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Attlee Suite, Portcullis House - 6th March 2018
Thanks very much and a very warm welcome to all of you here and thank you so much for inviting me to give this lecture.
8,500 works of art, in the Commons and in the Lords, it’s a considerable and important collection on behalf of the public. And going back over 150 years, even longer than I’ve been a Member of Parliament.
I want to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee and the work in particular the work of Melanie Unwin and her team and the careful thought you dedicate to this collection and to commissioning for the future.
And, I want to pay tribute to Frank Doran who died at the end of last year who was such a passionate chair of the Advisory Committee. We all miss him greatly and how poignant it was that just this month you unveiled your latest portrait, of his widow Joan Ruddock. That portrait is hanging downstairs. It’s a wonderful portrait which captures perfectly Joan’s combination of serenity and steel. I miss her after all the years she devoted to this House, and it’s great to have Sharon here with us, Sharon Hodgson.
I want to thank Ali McGovern, who’s now your chair. Ali is equally at home in an art gallery or on a football terraces, here in the corridors of Westminster or in the hard pressed estates in her Wirral constituency. She’s all over domestic policy as well as international policy, and I really regard her as without a doubt, a renaissance woman and a ‘daughter of the women’s movement. Not my daughter but definitely a daughter of the women’s movement, and there could be no better person to chair the committee which preserves the past but looks to the future as you all ensure that your approach reflects the changing times.
It’s great to be here with Helen Pankhurst, and I’m really envious of your name Helen. It’s the name to have. Pankhurst rather than Harman, I feel as if I should change my name by deed poll, especially in this year that we mark 100 years since the first women got the vote and in the week, this week, we celebrate of International Women’s Day its right to recognise that one of the most significant changes that’s happened is in the role of women: at work, in the family and in Parliament.
Now, it’s hard to describe to you younger folk how different things were as it was when I was growing up as a girl in the 1950s. I think some of you looking around might be able to remember this, but the messages to a girl were very clear. The most important ambition was to get a husband. That was the most important ambition, and once you had achieved that lofty ambition – to serve and support that husband. That’s what my mother, like so many in her generation did. She was very unusual though in that she qualified as barrister but of course when she married my dad she had achieved a higher purpose and gave up being a barrister in order to be his housewife. And, I look back now and remember and feel it’s quite poignant that her wigan gown was in our dressing up box and that was the way it was.
The women’s movement swept through women of my generation and this was in all regions of this country, in Scotland and in Wales. It was women from all walks of life: women in trade unions, in business, from academia, to the law and it was an enormous and profound movement.
What it did was it challenged the notion that Women we were inferior to men. Challenged the notion that we should be subordinate to men. Challenged the notion that we should define ourselves through our husbands. But that we should somehow be people in our own right.
When I say ‘define ourselves in terms of our husbands’, that’s really what it was like. I used to always look at envelopes that came through the letter box, to our house, that were addressed to Mrs John Harman. My mum had literally vanished, but that’s the way it was. Not only did you take his name, sometimes his first name as well as second name, but you promised to obey, in the marriage vows. He didn’t promise to obey you, but you promised to obey him. It was his responsibility to be head of the household and keep the household in order, including keeping the wife in order, with a slap if necessary. Because, actually that was what his responsibility was. Women’s responsibility was to cook his supper, look after him and look after the children.
I remember as the women’s movement was really gathering pace and I was back at home in a holiday from university, and at this point my mother, because we were a bit more grown up, had started retraining as a solicitor and I remember one morning coming down and my dad was reading a newspaper at the table, waiting as she cooked his breakfast, and that was kippers, so there was an awful smell emanating from the cooker, but she was also cooking his supper that was curry, so there was another terrible smell emanating from the cooker, and she had, because she had to cook his supper because she was going out to work, to be at the College for Law to train as a solicitor during the day, and she had a law book propped up on the back of the cooker. And, I remember feeling that really strong sense that this was not for me and it wasn’t going to be for women of our generation.
