Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Women MPs of the World Conference - House of Commons 2018


In an historic first today women MPs from 5 continents and 100 countries met in the Mother of Parliaments as we mark 100 years since the first women in this country won the right to stand for election to parliament.  

Women have fought their way into nearly every parliament in the world.  But we are not yet on equal terms with men in politics. Women MPs around the world want not only to be in parliament but to share power equally and to be able to make change for women in our countries.  As only relatively recent arrivals in politics women MPs are still pioneers in male-dominated parliaments.

We got together at this unique event to share our experience, our successes and setbacks. We determined to fight yet harder to get equality for women in our countries.  We made links so we can work together in the future. We strengthened our resolve to fight the backlash against women in public life and to get yet more women into parliaments, and shared experience of how to deliver for women in our countries, to end violence against women and girls, counter harassment and abuse, balance family and political responsibilities.   

Women in politics are a new force for change. Out of this conference comes a powerful global network of committed women who can work together for progress for each of our countries and all of our people. The sisterhood is global. 

This historic conference was co-hosted with the Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt MP, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom MP, the Foreign Office, British Council, Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Wilton Park.

Prime Minister Theresa May hosted the conference opening reception in Downing Street last night. 

Follow on Twitter at: #WomenMPsoftheWorld

Harriet Harman speech to open the conference in the House of Commons Chamber:

I will start by introducing myself. Sorry for the layout of the House of Commons, which means that I have my back to so many of the sisters here. I am Harriet Harman. I have been a Member of Parliament since 1982, so for 36 years. [Applause.] I represent a constituency in south London, Camberwell and Peckham. I have three children and one grandchild. So that’s me.

I extend huge thanks to Penny Mordaunt, our Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women and Equalities, for the commitment that she and her Department have shown in bringing us all here together. Thank you so much, Penny. I also thank Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons. We had to have a special vote in the House of Commons to allow you to come and sit here—[Applause.] Andrea, as Leader of the House of Commons, led on that. On behalf of all of us, I thank Theresa May, the Prime Minister, for the reception last night in Downing Street—[Applause.] It was a wonderful event.

I thank all of you for coming: a huge warm welcome to Westminster. As Penny said, these benches with all of you here look very different from how they normally look. It is a pleasure to see you. We have here women Members of Parliament from 100 different countries and from five continents. We are all from very different countries with very different backgrounds, but our goals are the same: we want nothing less than equality. We all share things in common. We are all pioneers. We have all made a lot of progress, but we are still women in politics trying to make progress in what is largely a man’s world. We also look after children and elderly relatives, and we break down barriers. 

When I was a girl I was brought up with the idea that the most important ambition was to get a good husband and, once I had achieved that lofty ambition, to be a good wife to that good husband. Daughters were in households where the father was the head of the household or wives’ husbands were the heads of the households. We have all said, “We don’t agree with that. We do not think women are inferior. We do not think women should be subordinate. We think women should be equal and we want an equal say in decision making. We are not happy with the idea that men make the decisions, but women abide by them.”

We have all made progress. When I was first a Member of Parliament in 1982, it was 3% women and 97% men and women’s voices were not heard. Democracy is about representation. It is not a proper democracy if women’s voices are not heard, so no one is doing us a favour by letting us into Parliament. We are a democratic imperative—[Applause.] We are necessary. Now we are 30% in the UK Parliament, but we are still outnumbered by men. I talked to many of you last night and none of us is happy just to get into Parliament. We want to be on equal terms with the men in Parliament. We are not happy with a situation where it is the men who get selected to sit on Committees; the men who get the resources; and the men who get to speak. We have to not only be in Parliament; we have to be there on equal terms. If you think about it, all those countries where there are more women going forward are the countries that are clearly looking to the future. Imagine a situation where all the governing people are men. That is like the past. That is backward. We women in politics are the future.

It is important for us to be in Parliament because we want to make progress for women in our countries. We want equality for women in our countries. Today I hope to hear about your ideas, what you have been doing and what has worked for you. We want to hear about your successes. What have been your setbacks? How have you overcome them?

