Nowhere to put their hats. This was the rationale given by male MPs to deny women the right to stand as MPs in 1918.
One hundred years on, we are still blind to the real needs of female MPs. When it comes to childcare, women are three times more likely to shoulder the majority of childcare, and female MPs are no different. My colleagues in Westminster often have to juggle the responsibility of representing their constituents, voting in Parliament and looking after their children.
There have been some welcome reforms of the Parliamentary estate to allow parents of young children to take part in political life, most notably the refurbishment of one of the estate’s bars into a crèche in 2010. However, in many cases the rules of the House remain behind the times. Currently, there are no formal arrangements in place for parental leave for MPs. This can lead to both female and male MPs missing votes when they are unable to find childcare.
When they do take leave, under the current voting system MPs can only vote in person, and if they are unable to attend, they have to pair with another MP who will also be absent or abstain.
This system collapsed over summer when, during a crucial Brexit vote, Tory Party chairman Brandon Lewis broke a pairing arrangement, which was agreed with Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson who was on maternity leave and voted with the Government. Rather than rectifying the issue and updating parliamentary procedures by allowing those on parental leave the opportunity for another MP to vote on their behalf, the Conservatives have kicked the issue of proxy voting into the long grass.
Women are often also discouraged from standing for elected office by the threat of online abuse. This is an issue for black female MPs, who face the double assault of misogynoir – a pernicious sexism aimed at black women. I have long spoken up about the issue of intersectionality, as black women like myself can often be discriminated against for being both black and a woman. In fact I was once told by a fellow MP in a lift in the House of Commons that “this lift isn’t for cleaners”.
My colleague Diane Abbott has been particularly affected by online abuse, receiving almost half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the general election. We’ve been clear that when we are in Government this must end, and Labour will make the online intimidation of MPs a criminal offence.
Until women are properly represented in Parliament and a cross section of women’s voices are heard, we will continue to see laws pass that have a detrimental impact on women. We have seen the impact of male-led policy, with 87 per cent of the impact of the Government’s tax and benefit changes since 2010 falling on the shoulders of women.
While women make up just over 50 per cent of the population, they represent only 32 per cent of MPs. Currently there is no monitoring of diversity, meaning that we can’t have an informed discussion about the number of black women, for example, who have been put forward in an election. This makes it very difficult to hold parties to account for their attitudes towards diversity.
On this 100-year anniversary of female MPs standing in Parliament, I am calling on the Government to finally act and tackle these issues. They can start by introducing formal baby leave arrangements, making proxy voting a reality for working parents and ensuring that the online intimidation of MPs becomes a criminal offence.
We need action now. We don’t want to have to wait another 100 years.