It’s exactly a month since Jackie Weaver went viral. That now infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting, which both amused and horrified us all in equal measure, laid bare the sometimes-toxic underbelly of parochial politics.
Jackie Weaver herself, the epitome of picture of cool, calm professionalism, attributes the problem to sexism. “They just didn’t like being told no by a woman”, she told an interviewer in wake of her viral infamy. So, to what extent are our politics infected by similar attitudes? And why does it matter?
Here I must declare a personal interest. I’m a town councillor. I was elected in my small Kent hometown in 2019 as an independent member. Whilst no-one has screamed at me about standing orders (yet), it hasn’t always been a positive experience and when looking down the line at running again, or considering whether to run for any higher office, the main reason I can find to do it is to show the bastards that I’m not beaten, and to pave the way for more women to follow in behind me.
Since my election in a majority alliance including three other brilliant women, we have been made aware of an opposition party meeting in which respectable, elderly men openly discussed bullying women out of office, identifying younger women as ‘soft targets’. This tactic has manifested itself in the form of micros-aggressions in meetings, targeting women in the street to challenge their political views and the drunken disruption of female-led events. So far, so pathetic- but deeply unpleasant.
Other local councillors have shared their stories with me, and it’s not always cross-party political strife that exposes misogyny. Within local constituency parties, similar stories abound. One woman told me that as a newly fledged local party chair, she was consistently hounded and shouted down as incompetent if she dared refer to the written rules of debate. Another made a complaint of assault against a party member and says she experienced “what can only be described as the old boys club, pulling together and effectively closing rank”,
What I and others have discovered more than anything is that there is safety in numbers. The more women ‘at the table’, the fewer chances there are for male voices to shout us down and drown us out, and as women hold more authority, the misogyny becomes quieter. One district councillor with a cabinet post told me that while the male-dominated pre-meeting ‘banter’ could be unpleasant, within the meetings themselves she had mostly experienced respect and courtesy, something she attributes in large part to women holding senior employed posts within the council, including chief executive.
So, as women in politics, we need to grit our teeth, hold our ground, and swell our numbers. This is important for our local democracies, and it is also important for our national parliament. Local politics can be a microcosm of the national picture and the story for women in parliament remains a troubled one. Whilst the UK parliament is currently ‘enjoying’ its highest ever proportion of women members (34%), this figure ranks 39th in the world for female representation. Curiously, Rwanda has 61% women in its legislature! The number of women in cabinet positions falls short of this considerably (27%) and the picture across political parties is… patchy.
On the national stage, there are endeavours to turn this around. Labour’s all women short-lists may have been controversial, but they have delivered the goods in terms of getting female bottoms on those green seats in Parliament. Other campaigns include the non-partisan 50:50 Parliament campaign whose #askhertostand campaign has become widely recognised across social media. Its tactic of building on women as a community for and of themselves and urging us to encourage each other is a great motivator. The visibility of women in politics is so important and we cannot wait for men to ‘move-up’ and make room for us. There are still barriers to be torn down for women in politics. The recent law-change to award maternity leave to cabinet ministers (a hastily hatched bill which will benefit Suella Braverman, the attorney general) throws a spotlight on the absence of maternity formal rights for MPs, an issue now being pressed by Stella Creasey MP.
Other problems in Parliament are also not too distantly removed from those experienced by Jackie Weaver and my colleagues. The braying culture of House of Commons debate-chamber and the dismissal of female voices – “calm down dear” and “mind your tone” do not welcome us. A 2019 report found that misogyny “oozes out of the walls” of the House of Commons.
Internationally, female leaders have been raising their political game. It is to be hoped that Kamala Harris’ election to vice president of the USA will light some sparks in young women’s political minds, and heal. As a woman with an impressive track-record within political office, she has a lot to offer us, provided she can get her voice heard from behind the man and machinery of the Presidency.
My sense (and hope) is that the elderly Biden recognises her as a successor rather than a challenger to his power and will help her build her platform. The leadership of women has also received a boost from the Covid19 crisis. It is suggested that women have presided over some of the most effective responses to Covid19; New Zealand, Germany, Denmark and Finland are all led by women and their governments have been praised for bringing their countries through the crisis.
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, recently re-elected with a stonking majority strikes a particular chord with many young British women. My 19 year old politics-student daughter is a huge fan of Ardern. She cites her humanity, her warmth, her connection with the grass-roots and (truth-be-told) her touch of glamour as being an emblem of what women bring to politics.
I’ll be using this International Women’s Day to talk up ALL women in politics. To fly the flag for all the things we face down, and all the good that we do.