Following the West Midlands Feminist Times panel and Q&A event “Do we need more women in politics“, we are publishing the speeches of some of the panelists. First we hear from Ruth Jones OBE.
Do we need more women in politics? The answer of course is yes! I would like to think that this is obvious if only on the basis of equality, but even if we had an equal number of men and women in politics this would still not be representative of the population. The 2011 census showed a population of 56.1 million in England and Wales. 27.6 million were male and 28.5 female. This equates to almost a million more women than men in England and Wales and yet these women are overwhelmingly represented by men in politics. The majority are represented by the minority. A UN report of women in global politics launched as part of International Women’s Day 2014 showed that the UK had 650 MPs with 147 (22.6%) being women. This ranks us 65th of 189 countries.
It has been suggested that women do not get involved in politics. I beg to differ. The reality is that few women are elected but many are political and this has always been the case. Take my subject for instance (Gender Based Violence). Women lobbied for over two hundred years to get successive governments to take gender based violence (GBV) seriously. This gradually resulted in changes to legislation, the implementation of policy and more recently to funding for services. Women are political. So why aren’t there more women in politics and why don’t more women vote?
More women are not in politics due to a number of issues that include the structure in which politics operates which is patriarchal in nature and is a public sphere. Political life is structured around unsociable, long hours that don’t make it easy for women with caring responsibilities in a society in which women don’t ‘have it all’ but have to ‘do it all’. Political women also need to feel confident in having a voice. Historian Mary Beard has highlighted how women’s voices have been silenced and/or ridiculed. Recent comments aimed at women by politicians include the patronising ‘sit down dear’ (David Cameron, 2011), the idea that “there is a danger this feminism thing is getting a bit ludicrous” (Douglas Hurd, 2014). Women in politics have to be thick skinned and determined.
When women do get into politics, they have historically been given what is commonly termed ‘soft portfolios’ based on ‘women’s issues’. While I believe (and evidence shows) that such issues would not be addressed without women MPs, I also argue that issues termed ‘women’s issues’ such as GBV are everyone’s issues and every issue is a women’s issue. By separating ‘women’s issues’ we are colluding with discrimination. It is not ‘women’s issues’ that are missing from politics but women’s perspectives on a multitude of issues.
I also argue that women are generally reluctant to vote for male MPs who do not understand the realities of women’s lives, many of which don’t want to as evidenced by the mass exodus of male MPs (and some women) when Yvette Cooper called for a debate on how Coalition government policy is impacting on women. To engage women the political message has to have meaning for women.
Ruth Jones OBE, Director of the National Centre for the Study and Prevention of Violence and Abuse, University of Worcester
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