 24 hour fast for Hungry for Democracy:

My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which has given grants to, among others, WASPI, Make Votes Matter, and other organisations that have been mentioned already during the debate, as well as ​to many other political reform campaigns. I congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Vere, for introducing this debate. We have had the most extraordinarily unified views about the success over the last 100 years, but also recognise that there are many problems.

I want to move back well over 100 years ago to John Stuart Mill. My favourite quotation from him is:

“The most important thing women have to do is to stir up the zeal of women themselves”.

He said that in a letter to Alexander Bain in 1869. A lot of the rest of his political life was spent helping women to be able to do that.

The woman who stirred up my own zeal was Baroness Stocks of Kensington and Chelsea, who started life as a Brinton and was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. She had an extraordinary life. I did not know that—I knew a doughty old lady who came to lunch on Sundays. She was principal of Westfield College, just around the corner from where I lived. My Conservative father, though not an MP at that time, won every argument at the dinner table, except when Mary was there. She taught me, by my watching the way in which she debated and engaged, that it was perfectly possible for women to do what they wanted. I can remember her saying to me on one occasion in the late 1960s, when I was still just at secondary school and so a bit behind the revolution that was going on around me, “You know, you can do exactly what you want to do. You just have to set your mind to it”. This woman did set her mind to it. She did an extraordinary range of things, as did many of the other women who were suffragists and suffragettes. They took that into other parts of their lives. But her passion and deeds started early. In 1907, aged 16, she was on the Mud March, one of the first big marches of the suffragist movements. I quote her voice at that time from her autobiography, My Commonplace Book:

“I carried a banner in the 1907 ‘mud march’ at the head of which walked Mrs Fawcett, Lady Strachey, Lady Frances Balfour, and that indomitable liberty boy, Keir Hardie. As we moved off through the arch of Hyde Park Corner we met a barrage of ridicule from hostile male onlookers. ‘Go home and do the washing,’ ‘Go home and mind the baby’ were the most frequent taunts flung at us. As we proceeded along Piccadilly it was observed by some of the marchers that the balcony of the Ladies’ Lyceum Club was crowded with members looking down from their safe vantage. Some of the marchers looked up and shouted: ‘Come down and join us.’ I do not know whether any of them did.

It was a great adventure for a sixteen-year-old; and on returning to school on the following Monday I was uncertain how my public exploit would be regarded by authority. I need not have worried. All the mistresses were suffragists, as indeed were all salary-earning professional women”.

She went on in this autobiography to include some of the pictures from her journal at the time. There is a glorious cartoon dated 1913 of three versions of herself. The first is of a glorious young Edwardian lady in the full panoply, hat and social get-up of the upper middle class in London. Underneath, it says, “What Mary’s mother would like Mary to wear”. The next picture is of a young utilitarian girl about town—at this point she was an undergraduate at the LSE—and underneath it says, “What Mary’s mother thinks Mary wants to wear”. But the next picture is the most poignant. It is of a woman prisoner and underneath it says, “What Mary would really like to wear”. That is why I wear ​these colours, because she was not allowed to become a suffragette. She and many others would have been utterly shunned by their families if they had done so. Therefore, I wear these colours in her memory and that of many women who wanted to do more.

Lest noble Lords think that Mary felt stifled by being a suffragist, I should tell them that she did not. She had many friends who were suffragettes and she acted as a link between them. In her chapter on votes for women, she talks about how both the suffragettes and the suffragists understood that both sides were absolutely vital to winning the argument, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred to earlier. The suffragists had the ears of politicians. They were perhaps too patient, especially in the face of Lord Asquith’s opposition. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, is not in her place when I refer to her great-grandfather, but it is true that Lord Asquith was the major block to suffrage happening earlier.

Other noble Lords referred to those who 100 years ago led the way. As others have said, the failure of the Liberal Government was moved on when David Lloyd George ousted Asquith and attitudes changed. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, was right when she talked about the strategic positioning of both the suffragists and the suffragettes. All the right conversations had been had in the background. It is also interesting that the suffragettes’ militant action stopped the moment the war started and all women put their shoulders to whatever task they were asked to do to demonstrate that they were worthy of changing those men’s minds.

Many noble Lords did not want women’s suffrage. On observing the debate in the Lords that night, Mary Stocks said:

“The course of the debate made it clear that a majority of its members regarded even a limited measure of women’s suffrage with distaste, amounting to horror. But in view of the movement of public opinion outside, as demonstrated by an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons, the House of Lords was not prepared to flout democratically expressed public opinion. The anti-suffrage peers abstained from voting in sufficient numbers, thus enabling the vital clause to go through. In fact the Upper House was not in 1918 prepared to frustrate the clearly expressed will of the people. Nor should it be so prepared”.