So, I came into Parliament as a fervent participant in the women’s movement - a movement whose aim was to literally change everything about men and women’s lives.
We wanted to share. We wanted to share in every sector. We wanted to participate in science, in the arts, in private companies, in public services, in the law and in education. We wanted to be out there in the world of work as well as just being at home and we wanted men to be in the world of the home, as well as being out there in the world of work. They are your children too. We wanted men to change how they related to the world of work and we wanted to share in making our laws and running the country so we had to get into parliament. We had to break into the male preserve of the House of Commons.
The women’s movement, as I said, our ambition was to literally change everything. Now, Parliament is described as a representative democracy, but at that time, when I first came into parliament in 1982, it was profoundly unrepresentative. There was 97% men and only 3% women. I mean there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t white in the House of Commons.
Women’s voices were not heard. Women played no part in shaping the agenda. The aim of the Women’s Movement was not to try and succeed on men’s terms, but to change the terms; not to play by the rules, but to get in and change the rules.
So, I came into the House of Commons in 1982 as a devoted member of the Labour Party, who we thought was very far from putting women on an equal footing with men, but who we wanted to transform the party as well, into being genuinely the party of women and equality and be the political wing of the women’s movement.
But, I was very out of place. I felt very out of place and I was. As I came in after a by-election, pushing open those enormous, huge, heavy doors into the House of Commons and seeing all the serried ranks of the men in grey suits banked up on those green benches, feeling as though I really was very out of place and I was, standing there as I was in a red velvet maternity dress.
The women’s movement was always about, as Helen said, about solidarity; about achieving change by working together. But really, there was virtually no one for me to work with there. There was a whole load of young women, who had stood for Parliament in the Labour Party but we did so badly in the 1983 Election that I was re-elected but none of them were and that was very hard. It was very hard being a new MP and a new mother.
When I was first elected, I had a huge postbag – the by-election had attracted a lot of attention in the way that by-elections nearly always do and I had an enormous postbag when I arrived in the House of Commons and half of it was from women saying ‘good on you’, ‘get out there’, ‘speak up for us’, that ‘it’s fantastic that you’re an Member of Parliament’ and half of them were saying: ‘What are you doing? You will ruin your children! They will play truant from school’.
The problem was I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t right. For our generation, whose mothers had been stay at home mothers or had worked part time and whose whole focus was on the family, it was a worrying thing to be doing things so differently, so I was very haunted by all those people who thought I was doing the wrong thing and then amongst Members of Parliament, helpful Members of Parliament would tell me ‘don’t talk about women all the time. Don’t get pigeon holed. Don’t bang on about domestic violence and childcare. Show you understand the really important parts of the political agenda, about the money supply, about motorways and the mines’. With a combination of feeling incredibly out of place; all the sisterhood I was expecting to work collective in the House of Commons with not being there; haunted by maternal guilt – very often I wanted to give it all up, but I never did and was never able to for two reasons:
Firstly, because there was such strong support for the idea of women getting into the House of Commons, through as Helen says, women in civil society, so everywhere I went, down any street, on any train or bus, there would be women coming up to me saying ‘we know what you’re doing, stick in there! Keep on doing it!’, so I felt all the difficulties in the House of Commons, but also all the massive support by the women’s movement outside the House of Commons and once you’ve picked up the flag and said ‘well, we as women we can, we can go out to work, we can come into the House of Commons’, you can’t say ‘sorry it’s all too much’, because then it would have been a massive set back and everyone would have said ‘see, that’s what happens when you elect a woman MP. They can’t hack it!’. So, I actually had to keep going and we tried as women in the Labour Party, we tried everything to get more Labour women into the House of Commons.
So, first of all, we tried making the argument in principle: actually it’s right that women should be not discriminated against, that we are the party that believes in equality, that must apply to women. Well, a few people agreed with us but it didn’t really make any change. So then we thought that we must change the rules. We made the proposal that on every shortlist for a Member of Parliament, to stand as a Labour candidate, there would have to be at least one women on every shortlist. Characteristically it was all men shortlists, so we said we’ve got to have one woman on every shortlist. There was absolute rire and controversy. It was regarded as really offensive and critical to men that we should have this rule change. So there was this huge controversy and a huge backlash, but we won that rule change and it made absolutely no difference at all, because all the men got selected.
