There are more Labour MPs called Ann than women Lib Dem MPs. There are more ‘David’s in the coalition cabinet than women. How can we dare to call ourselves a progressive party whilst continuing to operate tacit acceptance of male domination? And, just as importantly, why are more women not banging on the doors of power, trying to become PPCs and councilors? Why is the organisation I intern for, Women Liberal Democrats, limited to one part-time staffer and a fast-diminishing grant? Virginia Woolf famously wrote that women needed independent means in order to pursue professional careers – “a room of one’s own”. Yet we do not take gender inequality seriously enough to provide one permanent desk.
I doubt mentions of Woolf would shift this position, either. Feminists are not cool. “Mad” and “raving” are common adjectives used to describe the women’s movement. Feminism is seen as a movement for old, bitter butch women taking dreary revenge on ‘normal’ society for excluding them from power. Ambition in women is lauded up to a point; achievement at school and university is acceptable, and over the last 30 years girls have come to the fore in academic attainment. So why does it stop there? Why do so many women fail to translate their talents into successful political careers? Certainly the atmosphere of the Commons is not a welcoming one for women. Watching PMQs I am struck by the macho braying and willy-waving that accompanies each exchange. The place resembles a 19th century gentleman’s club much more closely than what it is supposed to be, a distilled cross-section of modern British society; government for the people, by the people.
The question, then, is how to change this fairly. Labour tackled the issue with all-women short-lists. I am not sure if that is the correct way forward. They may have an admirably high number of women MPs, but much anecdotal evidence suggests that those elected from all-women shortlists feel second rate, and are treated as such by their colleagues. ‘Blair’s babes’ did not have to fight as hard as their male counterparts for their candidacy. They were the beneficiaries (or maybe victims) of tokenism by New Labour, thrust into the spotlight as proof that Blair’s new order had swept away the andro-centric past of politics for a fairer, more representative system. However, many of these women proved second-rate.
Persuasive arguments for affirmative action in the US centre round the idea that bright black students from poor backgrounds may not have such good grades as more affluent whites, but once given the right teaching and surroundings they will be able to shine. The situation for female politicians is not the same. Many women are building up impressive academic CVs. They are offered, and are gaining, excellent educations. What politics in general and the Lib Dems in particular have not given them is confidence in themselves and their right to power. Social attitudes still prevail that women do not belong in politics. This must change. The Lib-Dem led coalition proposal allowing couples to share a year’s allocation of maternity/ paternity leave between them is a good start, but although changes in the law are a crucial start, they can only be the beginning. We need to change expectations and perceptions both within our party and in wider society, making political ambition in women a positive thing.
The Campaign for Gender Balance already works hard to recruit and support possible women candidates, but maybe this later recruitment drive should be preceded by a much longer-term program, supporting interested and promising women from school age and nourishing political ambition and confidence. As a politically aware school-girl, I was unsure which party I might support until Sal Brinton, then Lib Dem PPC for Watford, came to speak to us. Her talk was so eloquent, reasonable and intelligent that it both confirmed my general support for the Lib Dems and increased my desire to get personally involved. Though more public figureheads like Lynne Featherstone are also important for inspiration, I believe that small-scale talks in schools, work experience schemes and tours of Parliament would be an excellent way of involving much larger numbers of girls and convincing them that politics is relevant to, and a possible career option for, people like them.
Ruth Irwin is a party activist and intern for Women Liberal Democrats. She is currently on a gap year between school and university.