The Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics, by Rachel Reeves

In the one hundred years that women have taken seats as MPs in the House of Commons, vast progress has been made for women’s rights both within and outside of Parliament. At the beginning of 1919, no women MPs sat in the Commons, despite legislation being passed in the previous year enabling women to serve as MPs, and despite the election of Sinn Féin’s Constance Markiewicz. At the time of writing, one hundred years on, 208 women MPs sit in the Commons. In 1919, women were banned from some spaces in Parliament and were often confined to a small dingy room in the basement which served as their communal office. Today, both female and male MPs have their own offices and we even have a parliamentary nursery which replaced one of its bars.

Th e battles fought by the early women MPs – including Nancy Astor, Ellen Wilkinson and Eleanor Rathbone – were fought painstakingly on the back of the sacrifices made by women involved in the suffrage campaign. Wilkinson paid tribute to this in her speech during the debate on equal franchise in 1928: ‘Women have worked very hard. They have starved in prison, they have given their lives, or have given all their time, in order that women might sit in this House and take part in the legislation of the country’, she told the Chamber. 1. Women MPs over the hundred years have used their hard-won position to carry forward the work of the suffragettes and suffragists by championing the rights of women. The list of achievements they have driven is staggering and simply too long to be fully encapsulated in a book, let alone a sentence, but it includes: equal guardianship of children, equal compensation, equal pay for equal work, family allowances and child benefit, SureStart nurseries, the right to abortion, same-sex marriage and action against domestic violence. Yet women MPs have also refused to be pigeonholed into ‘women’s issues’ and have ventured into stereotypically ‘masculine’ policy areas and leadership positions. Margaret Bondfield became the first woman to enter the cabinet in 1929, but I expect it would have been difficult for her to anticipate that we could have a woman prime minister or that we could have six women in the cabinet, as we do today. As Theresa May summed it up, while ‘it’s important that people don’t feel in Parliament that the men do “men’s issues” and the women do “women’s issues”, it is undoubtedly the case that having more women in Parliament has meant that “women’s issues” have been given a greater prominence.’ 2

Throughout the one hundred years of women in the House of Commons, a striking theme prevails: that women have often worked together, in sisterhood, towards common goals: from Astor and Wintringham on equal guardianship and clean milk in the 1920s; to Wilkinson, Rathbone and Atholl on appeasement in the 1940s; to Stella Creasy’s cross-party campaign on Northern Irish women’s rights to abortion today. Currently, the Conservatives, supported by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are governing without an absolute majority. Th is means that cross- party cooperation holds an increasingly powerful sway in Parliament. Brexit, too, has fragmented traditional party alliances and introduced strong incentives to work across parties.

As stories of sexual harassment in Westminster accumulated in late 2017, women MPs came together to highlight the problems of sexism and misogyny. In the Commons debate on harassment, sixty- five women MPs and fifty- six men attended: for once, women MPs outnumbered their male counterparts. This sense of sisterhood was also strongly expressed in the campaign against ‘upskirting’ – the act of taking a photograph up someone’s skirt without their permission – spearheaded by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse’s private member’s bill which aimed at the criminalization of the deed. Despite the attempts of Conservative MP Christopher Chope to filibuster her bill, the parliamentary pressure was so significant that the government adopted the bill themselves, and legislation was successfully passed in September 2018. Chope’s office in the Commons was festooned with homemade knicker bunting the following week.