I want to give one example of something that we have done here in the UK that has made a difference. We have always known that women at work are paid less than men. Let us be clear about this: that is not because men are cleverer than women or because men work harder than women. It is because of discrimination and inequality. We introduced a law—it came into effect in April this year—that every organisation has to publish their pay gap between men and women. Whether they are private companies or public organisations, every year they have to publish what they pay their men and what they pay their women, so that we can see the gap and can narrow it. It is no surprise to us that eight out of 10 employers pay their men more than they pay their women.

That is one thing that we have been doing, and we are obviously all trying to work hard to tackle the scourge of domestic violence. When we bring forward ideas, nobody says, “That’s a good idea. That’s challenging inequality. That’s an interesting policy. We’ll implement it.” No. We have to fight for it. Nobody says “Come into Parliament and exercise power on equal terms.” We have to fight for it. That is another thing that we have to have in common—we have to be resilient. Over the years, girls are encouraged to be emollient, accommodating and nice, but we have to be really tough. I always say that, if you are not having a row, you are probably not doing enough. To make progress for women, you have to be tough and persistent and press forward.

We also have to work very closely with women on the outside of our Parliaments. The women’s organisations outside our Parliaments are what sustain us in here and enable us to make progress. As Penny alluded to, we all face a backlash, because, deep down there, the attitude of some is: “Why are women out there speaking in public? Shouldn’t they be at home looking after their husband? Shouldn’t they be in the kitchen? Why are they in Parliament?” There is always a backlash of threats and verbal threats, but also abuse on social media and in the mainstream media as well.

I think it is important that we say to ourselves and to one another that that is not something that we should just expect, or that is normal or an occupational hazard. We should say that to attack us as individuals is not only wrong but an attack on democracy, because we are elected. Our voters have elected us, and they are entitled to our getting on with our job without let or hindrance and without looking over our shoulder. Sometimes, if we are threatened or attacked, we feel that we cannot speak out about it because we do not want to look weak or as though we are preoccupied with ourselves. However, we have to speak out about it, because they are attacks not only on us but on our democracy.

We have to challenge the backlash. Every time women make some steps forward, there are people trying to push us back, so we have to remain persistent. We have to work with women’s organisations outside and within our own political parties. However, we also have to work across parties. As women, if we work together across parties, we can make more progress than we can on our own. We also have to work with men who are prepared to support us. When I was first in the House of Commons, there were virtually no men who supported women’s equality. However, there are now men who understand the importance of women’s equality and who are prepared to support that agenda. When I say support, I mean support—not lead, but support the agenda—[Applause.] We have to be the leadership, and they can support us. There has always been the idea that it is natural for a woman to be deputy to a male leader. We need to engender a culture among men that it is positive and progressive not necessarily to stand forward as leaders themselves, but to support a woman leader. That will take some work, I think—[Applause.]

I hope everybody has a productive day today. I am eager to hear from all of you about your experience. What I would like to see—this echoes what Penny has said—is ongoing discussions among us all. We all see the pictures of men at the global summits. Imagine the pictures from a normal global summit. It is all men. The international network of men is well-established. We need to establish that international global network of women parliamentarians to work together. I hope we will be able to do that after this conference. I hope that we will have this conference somewhere in the world every year—[Applause.] Who would think about hosting it next year? We will not finish the job today. We will make good progress today, but we need to make progress year on year. Thank you so much for joining us. The sisterhood is global. Thank you—[Applause.]

Watch all of the speeches by the women MPs in the Chamber:

Session 1 - Women in Parliament: Celebrating progress, shaping the future: https://we.tl/t-JJLyM1AXmD

Session 2 - Policy focus - how women in parliaments shape the political agenda to tackle inequality: https://we.tl/t-yvQT7BXQSe

Session 3 - Changing the future for women in parliaments - commitments and actions: https://we.tl/t-WsfUhlV9Om

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