Over the past few days Parliament Week has been in full swing and events have taken place around the country aimed at inspiring people to get involved in parliamentary democracy. The theme this year is Women in Democracy – celebrating women’s contribution to British political life. As we all know, despite gaining the vote in 1918 we are still some way from gender parity in the House of Commons.
Before 1997, there were relatively few female MPs – the numbers hover between twenty and thirty before increasing in both 1987 and 1992. Despite these small numbers, we still have some great interviews with former women MPs as part of our national oral history project. Working with the British Library, we plan to interview as many former Members of Parliament as possible on their careers and political experiences. Here are some of the experiences of women MPs in Parliament during the 1970s and 1980s from our oral history archive.
For some of our interviewees, discrimination began at selection. Emma Nicholson (now Baroness Nicholson), Conservative and Liberal Democrat MP 1987-1997, remembers being warned off by two leading women in her own party. In addition, the application form to be a Conservative party candidate specifically asked what her wife’s maiden name was! Others, such as Llin Golding (now Baroness Golding), Labour MP 1986-2001, had trouble winning over some of her male colleagues when she stood to be Labour candidate in Newcastle-under-Lyme:
On arrival in Westminster, many (although by no means all) of our interviewees felt they were entering a male-dominated culture. Going into the ‘smoking room’ was something several MPs discussed, such as Conservative MP Jill Knight (now Baroness Knight) – no longer considered a ‘nice girl’ because she popped in for a drink. Her fellow Conservative MP Elizabeth Peacock (1983-1997) had this response to the question: ‘Were you conscious that you were entering quite a male-dominated world?’:
Labour MP Alice Mahon (1987-2005) agreed that the culture was sexist and remembered being shocked at what she felt was a ‘class divide’. In her interview, however, she also spoke about the number of her fellow female MPs she admired during her time in Parliament – women such as Mo Mowlam, Betty Boothroyd and Ann Clwyd. Others, such as Janet Fookes (now Baroness Fookes), Conservative MP 1970-97, did not experience sexism:
If anything it was an advantage, as you certainly stuck out. I think there were 17, 19 women MPs all told, so your face would become familiar… and I didn’t find anybody treated me nastily – on the contrary, I found people very welcoming.
Some were determined to change things. Maria Fyfe, Labour MP 1987-2001, felt it was “incredible” she was only the tenth female Labour MP in Scotland: “I was thinking, this has got to change, we’ve got to have more women in parliament, and I was determined to be part of achieving that.” The numbers did indeed rise – jumping to 120 in 1997 (although Maria Fyfe threatened to sue anyone who called her one of ‘Blair’s babes’!) Many felt, despite the difficulties still faced by women (particularly in juggling politics and family life), that it is now easier for women to become MPs and that things are very different from when these women began their political careers.
For more on our oral history project, see our website.
For more on Parliament Week, see their website.