In the past 100 years there have been a total of 491 (now plus two more since this book was published due to by-elections) elected to Parliament. It all began with Constance Markievicz in 1918 (but as she stood for Sinn Fein she didn’t physically take up her seat in the Commons), so the book begins from the time of Nancy Astor in 1919.
The book begins with an excellent foreword by Mary Beard whose own recent book Women and Power did much to encourage women to take up positions of power and ends with an epilogue from Harriet Harman MP (elected in 1982, who as a young mother faced many insults and ridicule by the usual suspects of what is still often ‘the men’s club of Parliament’).
I went to listen to Rachel Reeves speaking at Hastings LitFest and found her passionate, articulate and full of intriguing facts and anecdotes that showed exactly why women have struggled for so long to achieve equal status with men in Parliament.
As women began to be elected to the hallowed halls of Westminster, not only were they ignored (toilet facilities for women put in the most difficult places in the building) but it was felt they could only deal with ‘women’s issues’ and had no depth of intellect to deal with serious, proper politics.
As someone who has worked for an MP at Westminster I can say that during my years there, things were still no different and worryingly Rachel also stated that there are still some dinosaurs lurking in the corridors who now not only dismiss female MPs (often they are questioned ‘are they cleaners?’ or mocked ‘Now now my dear’ said David Cameron to a female Labour MP only recently).
What is also worrying is the growing social media threats and mocking of female MPs – in days past a nasty letter would have made its way to an MP’s office, but now serious trolls hijack the social media and of course there was the terrible death of Jo Cox MP going about her constituency business when attacked and killed by a right-wing maniac.
But it is the vital importance of women in passing legislation that struck me reading the book. I was familiar with Barbara Castle and her fight for equal pay but those like Eleanor Rathbone, Ellen Wilkinson and Margaret Bondfield, ignored in the history of the Second World War even by Churchill in his memoirs, but who put forward necessary legislation for family allowances, refugees and even ‘Boots for Bairns’ to provide adequate footwear for poor children in distressed areas at a time of no social welfare support.
But as the years went on women took on more powerful roles in Westminster itself – it took to 1961 before a woman asked a Prime Minister’s Question (Irene Ward), first speaker of the House of Commons (Betty Boothroyd) and first woman Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth (Margaret Beckett).
Despite 1997 and the overwhelming number of women MPs (especially from Labour with its Blair Babes) since 2010 things have only taken a turn with the election of Theresa May as the second female Prime Minister.
With female leaders across politics, Rachel smiled at the lack of progress within her own Labour Party where the old regime seems still to maintain. But as I said to Rachel when I spoke to her after her talk if someone like her was to make a pitch for the Labour leadership I’d vote for her!
For me, as a bit of a political nerd, I loved this book as a personal read but beyond recent times with which I was familiar I was really immersed in the beginnings of women arriving at Parliament from 1918 onwards. I think book clubs will find it interesting as it crosses all political parties and gives an interesting slant into what really goes on behind the facade of those gilded towers of power.
Philipa Coughlan 4/3
Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics by Rachel Reeves
I.B.Tauris 9781788312202 hbk Mar 2019