Mums in politics: pulled in all directions, judged and damned whatever we do

© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

Stella Creasy revealed last week that she had received a letter from the Chair of Ways and Means stating that, in taking baby Pip into Westminster Hall with her, she was in breach of the “recently published Rules and Courtesies In The House of Commons”.

Since then, Stella’s failure to quietly accept this has prompted the Speaker to agree to look at the issue and a debate has followed. The subsequent discussion has shown that, for mums who want to be involved in politics, being pulled in all directions, being judged and being damned whatever you do are all par for the course.

Some of those commenting did not even bother to hide their misogyny – making comments like “women should be at home” or calling Stella “entitled”, apparently missing the point that her lack of entitlement tells us exactly why she was at work very soon after her baby was born.

Commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “I don’t know any mum who would criticise another mum for spending her maternity leave doing her primary job of caring for her newborn baby.” Of course, what Julia fails to acknowledge is that MPs don’t get maternity leave. In February, ministers were granted formal paid maternity leave for the first time, but this was not granted to backbenchers, and failed to address adoption leave or shared parental leave.

Labour MP Feryal Clark, pregnant at the time of the debate, spoke of her fear about taking time off, saying: “I’m scared that it will be used against me politically, and most depressing of all, I’m scared that beneath the warm words of ‘good luck’ and ‘congratulations’ some members will take a dim view of my taking maternity leave at all.”

And here lies the experience for many women in politics who dare to become mothers: being judged as a poor representative if they fail to be in the House voting and debating, or if they do not conduct surgeries and campaign in their area – and being deemed a bad mother if they do.

Our political systems were built for those expected to be elected – older, wealthy gentlemen – and in some ways the system continues to expect those elected to it to conform to the lifestyles of those early participants. Being a mother, very common in most areas of life, is treated like an extravagance in politics.

Whilst there has been some progress – a nursery opened in the House of Commons in 2009 and proxy voting first accommodated new parents in 2019 – progress has been painfully slow. There are no official statistics for how many women in politics are mothers of dependent children, but the figures of only 34% of MPs being female and the average age of MPs being consistently over 50 (House of Commons Library figure) are well-known.

Tulip Siddiq has recalled phoning IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, to ask for their advice in 2015, and the staff member who answered seeming to be shocked to hear her ask about maternity leave and being told that most women who came into Parliament weren’t of childbearing age, like her predecessor Glenda Jackson who became an MP in her mid-50s.

In councils, the situation is similar: only 35% of elected members are female and just 21% are under 50. Councils, like parliament, run on the default. With the average councillor being a 59-year-old white male, councils are simply not arranged to take into account the needs of those who are caregivers. Only 7% of councils were identified in 2019 as having a maternity policy that covers ordinary councillor roles.

In 2017, a report by the Fawcett Society recommended that “technology such as Skype could be part of the solution in allowing more women to access roles on councils through, allowing more efficient use of people’s time, and allowing more people who work full time or have caring responsibilities to participate”.

They said the law preventing councillors from remotely attending or voting needing rescinding. This was ignored until 4th April 2020, when the government temporarily removed the local government requirement for the public to have physical access to meetings. For us, as working mums, being able to access meetings without having to travel has been so helpful. This ability was taken away in May.

We believe that, by nature of their rarity, mothers are continually called upon to defend their position.  We have also seen women criticised for bringing children to meetings, for having them appear on Zoom and for missing events when their children are unwell. We don’t see the same reactions when men are missing for reasons such as sporting events and birthdays.

Being a working parent is a constant struggle of juggling important tasks. New mums will naturally struggle to find anyone to look after a baby, particularly when the baby is breastfeeding. They are also often suffering physically from the pregnancy and birth and are at very high risk of depression. Places of employment have a responsibility to support parents as much as possible. The House of Commons and the council chamber should be no different.

Anya is a mum of a child with a lifelong disability, and there are so many obstacles and barriers already in place to make engagement incredibly difficult. The message being sent to Stella is that mums really should think carefully before entering into political life. Mums of disabled children especially need to reassess their input or perhaps not even bother at all. But it is our lived experience that makes it even more important that our voices are heard. Policy isn’t abstract – it is an overflow of what we face daily.

At this year’s Labour conference, Fabian Women’s Network launched our Mums In Politics book, exploring the experiences of mothers at all levels of politics. It can be read here.

Kelly Grehan and Anya Sizer are councillors, mums and both have other jobs. They are members of the Fabian Women’s Network and co-editors of Mums In Politics.

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