So then we thought again, and we thought we get through another proposal: 50% of every shortlist will have to be women. Riots broke out amongst the men. Absolute fury, backlash, controversy even hatred that we should come forward with such a hateful proposal, but we got it through Labour Party Conference, we got the change and it made no difference at all, because the 50% of the shortlist that was men got selected. So that’s when we resorted to all women shortlists and at this point we were making the argument that actually we couldn’t get elected unless we didn’t get women’s support, so we needed women’s support to get into Government and they wouldn’t support us if we looked like a party that was of and for men.
The electoral argument persuaded many of our male colleagues that we did have to recognize that we needed to get more Labour women into Parliament and Neil Kinnock, in particular was a strong supporter of the idea of having more women in the Labour Party and in the House of Commons. And, that’s how we got to all women shortlists, which feel like a very difficult measure to have taken, to be saying to a local Constituency Labour Party ‘you are the local Labour Party, you’re going to fight to get your candidate elected, it’s your choice and you can choose anyone you want as long as it’s not a man.’ It felt really quite difficult and again there was even more hostility and even more backlash – a lot of it raining down upon my head but as women in the Labour Party we were very determined and embattled and that’s what made the difference.
So, when we got to 1997, suddenly having started off as one of ten Labour women, I think I was the eleventh, suddenly there was a hundred. I cannot describe the change it was. It changed not only the face and the look of parliament, and by the way at that time the press lobby was 95% men, in the Parliament when I came in which was 97% men, it was reported on by a press lobby which was 95% men, and suddenly we had all these women in the House of Commons, determined to press forward on an agenda for women and that’s what made the difference in our Government from 1997. Suddenly, childcare was a political issue, suddenly domestic violence was on the agenda for the Home Office, we doubled maternity pay and leave, we brought in the Equality Act.
So, great strides were made and people often ask about Women in the House of Commons ‘well, do you work together as women, cross-party, because there is this sense of female solidarity in the women’s movement?’ and there was a limited amount of working cross-parties, between women, for example on things like the hours of the House of Commons and defending abortion rights, but outside of a couple of issue like that there really was no basis for cross-party working. There were so few women on our side, as I said, only ten to start with, and fewer on the Tories side. We were like a different breed from them. We were feminists wanting to change everything about the way the family, the world of work and politics operated. They were Conservative, the party of the traditional family, decrying rights at work as a burden on business, believing that childcare if anything was a private responsibility and not the responsibility of Government at national or local level. Actually, in relation to the House of Commons the few women that there were were older, either their children having grown up or having never had them.
Things have really, really changed and they’ve changed in a number of ways. They’ve changed because of the numbers. Labour has a really big number, more than a hundred Labour women MPs and with the new intakes we’ve had in 2010, in 2015, in 2017, we have women in every region of the country – in Scotland and in Wales. We have women of all ages. We’ve got younger women as well as older women. It’s a common sight to see women, as Ali was, looking wonderful with her bump, pregnancy bump in the division lobby. We’ve got big numbers of Labour women but we’ve also got more women on all sides of the house and this is a real marked difference, so now we now have over 200.
It’s not just the numbers, but it’s the different sorts of women, the different breed of women that are now in the House of Commons, who I would describe as ‘daughters of the women’s movement’ - very different from the tweedy matrons of earlier days. So, it’s not just the numbers, it the sort of women who are now Tory MPs who are much more in tune with feminist agenda, but also a change in men in the House of Commons. When I was first in the House of Commons, to be a male MP was to be very important, so important that you had to delegate all your family responsibilities to your supportive wife. Her place was in the home, whilst his was in the House and the idea of a man supporting the women’s agenda seemed almost inconceivable and I never thought that I’d see the day when MPs in the House, who instead of expecting their wife to shoulder all the responsibility of their family, while their being ‘important’ in the House of Commons, recognise and respect their wife and their partner for what they’re doing inside the home as well as for what they’re doing outside the home - that ‘new man’ has arrived in the House of Commons. Actually when you think of it, on Labour’s side added to, with increasing numbers of a ‘new breed’ of women on the Conservative side plus the support of some ‘new men’. We are no longer on our own as feminists in the Labour Party, and of course there are women in the SNP and other parties as well. So we have new possibilities for women working together across the House, and with supportive men of taking the quest of equality for women to a whole new level.
