Through hard graft, the women of Westminster have steadily transformed the lives of women across the countryby Rachel Reeves / March 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Nancy Astor entered parliament a century ago with a singular mission: to improve the lives of women. She was the first woman to take up a seat in the Commons, and while the symbolic importance of that fact has registered, what’s less appreciated is how vital her gender was for her practical work. She worked—as Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson later put it—“like a terrier” to give a voice to the thousands of women who wrote to her every week.
Fortunately, over the 100 years since, the responsibility that Astor felt towards women has come to be shared across generations of female MPs. Forget the fashion for commentators to set the discourse about identity and diversity in opposition to that about practical policies. Through hard graft, the women of Westminster have steadily transformed the lives of women across the country.
It started in earnest in 1925 when women still had no rights to their children in case of divorce or separation. Astor, and the second woman to take up a seat, Liberal Margaret Wintringham, vowed to change this. They worked as cross-party partners-in-crime to secure equal guardianship, with the rational Wintringham describing herself as a “cart- horse” trotting alongside Astor, the rhetorical “prancing pony.” Wintringham implored male colleagues to “take a mental somersault” and view the issue “from the stand-point of the woman who passionately desires the guardianship and the ownership of her own child.” Thanks to these two pioneers, the Equal Guardianship Act was passed.
Some 491 women have now been elected to parliament, and in reviewing their achievement in a new book, I come across many similarly practical and often cross-party success stories, right up to this year’s trial of “baby leave” proxy voting in Commons divisions. Women MPs have never stopped bringing new policies to the fore.
In 1944, the Conservative Thelma Cazalet-Keir stood up to Churchill and defeated the government with an amendment demanding equal pay for teachers. Churchill was furious and told her that equal pay was like “trying to put an elephant in a perambulator.” He successfully diverted the defeat by turning the question into a matter of confidence, but Cazalet-Keir’s bravery got equality on the political map.
In 1970, after women machinists went on strike to protest unequal pay at the Dagenham Ford factory, Barbara Castle successfully forwarded legislation to make it illegal to pay women less for the same work. The legal battle was won, but as the gender pay gap has remained stubborn in practice, it has fallen to later generations of women MPs to make the right to equality effective by shining a light on what employers actually do. Under the Coalition, Lib Dem Jo Swinson secured mandatory pay gap reporting.
Women MPs have worked wonders for mothers and families. In 1945, a 25-year campaign for family allowances by Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP, was on the cusp of fruition. But the government’s bill stipulated that the payments should be made to fathers, a flaw so profound that Rathbone threatened to vote against the measure. The government changed its mind.
In the 1970s, further reforms would merge these allowances with a family tax perk which normally went to the dad: male trade unionists and Labour cabinet ministers were on the side of the male breadwinner. But Castle wasn’t having it, and ensured that the all of the child benefit that we know today would ordinarily go to the purse and not the wallet. The Rathbone argument was replayed again when Labour MPs Yvette Cooper and Lorna Fitzsimmons lobbied Gordon Brown to pay tax credits to the main carer of the children, not the main earner.
It is no coincidence that the surge of 101 Labour women into parliament in 1997 was followed by a raft of reforms that benefited women’s lives tumbling through the division lobbies, from Sure Start to the National Minimum Wage (which benefits disproportionately low-paid women).
Instead of being seen as marginal “women’s issues,” such questions were now becoming mainstream. So much so that many Conservative women now also make a stand on gender equality, in contrast to first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was dismissive. Whatever her faults, Theresa May embraces the “feminist” label, and as Home Secretary prioritised action against female genital mutilation, introduced domestic violence protection orders, and legislated against modern slavery.
In 1970s, Labour MP Lena Jeger asked: “Would any man have worked as hard for family allowances as Eleanor Rathbone, for clean milk as Edith Summerskill, for equal pay as Barbara Castle? Perhaps not.” Rathbone herself would have agreed: her campaign vow was to answer the need for “women who can represent directly the special experience and point of view of women.” For a century, the women of Westminster have been demonstrating how much practical difference that representation can make.