A Woman's Place


Book reviewed

Lovenduski, Joni ( 2005 ) Feminizing Politics . Cambridge : Polity . ISBN 0-745-62462-6 , 184 pp .

Not long ago, after a TV interview with a male journalist outside the Houses of Parliament, I was approached by two women. They wanted to know who it was that I had been interviewing. I was initially confused, but then I realised that they had assumed that the white-haired man in a smart suit was the MP and that I was the journalist interviewing him. He fitted the bill and I did not. It was a sobering moment and one that made me realise that despite all the progress women have made in public life, a lot of people (women included) continue to make the assumption that politics is still a man's game.

I was reminded of this incident as I read Joni Lovenduski's excellent book, Feminizing Politics, on the representation of women in politics. She talks about the very phenomenon I faced—the fact that women are often seen as ‘space invaders’ in places like the House of Commons. As she neatly puts it, ‘This is why Westminster for so long boasted a rifle range but not a crèche’ (p. 48). (We still don't have a crèche, by the way).

What she does not outline very much is the fact that, after nine years, things have changed a lot. I think she is right that ‘one of the things that changes as the numbers of women change is men’ (p. 175) and I have certainly noticed a difference when women get up to speak in the chamber—we are not heckled as we once were, just for being women. That kind of backlash is, thankfully, a thing of the past.

There is still a long way to go, however—for example, the adversarial style of politics in the chamber is something many women MPs could do without and the change back to late sitting hours on a Tuesday night was certainly a step backwards in terms of making the House of Commons less like a gentleman's club and more like a modern workplace.

Lovenduski covers some contentious ground in her description of what it is like for women in the House of Commons, but the most controversial section of her book comes in her discussion of quotas and how they have made the House of Commons a more representative institution.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has recently pointed out that at the rate we are going, it will take another 200 years before women and men are represented equally in the House of Commons, but over the last 10 years, we have made progress. As Lovenduski discusses, the fact that Labour has made the most progress of all the parties—27 per cent of our MPs are now women—is something that did not happen by accident. As someone who has campaigned for the use of all-women shortlists and twinning in the Labour party's selection of candidates and as someone who was actually on an all-women shortlist and elected in 1997, I was very interested to read her discussion about the use of quotas.

Over the last 20 years or so, this has been a matter of great debate within the Labour party and it is something we have made huge progress on. Lovenduski makes the important point that change starts with the parties, parties which all suffer from ‘institutional sexism’, and to my mind the best way to ensure that women are fairly represented in the UK's political institutions is to implement all-women shortlists, as Labour has done. They redress a deeply embedded imbalance in our political system and are the only things that seem to work. For example, when the Labour party reverted to 50/50 shortlists in the 2001 election and there were seven empty seats in Wales, equal numbers of men and women were put on the shortlists and only men were selected—it was, in other words, business as usual.

As a Welsh MP, I was also interested to read Lovenduski's discussion of the great opportunity that devolution gave both Wales and Scotland. We had the chance to create representative institutions from scratch. I was very involved in the campaign for twinning candidates for the Welsh Assembly elections in 1999. We did eventually win the argument at the Welsh Labour Conference, albeit by less than 1 per cent, but the rewards were great—as a result of the initial twinning, the Welsh Assembly had a 50/50 split between men and women at the 2003 election, at that time the only legislative body in the world to have equal numbers.

At the end of Lovenduski's book, I was pleased that she concludes that the increased number of women in Westminster has changed things for the better. Even though the evidence that things have changed is ‘circumstantial’, she acknowledges that ‘structural, procedural and agenda changes have occurred in which gender effects are explicitly highlighted and discussed’ (p. 176). She adds that the ‘policy agenda has widened’ and that increased attention is now given to issues such as ‘domestic violence, childcare, family life, women's health and political representation’ (p. 176).

Without the increased presence of women, I am sure that we would not now have stronger domestic abuse legislation, or millions more pounds being put into childcare, or paternity pay and increased maternity pay, or the right to request flexible working, or a minimum wage, or increased provision for breast screening, or even our first female Home Secretary.

I am very glad to be part of this kind of feminising of politics in the House of Commons; Feminizing Politics both resonated with my experience as a woman MP and helped me to understand it. As books on politics go, it would certainly go on my shortlist.

About the Author

Julie Morgan, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, email: morganj@parliament.uk