There’s… It’s not just we’re here is significant numbers, we’re still outnumbered but we’re no longer on the margins. There’s a woman Prime Minister. There are women on the frontbenches of all parties, in senior positions. Women are chairing important Select Committees: Select Committees for Treasury, Business, Home Affairs, for the Public Accounts Committee, for Environment, for Transport. Now, we’ve said elect us as women and we will make a difference for women’s lives and if we don’t what has been the point of us. If, with 208 women MPs it will be a failing if women out there in the rest of country are tearing their hair out about childcare, continuing to face endemic pregnancy discrimination, suffering domestic violence and protesting about sexual harassment and unequal pay. So for us the change in the House of Commons is not just an opportunity, it’s more than that it’s an obligation.
For us women who are here in Parliament, we have to find ways to work together to improve women’s lives and I think we have to be united in our defense of women who are subjected to trolling and misogyny, especially online. The threats and abuse of Women MPs must be resisted by all of us, as nothing less than an attack on our democracy. No woman should have to put up with abuse and threats, it’s a genuine danger to women, after all one of our women MPs, our absolutely beloved Jo Cox was murdered less than two years ago. We should also recognize that it’s an attempt to silence women, to punish women who have the temerity to speak out, especially if they got the temerity to be young and not white. This is an attack on our democracy and we should see it as such. The voters are entitled to elect whoever they want, and once that person is elected they must be able to do their work without let or hindrance. They’re the voice of their constituents and that constituency has the right to be heard through their MP. So, we must tackle this not just in the name of the women MPs who suffer it but also in the name of our democracy.
The other things is, we must not, I believe, in our enthusiasm to fight against inequality in all it’s ugly manifestations fall into the notion that there is somehow a higherachy of inequalities – that some inequalities are more important than other, more worth fighting for. That somehow it is not good enough to fight against only against one form of inequality and that those that don’t fight against every aspect of inequality are not worthy at all. The point is, that all discrimination is abhorrent, all prejudice is repugnant, all inequality whatever its basis is unfair and we should encourage and support each other whatever we are doing to challenge any sort of inequality or prejudice. We shouldn’t be judging each other. We must judge the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes and those who oppress the disabled. It’s wrong to set the fight against inequality based on class, for example, against the fight against the inequality rooted in gender. You don’t advance the fight for equality by setting the fight against racism against the fight against gender inequality. I would never say to the person who fights for the disabled ‘but you’ve never fought against homophobia’. The point is if they have fought for the rights of the disabled that is important and I’d never say to the man who fights against racism ‘but you’ve never fought for women’s rights and therefore you’re not doing the right thing’. Let’s not say to the woman at the BBC that the unequal pay there doesn’t matter there because there are well paid. We would never say rape or domestic homicide doesn’t matter if it’s a middle-class woman. We’d never say that it doesn’t matter that a well-paid black man is lower paid that his white colleague because he is still well-off. We hate the racial prejudice that underpins that. We hate discrimination and prejudice whatever form it takes and we laud those who fight against it, whatever the aspect they focus on and actually support and encourage each other, and not judge each other but actually focus on those who are the oppressors and not actually argue amongst ourselves.
It’s been a long struggle for women to make our way into parliament. The essence of being an MP is that we are here not for ourselves but for others. To represent them and to improve their lives. Sometimes, after decades of being outsiders it’s hard to recognise that you’ve won. Women have won the argument to be here, we have. We’ve won the argument for equality. We’ve changed the mood, but now we have to change the reality and that’s another story.