Megan Wilson explains what went down at the Labour Women in Politics talk
‘At school, a teacher said it was good that ‘Masculine’ girls like me wanted to go into politics because most women were only there because men let them, to ‘shut up the feminists for a bit’.’ – Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism
This quote from the chapter that discusses women in politics in Bates’ book illustrates some of the misconceptions of women in politics. The female politicians that took part in the debate run by the Bristol students Labour Society proved that they were neither ‘put’ there, nor simply bystanders in the political game.
Each woman was eloquent and fiercely intelligent, knowledgeable and invested in the work that they are doing. Although this did not surprise me, I left the event feeling far more optimistic about the future of women in politics than I had initially anticipated.
The panel consisted of Karin Smyth (MP for Bristol South since 2015), Kerry McCarthy (MP for Bristol East since 2005 and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural affairs), Ruth Pickersgill MBE (Women’s officer for Bristol Labour), Estella Tinknell (Deputy leader of the Labour Group on Bristol Council) and Hibaq Jama (Councillor representing Lawrence Hill since 2012).
There was a range of topics discussed throughout the evening, with most debates springing from questions from audience members. Whilst at times the panel expressed despondency about the extent of change witnessed in their lifetimes, they remained quietly optimistic that the party was moving in a new direction – particularly with the huge growth in youth membership following Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to prominence.
The first topic discussed was a fundamental one: how can politics become more accessible not only to white middle class women but to women of colour, women with disabilities and women from working class backgrounds? Of the five brilliant women heading the panel, there were women that could identify with each of these groups.
All expressed severe disappointment at the insufficient promotion of intersectionality within the political sphere. However, they admitted that more was being done now than ever before to promote inclusion and intersectionality, particularly within the Labour Party, with All-Women Shortlists being brought up for discussion.
McCarthy made the point that, ‘the broader the diversity, the better’. However, Pickersgill pointed out that the legislative framework to support people against dual discrimination has been revoked since the Conservatives came to power. She reminded us that, sadly, there is no legislative framework to aid women who want to be in politics but are failing to get the opportunities afforded to their male peers.
‘It’s almost like there’s a certain mould of woman that’s presented, and its…what you look like as well as to the level of the abuse you get in politics…there are some women that have got quite a lot of battles to face when entering politics.’ (McCarthy).
This was a recurring comment in the discussion, particularly regarding the All-Women Shortlists that have seen many more women being elected than 10 years ago. The panellists agreed that it is fundamental that these candidates are being put forward for winnable constituency seats, and not merely as ‘tokens’ in unwinnable areas.
It became clear that such shortlists are a matter of contention within the party. McCarthy argued that, ‘…it can be a way of stopping you doing battle on the main battleground’, while Hibaq was strongly in support of them. However, the consensus was that although they should not be necessary, All-Women Shortlists are fundamental in ensuring there is increased female representation, at both a local and national scale.
It was nice to see the easy manner with which these women interacted and debated with each other, but also the frequent allusions they made to their feminist political inspirations.
Smyth, Bristol South’s newly elected MP, told a story of hearing Jo Richardson speak in the 1980s about the treatment she faced in parliament. Smyth mentioned how at a meeting in the 1980s, they did assertiveness training; ‘we talked about space and how to occupy it’. She recommended that everyone should do such training in order to help combat sexism, not only in politics but in any professional environment.
‘You get punished if you speak out. You get punished by being trolled. You get punished by being ridiculed if you’re a woman. What sane woman would do this kind of thing?’ (Tinknell)
Well, these women are both sane and in politics. So, while the presence of women in the political sphere is still not equal to that of men, it is ‘the sight of people like you in positions of power [that] is very very important’ (Smyth).
With role models both local and national, with front-page coverage of leaders like Clinton and Sturgeon, young women will be made to aspire to leadership and believe in the fruition of their ambitions. Through perseverance and strength, these women have cultivated successful careers in politics and other professions.
If their talk reminded me of anything, it is that although there is still so far to go, there are already many brilliant women who are prepared to take each step forward towards equality.
This article refers to the Labour Women in Politics talk on 16th October 2015
Illustration by Leyla Reynolds