That has relevance to the debates that we are undertaking at the moment on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and I have been encouraged by listening to the debate we had last week. Despite the fact that this House recognised that it has the opportunity and right—nay, the duty—to challenge and scrutinise, we also recognised that there is a will elsewhere. It does not stop any noble Lords whose political views are that they want to remain continuing to fight for that, but I have not heard that view changed. I am encouraged, though, that even the men who opposed suffrage were prepared to abstain to allow the voice of the people to go through.

The quote from the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, from 50 years later was also interesting. Mary Stocks became a Peer in the mid-1960s. She was somewhat scathing about coming into the House but she also loved it. She reckoned that she was brought in as a broadcaster. For many years, she was the token woman on “Any Questions”, “The Brains Trust”, and the predecessors of “Prayer for the Day” and “Thought for the Day”. She was also an excellent interviewer. ​The interview to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred is really engaging and the parliamentary archives still have it. Mary Stocks, who was not a Conservative, interviewed Nancy Astor, who was definitely not Labour. If any noble Lord gets the chance to see it, it is fascinating; it certainly was on Parliament TV some time ago.

There have been other notable women in the Lords. I am reminded of Nancy Seear, the first Liberal leader in this House, who was an indomitable woman. If you ever met her, you would never forget it. Shirley Williams was my mentor; many other women in my party and the Labour Party had her support. She guided me for 10 years when I was standing for Parliament and trying to decide what to do, and when I came into your Lordships’ House. I also note some of my current heroes. My noble friend Lady Thornhill was the first woman elected mayor in this country and is about to stand down after 16 years’ service in Watford. My noble friend Lady Benjamin is a role model, and not just in broadcasting. Since she took her place in your Lordships’ House she has become an absolute advocate for the safety of children and we listen to her with great care and attention. I was amused by her stories about the BBC. She and I worked together on “Play School” when I was a floor manager. At the same time as she was being put under pressure for expecting her first child, I got engaged. I was hauled in to see the personnel officer who asked, “So when are you leaving us?”, because married women did not work. I had a colleague who did work after she got married. She came back from maternity leave, having made arrangements for her very small baby. The first thing the floor management team did was send her to Thailand for six months to work on “Tenko”. She resigned.

An experience of my own of being a woman in that field was filming in a men’s club. I was the only woman on the team; the actors in the show and the other people there were all men. I was urinated on as I was trying to cue actors in the corner. My story is personal to me and shaped the way I view things, but every other woman in this House has experienced similar things.

On business, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, talked about the need for deeds not words. She referred to the work of the coalition Government, and I particularly want to highlight the work of my honourable friend Jo Swinson, who steered through parental leave. This is important, and it is not just about maternity leave. My son and daughter-in-law have two very small, premature babies. He works for L’Oreal, to which he moved just as the babies were born. He was told that there were no meetings after 4.30 pm because all young parents should have the chance to be at home to put their babies to bed. With examples like that, we have the pipeline that other noble Lords have been talking about. The responsibility for helping women move on entails an understanding that all parents, regardless of their gender, have a role in helping to bring up their children. Parental leave ​will take off as soon as organisations start asking young men what they are going to be doing when their baby is born.

The other fun person who I just wanted to raise briefly in the last couple of minutes—I think she has been mentioned in passing—is Marie Stopes. It is not fashionable to recognise her as a heroine but she was. I think her true recognition came in the 1960s, when her contribution was finally recognised for what it was. Mary Stocks wrote—I do not have enough time to quote her—that Marie Stopes did not just want contraception, she clearly changed women’s views about sex. One woman, speaking to Marie Stopes, said:

“He’s a good husband, he only troubles me once a week”.

In the 1920s, that was the common view. We talk about the outside and external achievements, but we must remember that the suffragists and suffragettes who went on to run birth control clinics also changed the lives of women around us—the entire world.

I must correct the view from some noble Lords on the Labour Benches that the Liberal Democrats have not introduced all-women shortlists. We have. Some 58% of our target seats in 2015 and just over 50% in 2017 had women in them. Unfortunately, when you lose seats, the chance of moving forward in other areas is somewhat difficult. We remain committed to that for exactly the same reasons as the Labour Party, because we know that it will improve diversity in other ways. It will improve the representation of disabled, BME and LGBT women in Parliament.

In conclusion, we have talked a lot this evening about deeds, not words. I ask every one of your Lordships to make your own deeds about what you will take out of this debate today. Write yourself a postcard with your top three actions, give it to your Whips Office and ask them to post it back to you in three months’ time to see what you have done. I will tell your Lordships why. I spoke about my granddaughters; they will be two this summer. At the current, glacial, rate of change they will be in their ninth decade before we have parity in the House of Commons. That is not good enough.

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