By Anna-Helga Horrox
I’ve never felt comfortable with gender stereotypes, even before I could explain why. As a child, my teddy was definitely a girl and my favourite colour was blue. As I got older I began to understand that various meanings were attached to ‘male’ and ‘female’ which had the effect of limiting everyone’s freedom, but that women generally came off worse. As a result, I called myself a feminist, and found it hard to see how anyone who simply acknowledged both that gender exists and that this leads to unequally distributed power could not be one too. Alongside class and race, it seemed like a painfully obvious category of inequality.
As an adult I became an active member of the Labour party. I assumed that people who were engaged, who cared enough about social structures and tackling legacies of inequality to hand over the best part of forty quid each year and possibly commit large chunks of their waking life to tortoise-paced meetings and knocking on strangers’ doors in the rain would have come to see gender as a major social stratifier.
This was not, it transpired, the case. Gender is not much discussed by Labour at a national or local level, let alone forming a widely accepted cornerstone of political debate (as is the case, for example, in most Scandinavian countries). Despite the efforts of excellent MPs like Vera Baird and Harriet Harman, politics remains deeply masculine in its practice and overwhelmingly male-dominated as a profession.
The background to the current imbalance is of course a political history – both within Parliament and the Labour movement – full of men. This is useful to bear in mind but not to dwell on; the interesting question is why things have changed so little by 2009 when society has changed so much.
There are two problems: the low level of female political involvement, and the amount of political concern shown for tackling gender inequality. The issues certainly overlap, but are not automatically the same thing – anyone who assumes they are need only remember Thatcher.
Why are so few women involved? There are many reasons. I have come across little outright sexism in my years as a member. As a young woman I have occasionally been patronised and dismissed, and have experienced some exclusion from ‘old boys’ club’ group discussions. More commonly I have just felt slight loneliness being the only woman in a group of activists, despite the loveliness of my comrades.
Being active takes a lot of time and anyone with family commitments – which women are currently more likely to have – will find it harder to participate. Meeting structures mean that a certain level of confidence is required in order to participate and speak out. At the same time, power, authority and leadership are coded ‘male’, so that which is seen as commanding in a man becomes bossy in a woman, eloquence from one is shrillness from the other, and male toughness becomes female bitchiness.
Political attitudes stem from the traditionalism and outdated ceremony of Westminster – a place, let us not forget, with a rifle range but still no crèche. Women come under greater scrutiny; their bodies and dress are judged in a way men never have to experience or worry about. Or perhaps they are simply too sensible – the pleasures of voter ID, leaflet design and campaign planning might be more apparent to a slightly nerdy, some might say male, mentality.
But I think a major reason for low female involvement is the lack of political concern for tackling gender inequality. If the Labour party, in its policies and rhetoric, demonstrated a commitment to this area, women would feel more included in a world that has traditionally excluded them. They would be enthused by a party that wanted to close the gender pay gap, that cared about letting families balance their work and home lives better, that truly wanted to end violence against women.
Political participation, at heart, rests on a sense of empowerment, a belief that your voice is important. Because women’s voices have historically been silenced and because 80 per cent of MPs remain men, any party committed to equality and democracy has a duty to actively reach out, showing women that their voices and concerns do matter.
This is emphatically not to say that women only care about questions of gender equality. Rather, that tackling such inequality – as well as being vital in its own right – would signal a party that was genuinely interested in women and what they have to say. As a result, more might feel inspired to sign up as members, to contribute to debates on all sorts of issues, and to stand as representatives themselves.