‘You’d better accept you’ll have to concentrate on domestic politics for now’ – gender bias in the post-war Commons

As Women’s History Month reaches a close, Dr Emma Peplow, lead coordinator of our Oral History Project, looks back through our interview archive to explore a theme often discussed by female interviewees: gender bias in the post-war House of Commons...

For many of the former female MPs interviewed for our oral history project, their experiences in Parliament seem to be both as insiders and outsiders – on paper they were equal members of the institution, but in practice, they faced barriers their male colleagues did not.

One way that this seems striking is in the issues and interests that female MPs were able to pursue, and the types of positions they were expected to hold in government or their parties. Our interviews with female MPs cover Parliament back to the 1960s, but some of the underlying assumptions about the issues it was appropriate for women to speak on held sway into the 2000s. The ‘serious’ briefs – foreign affairs and defence in particular – were generally reserved for men. Women were expected to concentrate on more domestic matters – education, home life – or issues that were specifically labelled as ‘women’s issues’ such as domestic abuse or equal pay. Women were not expected to progress in the whips’ office, or to become one of the chief ministers of state (indeed, we are yet to have a female Chancellor). These restrictions were often hidden, but were understood by most of those we interviewed. For the women we have interviewed, many told us that they pursued gender discrimination causes because, simply, if they did not no-one else would. For some, such as Labour’s Mildred Gordon, this was not a problem: ‘Maybe I was expected to, I don’t know, but I wanted to and I did anyway.’ Others felt more pressure to do so, as Labour’s Anne Campbell describes in this clip:

Anne Campbell, photographed by our volunteer photographer, Barbara Luckhurst

Certainly, whether they wanted to or not, most agreed their male colleagues would not raise the same concerns as women. The Conservative MP Marion Roe, who introduced the first measures against Female Genital Mutilation in 1985 (the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act), recalled: ‘When I first started to lobby for that most of my male colleagues hadn’t heard of it and didn’t know what the hell it was.’ That said, not all were happy about this – Ann Widdecombe refused to become Minister for Women in the early 1990s as there was no corresponding minister for men.

Others felt they brought a female perspective to issues that perhaps may have been seen quite differently otherwise. In our interviews Labour’s Helen Jackson and the Conservative Elizabeth Peacock both discussed their collaboration on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Water, Helen Jackson remembering: ‘Through my case work I found a family whose water had been cut off, because she couldn’t afford to pay the bill. […] On a [worksite] that wouldn’t have been allowed, how is it allowed in a kitchen with children?’.

Yet the more frustrating aspect of this informal division for our interviewees was that women often could not concentrate on the issues they were both passionately interested and highly qualified in. The most striking example comes from Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge:

Similarly, Labour’s Alice Mahon described the NATO Parliamentary Assembly she sat on as a ‘male preserve.’ Conservative Olga Maitland, whose political background was in defence and foreign affairs, was unable to pursue these interests. Although she had begun her political career with a campaign against CND and the protests at Greenham Common, eventually meeting world leaders such as US President Ronald Reagan, she was told not to bother trying for a place on the Defence or Foreign Affairs Select Committees and to concentrate on domestic politics:

Ann Taylor, photographed by our volunteer photographer, Barbara Luckhurst

By the 2000s, as an increasing number of women entered Parliament, things started to improve. In 1998 Ann Taylor became the first female Chief Whip – a post she described as a ‘two-way channel’ between ministers and the party, rather than a position relying on ‘coercion alone’ as it may have been seen more traditionally. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s more women broke these kinds of barriers – starting to end these informal divisions, hopefully, for good.

EP

You can find many of our oral history interviews at the British Library Sounds Archive. Click here to read more from our Oral History project, including further blogs from Dr Peplow on women and parliament in the 1970s and 80s, and the 1990s.

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