On 17 March Dr Emma Peplow and Dr Priscila Pivatto gave the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art’s 8th annual International Woman’s Day lecture. Created by the committee to help address the need for more artwork of female MPs in Parliament’s collection, Emma and Priscila discussed women’s experiences in Parliament based on interviews in our Oral History Project. Here Dr Peplow reflects on the lecture…
Priscila and I were delighted to take part in a series of online events from UK Parliament to celebrate women’s history month. We based our lecture on the words of women MPs who sat between 1966 and 2001. 33 interviews in our archive to date have been with women; in these they reflect on a time when women’s position in society in general, but Parliament in particular, was beginning to change. During this period women may have had equal rights to be in Parliament, but they were still a minority of MPs and considered atypical: outsiders on the inside. Their insights are telling.
We were honoured that one woman who experienced this herself – Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington – introduced our lecture with her own reflections on the changes she has seen in her 33 years in Parliament. For Abbott, the biggest change was in the number of women MPs, who also now tend to be younger. Since 1987 the atmosphere and working hours of the Commons has changed enormously, she told us: less like a ‘gentleman’s club’, and female MPs are more able to focus on a wide range of political topics.
Our lecture touched on many of these issues, and indeed ones that we have discussed previously here. The title was drawn from a quotation from Rosie Barnes (SDP, 1987-92): ‘a place decided on by men, for men.’ Barnes’ thoughts, for us, sums up the difficulties and contradictions experienced by many female MPs:
We began by discussing Parliament’s masculine culture and women’s responses to it. Most, although certainly not all, female MPs recognised that the institution itself had designed ‘by men for men’. There were two main responses to this. One group felt, as Barnes did, that sexism did not impede on their experiences; whereas another group – usually those who entered the House at a later period – felt that the institution was intolerable and needed to change. There was something of a party divide in these attitudes: Labour/Liberal Democrat (and related parties) MPs were more likely, whilst recognising that they had to work with the system as it was, to proactively try to change Parliament’s culture and address the barriers that led to fewer women becoming MPs. This pressure increased as more Labour women entered Parliament in the 1990s, and led to policies such as Labour’s All-Women Shortlists. Whatever their reaction to this culture, we can see from the memories shared in our archive that gender was a defining feature for women’s experiences as MPs in a way that it was not with men.
There were, of course, practical, political ramifications for women MPs working in this culture. As we have discussed previously in this blog, women were expected only to deal with certain political issues: feminist topics such as equal pay, but also ‘domestic’ matters such as education. Again, some were happy with this whereas others absolutely hated it, but all had to negotiate these assumptions. Women were also corralled, by both the physical space of the Palace of Westminster and cultural attitudes, into certain areas. The Smoking Room or some bars, for example, were culturally difficult for some female MPs to enter, and certain male MPs did not appreciate their presence. However, if they did not risk male censure for being ‘not a nice girl’, as Conservative Jill Knight was once told, they faced the judgement of their male counterparts for not fully taking part in political life, or not hearing political ‘gossip’ and being left out of the loop.
Female-only spaces such as the party-divided lady members’ rooms were valued by many of our interviewees, a place of ‘sanctuary’ in Labour’s Eileen Gordon’s words. Here female friendships and solidarity, particularly within parties, could thrive: Labour’s Bridget Prentice, for example, remembered the support of female colleagues during her divorce. This division of space and concentration on specific issues helped to push women, of all parties, together. For many, this was a positive experience. A number of our interviewees told us that working with women was different from working with men: more collaborative and less tribal. That said, we also have many examples of male MPs’ friendships and collaboration, so it is hard to judge whether this was an experience unique to women. It did have a practical consequence within the Labour party particularly. As the ranks of female MPs grew, the women MPs became more organised and worked together on a wide range of political issues, including actively changing the Labour party to elect more female MPs. For parties with fewer women MPs this inter-party collaboration was less easy.
We have memories on all sides of cross-party collaboration with other women on specific issues, for example Conservative Marion Roe’s first legislation against Female Genital Mutilation in 1985, or the Breast Cancer All-Party Parliamentary Group. However, this was not necessarily always the case. When Labour’s Ann Taylor was asked whether she had memories of cross-party female collaboration she told our interviewer:
Female MPs were individuals, and all responded differently to their role as an MP, just as any man would do. They did not all necessarily like each other, agree with each other, or work in the same way just because they were women.
A full recording of ”Decided on by men’: oral histories from women MPs‘ is now available to be viewed here.
Many of our Oral History interviews can be listened to online here via the British Library Sounds website.