When you were young, did you always know you wanted to go into politics?
I joined the Labour Party when I was around 16 and still at school because I didn’t think that the Conservative government at the time had the right policies for communities and families like mine. At university I went into economics and worked in financial services for a number of years before I put myself forward to stand for Parliament. But I’ve always had a real passion for politics so when the opportunity came up I took that chance.
What inspired you to sit down and write Women of Westminster?
When I was elected in 2010, I was only the second woman to represent any of the Leeds constituencies in Parliament. Before me the only woman to have been an MP in Leeds was Alice Bacon, who was first elected in 1945 and served until 1970, meaning for 40 years none of the eight constituencies in Leeds were represented by a woman. When I got elected I wanted to find out more about Alice Bacon, and about two and a half years ago I published a biography about her. In writing it, I felt that she had been very much written out of our political history despite her huge achievements (including introducing comprehensive education and overseeing the abolition of the death penalty). I thought that might be the case for a lot of other women MPs, so I decided to do some research, and found loads of fantastic stories.
What were the stories that really stood out for you while writing the book?
I did a lot of research on women over the last 100 years and interviewed a lot of current politicians too, but the real heroes for me were some of the earlier women, like Ellen Wilkinson (an MP for Middlesbrough and then Jarrow), Barbara Castle (MP for Blackburn) and Eleanor Rathbone from Liverpool. Those are the women who are my heroes, and certainly in the case of Wilkinson and Rathbone, they’re not nearly as well known as they should be.
Even someone like Margaret Bondfield – an MP for Wallsend and the first woman to take her seat in the Cabinet – not nearly enough people have heard of her. She left school at 14, became a shop-worker, found out about the shop workers’ union and joined it, then got involved in the suffrage and labour movement, became a labour MP and the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She was a remarkable woman who’s not nearly well-enough known. And that’s the purpose of this book – to write these women back into history, and tell the story of the last 100 years in politics through the women who served.
Since you were elected in 2010, have you seen mostly positive changes regarding women in politics?
I’d say mixed. In 2010, just under 21 percent of MPs were women and it’s close to one third today, so in the nine years that I’ve been here the number of women has gone up substantially. During my time in Parliament things like gender pay gap reporting have come in too, and there’s been more tension and focus on issues like domestic violence and paternity leave, so the burden is not just falling on women for childcare.
On the other hand, one of the things that I’ve found quite difficult is the increasing abuse towards MPs, particularly women. Women make up less than a third of the House of Commons but we receive more than two thirds of the abuse, so it’s hugely disproportionate. Particularly if you’re a black woman like Diane Abbott, or a Jewish woman like Luciana Berger, or a woman who’s very outspoken about Brexit like Anna Soubry – these women are getting a huge amount of abuse just for standing up for what they believe in and doing their jobs.
A lot of the abuse is online and social media companies need to do much more to crack down on the issue. But it’s not just online. My friend and colleague Jo Cox was murdered almost three years ago by a neo-Nazi sympathiser; Luciana Berger has been the victim of many death threats; other MPs like Angela Eagle have had their offices vandalised. This isn’t just about what happens online – it’s what’s happening in our communities and the MPs’ constituencies. Time and time again, what you see is women bearing the brunt of this vitriol and abuse.
Have you ever experienced this kind of abuse yourself and how do you cope with it?
I do get abuse online, but I don’t think I get as much as my colleagues. I spoke to a lot of MPs about coping mechanisms for abuse in my book, and some had times where they left social media or let their office manage their accounts so they wouldn’t have to see it personally at all times of the day and night. Diane Abbott said that once a week her office do a report to the police with all the death threats and rape threats she gets. Most people I spoke with said you never really become immune to it, it does affect you.
The problem is that all this abuse is likely to have an effect on what people are willing to stand up and say. But if we stop speaking out for what we believe in then the abusers win so it’s really important that women do carry on speaking up, both in Parliament and elsewhere. Yes we are dealing with hugely controversial issues in Parliament at the moment but there are ways to conduct yourself and there’s no place for abuse – even if you disagree strongly with somebody you should do that in a way that is respectful of different people’s opinions.
Despite the vitriol and abuse, what should we be doing to encourage more women into politics?
In Parliament you’ve got women in their 20s all the way up to their 70s and it’s fantastic to have that whole range. What I’d say to young women is whether it’s party politics or a particular issue you care about, get involved with it. Whatever political party you’re interested in or whatever issue really motivates you (whether it’s Brexit, climate change, or equality) get involved in it because through those issues you can find other people who share your passion, and you can ultimately change legislation and make your voice heard.
To learn more about the forgotten women of British political history, check out Rachel’s book The Women of Westminster, available here.