This month’s blog for the Women and Parliament series as part of our activities in celebration of the centenary of the Representation the People Act 1918, which allowed some women to vote in the UK for the first time, comes from our Assistant Director and one of the coordinators of our oral history project, Dr Emma Peplow. She discusses the experiences of women MPs in parliament in the 1990s based on the the oral history interviews taken for the project…
Since I last wrote about the experiences of women MPs in the 1970s and 1980s, we have interviewed many more MPs for our oral history project, including many more women. This post will focus on women’s experiences during the 1990s; a decade of significant change for women in parliament. 1987 saw a small breakthrough in their representation as MPs (they passed the 5% barrier for the first time), but it was the Labour landslide of 1997 following the party’s introduction of All-Women Shortlists that we now recognise as the significant moment for female representation in the UK Parliament.
Throughout most of the late 1980s and 1990s, however, women’s experiences had changed remarkably little from previous decades. Parliament was still overwhelmingly a male space, and even after 1997 women faced similar challenges with the culture and political opportunities. The Labour MP Joyce Quin, elected in 1987, remembered being confused on her first day with a parliamentary secretary: an event which left her ‘absolutely astonish[ed]’ after her experience in the European Parliament. Even in 1997 the Liberal Democrat Jackie Ballard described the atmosphere in the chamber as overwhelmingly sexist:
For others, however, the atmosphere did not bother them. Labour’s Llin Golding (elected in 1986) felt that women’s rights were an issue for middle class women with ‘more time to think’.
For many of our interviewees, their gender still put them at a disadvantage as certain were considered off-limits to women, as described by Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, elected in 1997:
This impacted women across parties. Conservative Olga Maitland (elected in 1992) was told by a colleague that despite her background in foreign affairs as a pro-NATO campaigner, ‘as a woman’ she would not be accepted on the Defence and Foreign Affairs select committee, and to ‘concentrate on domestic politics for now’ – a situation she described as ‘frustrating beyond belief’. Labour’s Alice Mahon, the second woman to sit on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly described it as an ‘all-male preserve’ and felt excluded from informal debates which often took place in the toilets.
By the 1990s, many in the Labour party were campaigning hard for change. As Maria Fyfe remembered on the night of her election in 1987:
After various different schemes were tried, the Labour party introduced All-Women Shortlists before the 1997 election, and a number of women were selected on this basis before a legal challenge halted the practice. Labour’s Hilary Armstrong, Personal Private Secretary to the leader John Smith, told us how important his support and lobbying was for ensuring this measure passed:
John [Smith] was very strong on [all-women shortlists], very strong. Interesting he had three daughters himself, so he was never frightened – he always knew women had capacity and all the rest of it, even though he came from a fairly traditional background. [Hilary Armstrong, Labour 1987-2010]
Reflecting on the measure, many of our interviewees were in favour. Labour’s Helen Jackson argued that the ‘quota system was the only way to make a difference.’ However, whilst acknowledging its success in increasing the numbers of women, some found it problematic. For example Ann Taylor admitted she ‘wasn’t sure what I’d have felt like if I’d been selected on an all-women shortlist, whether I’d have felt sort of on equal terms.’ Outside the Labour party there were similar mixed feelings: Liberal Democrat Jackie Ballard described campaigning for her party to adopt the measure; whereas Conservative Olga Maitland said proudly:
Others, such as Angela Browning, just ignored the sexism, although she was proud that she had ‘never baked a cake for the Conservative Party’ despite being asked several times! Whatever their feelings, all acknowledged the change in the appearance of the House, as described here by Labour’s Ann Cryer, elected herself in 1997 but who had previously worked in Parliament for her husband, formerly an MP:
Many of the women elected soon began campaigning for more significant changes in how they were addressed, working hours, and for a crèche. Yet these changes faced opposition and were not all adopted immediately. To many women’s horror, the Labour MPs were dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’ by the media:
I remember saying if anyone calls me a Blair’s Babe I will sue. But of course they didn’t, partly because I’d been around a while and partly because by that time I was no babe! Honestly I thought that was dreadful. [Maria Fyfe, Labour, 1987-2001]
Even with the dramatic increase in numbers in 1997, for women MPs, there was (and is) still some way to go before reaching full equality.