UK MP Angela Eagle discusses the steps towards greater involvement of women in the UK parliament and laments the fact that politics remains stuck in a masculine paradigm in language and male culture:
The past 30 years have seen steady and significant progress in women’s representation. When I was first elected to parliament in 1992, I was one of only 60 women out of 650. This doubled following Labour’s victory in 1997 and has crept up to 191 today – 10 times more than in Barbara Castle’s heyday.
The early progress was driven by the Labour party. But the Tories have started to up their game, returning 68 female MPs at the last general election. There is a long way to go – particularly in the Tory party – but we are seeing progress.
This has undoubtedly had an impact on the way politics is conducted, both in the Commons and elsewhere. While sexism is alive and well – take David Cameron’s instruction to me to “calm down dear” during prime minister’s questions in the last parliament, one of his least edifying moments. But some of the more blatant misogyny, the obscene gestures and insults that faced female MPs in previous years, have gone.
However, there is a paradox. Looking at the coverage of the current referendum campaign, you would be forgiven for thinking that little had changed. It is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Cameron and George Osborne on one side; Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage on the other. It is coming across more like an Eton playground spat than a serious debate about the future of our country.
This week, Harriet Harman, Seema Malhotra, Kate Green and I held a press conference in an attempt to redress the balance – to highlight the missing voices of women and the importance of the vote on EU membership for women at work. Needless to say, much of the coverage focused on a question about a comment Harman made about Kim Kardashian. That says it all, really. Women are not taken seriously.
Even the language of election campaigns can be unmistakably masculine. The talk is all of civil war; of the big guns being rolled out; of the big beasts battling away. The problem is, all these beasts are blokes.
The unwritten assumptions about what constitutes “strong leadership” are male too. A study by Loughborough University released this week found that just one in six politicians appearing on television to discuss the Europe question were women. In the press, it was one in 10. Of the top 10 politicians covered, all were male.
This is all sadly familiar. In a quarter of a century in politics, I’ve seen it time, and time and time again. Even when women are in the top team, they rarely find themselves at the forefront of election campaigns. Even those inside the top team can end up feeling like outsiders – marginalised, disregarded and invisible.
Whatever progress women make, the pattern seems set. Whenever an election is called it’s like a trapdoor opens up beneath the chairs of every female politician and we simply disappear from the scene. As soon as the campaign kicks off, our politics regresses to a bygone, men-only era.