Working Women Productions

Radio and TV Production Company

Women in Parliament - by Angela Lawrence

1997 was a turning point for British political history. What difference did the large influx of women MPs make to life in Westminster following that historic victory in 1997, when the Labour Party first used all-women shortlists? What makes a woman want to stand for Parliament and what have their achievements been to date? The hurdles thrown up along the way to achieving their goal are so many and so high that it's not surprising there's still a disappointingly low percentage of women in Parliament.

But the woman who makes it - wins that coveted seat in the House of Commons at a General Election or by-election - how does she cope? From the moment she faces selection at constituency level to the first day she walks through those daunting portals as a "new girl'; from her maiden speech to the day she makes the grade as a minister. And if she has family responsibilities, what kind of a juggling act does that entail? How are women MPs treated and mentored by their parties? Should they have achieved more? What are their views of all-women shortlists, the positive discrimination policy, which led to so many Labour women being elected in 1997?

It was our search for first-hand answers to these questions that brought us, finally, to the publication in the autumn of 2005 of "Women in Parliament: The new Suffragettes", by Boni Sones, Professor Joni Lovenduski and Margaret Moran MP and the BBC Radio 4 programme "A Monstrous Regiment".

We discovered that by winning a seat at Westminster a woman is entering what is still, in the 21st century, a predominantly male bastion of power. An environment where they are likely to experience, at worst, sexism and, at least, indifference, the sense they are virtually invisible. It is a dismal indictment of how a parliamentary system is run in an advanced democracy.

No matter how exalted a Cabinet rank the woman eventually reaches, the critics will always be there to carp; among her male peers and among the popular media most particularly, but often within her own constituency party. Such criticism is frequently deliberately destructive and women can find this difficult to handle. Many admit that to survive they've had to develop an emotional skin as tough as rhino hide. Easier, by far, not to stick your head above the parapet in the first place.

The book also reveals though, to a woman, a dedication and devotion to the job. Even, in the case of one woman MP, who has sadly died since regaining her seat in the 2005 General Election, despite the pain of treatment for a terminal illness. The integrity of these women shone through in a refreshingly, transparent way. Their striving on behalf of constituents absorbed and excited them and gave them a sense of purpose and achievement. Many admitted, modestly, they were not seeking high office.

There is no doubt in our minds that the 83 women MPs - including all women in the Cabinet - who agreed to be interviewed for "Women in Parliament: The New Suffragettes', gave the lie to the popularly held cynicism that "MPs are only in it for themselves, for what they can get out of it.' Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I went with Boni to meet with Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, Caroline Spelman, the then Conservative Spokesman on women (later Eleanor Laing) and Sandra Gidley the Liberal Democrats' Women's Spokesperson, to talk through the project. We were at pains to emphasis a totally neutral party stance. No one party would predominate. Interviews, we told them, would last roughly half an hour to an hour and be taped by experienced former BBC interviewers. All three were enthusiastic and appreciated the positive outcomes such a book could have. All agreed to get the interview ball rolling by emailing or enlisting the help of the women in their party. The women MPs would volunteer, no-one was cajoled or strong-armed into participating.

The interviews took place from May to October 2004, with a General Election looming in the spring of 2005. We were stunned by the frankness and openness with which most of the women MPs approached their interviews. "It was good to get that off my chest', one remarked after her interview had ended. Another revealed such skulduggery in her constituency dealings it made the interviewer's hair curl, figuratively speaking.

Linda Fairbrother later shared her experiences with me. She told me: "'What an impressive set of people these were! Warm, enthusiastic, and giving a sense that their purpose was to serve - refreshing in our cynical world. It was interesting that many denied any desire to move into the limelight; it seemed to be local community roots that gave both the desire to go into politics, and the long lasting motivation to continue."

Linda's experiences chimed with my own. She went on to talk of how memorable and evocative the interviews had been, even as an experienced journalist. "I remember interview recordings on the terrace by the river, stopping and starting as boats went by or mobiles went off. There were traipses down the echoing corridors of Westminster to find some quiet corner where neither security police, catering trollies, nor members of the public, who would pass by every 2 minutes. And the particular joy that comes as an interviewer, when your subject is obviously finding the questions and answers as interesting as you do."

Linda also talked of how involved the MPs were with the project." I felt these women were not just going through the motions because some reporter was trying to fill a minute or two on local radio. They became involved with the project. You could see them wrestling with the questions, doing their best to be both honest and illuminating. Many gave far more time than originally promised. And, rare in my experience, actually thanking the interviewer afterwards for making them think about issues, which however important, would not normally be part of their agenda. This was a stimulating and joyful shared experience."

Boni, Deborah, Linda and Eva talked of how fulfilling and informative these fireside chats had been. I agree with them. In selecting the opinions and experiences, the revelations and amusing nuggets for both the book and the broadcast there was, inevitably, much that had to be left out. But we hope that the voices of the women you hear in "Women in Parliament' will have a resonance with you as a reader or listener and that their struggles will not be in vain. They are, in their way, the "21st Century Suffragettes' fighting for equality. It's a battle that, sadly, still has to be fought.

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