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Last Updated: Friday, 9 September 2005, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
Women MPs speak up against sexism
by Jackie Storer
BBC News Website

They have been forced to tolerate sexism, remarks about their looks and barracking from colleagues. Spending time with their families is a challenge - and even the odd marriage has gone to the wall in the name of the job.
Female Labour MPs with Tony Blair after the 1997 election
There are now 128 women MPs in Westminster

The women MPs who swept into the House of Commons in 1997, swelling their numbers to 120, say life at the heart of democracy has been anything but easy.

Some even claim they have had to resort to ancient art of "nagging" to get their voices heard and laws changed.

Their struggle to win equality in the chamber and to crack the code of its "Old Boys' Club" mentality there is detailed in a new book about female MPs, along with an accompanying radio programme.

"Women in Parliament - The New Suffragettes", written by Boni Sones, with Margaret Moran and Joni Lovenduski, and BBC Radio 4's "A Monstrous Regiment", produced by Deborah McGurran, are based on a series of frank interviews with dozens of past and present female MPs.

'Strip search' offer

Labour's Barbara Follett - one of the 1997 intake and one of "Blair's Babes" - says it is not just verbal abuse the female MPs have had to deal with.

"Sometimes when women got up to speak, some of the men - not thankfully on our side of the House - would put their hands on their chests, wiggle them around and go 'melons'. It was like a school boy type of humour," she said.

It's all willy jousting and there is much more of that in the British Parliament than in the European Parliament
Oona King

Ex-women's minister Joan Ruddock says she became a particular target when she tried to address the issue of strip-searching of women in Northern Ireland in a debate on the army.

"I heard completely audibly in the chamber one of the men on the Tory side say 'oh, I'd like to strip search you any day'," she said.

And Tory ex-Cabinet minister Gillian Shepherd said one Tory MP "called us all Betty" because "you are all the same".

Labour's Margaret Moran said women MPs had noted a number of male colleagues who were "particularly prevalent in their kind of abusive behaviour, words and gestures and barracked women during the course of their speeches".


Ex-Labour MP Oona King uses her own terminology to denounce the adversarial nature of the still male-dominated Commons chamber.

"It's all willy jousting and there is much more of that in the British Parliament than in the European Parliament," she says.

Ann Widdecombe
Miss Widdecombe says female MPs are being 'over sensitive'
Labour's Fiona MacTaggart adds: "It's actually a quite extraordinary place - it's designed for men, it uses male language - people would smoke right in front of you. They would be very sexist ...

"You really didn't know how to crack the code of the club."

However, the former teacher said she did find humour one method of defence against jibes by Tory John Bercow, who made constant references to her schooling at Cheltenham Ladies' College, whenever she spoke about education.

"I said: 'I have no more influence over where I went to school than the honourable gentleman had over your lack of inches - I imagine we have both been affected by our experiences'," she said.

"He's a complete short arse - and since I did that he stopped it."


But former Cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe says she believes some of her female colleagues are just being "sensitive" to comments made about them, particularly those made by the media.

She said ex-Tory leader William Hague's baldness and Tory leadership hopeful Ken Clarke's Hush Puppies had also been fair game.

I look now at the new intake coming in - to be frank I fear for them because many marriages will go
Barbara Follett

"Come on, once again it's women being sensitive, saying 'it's just because I'm a woman that the press are saying this'. Oh, it's so pathetic ... I'd like to bang their heads together," she says.

And Tory Theresa May, she of the stiletto shoes fame, said she did not mind the comments made about them because it showed "MPs can be human and like shoes".

It also drew people into politics who might otherwise have not been interested, she said.


However, the change from family friendly hours in the Commons, back to a late night sitting on a Tuesday, is one topic that has angered many of the female MPs.

Ms King said she "lost it" when she heard of the changes. "I started shouting and swearing. The point is it's one thing if they want to be held hostage there, but why should they need to hold me hostage too?"

Ex-Labour MP Oona King
Ms King likens the adversarial nature of the Commons to 'willy jousting'
Ms Harman said she felt "absolutely bitter" with her Labour colleagues for depriving her and other MPs from spending evenings with their families.

Ms Follett says that kind of pressure can take its toll on MPs' families and personal life.

"I look now at the new intake coming in - to be frank I fear for them because many marriages will go."


One marriage that ended precipitously was that of Tory MP Eleanor Laing, who had a baby shortly after the 2001 election and was back at the dispatch box only 10 days after the birth.

She said not only had it been "incredibly difficult" fighting an election while pregnant, but coping with a young baby at that time.

Fiona MacTaggart
Ms MacTaggart says humour can diffuse tension in the Commons
Boni Sones, author of Women in Parliament - The New Suffragettes - said she had been driven to write the book because she did not like the way the women's achievements in pushing issues like child protection, domestic violence and rape to the centre of the political agenda were often overlooked.

"I think if they are constantly being described by their clothes, their weight and their hair styles, it does belittle what they do and what they achieve.

"They really enjoy the job of being an MP and they particularly enjoy their constituency work.

"When you ask them what achievements they are proudest of, it's their constituency work."

'Persistent voice'

Deborah McGurran, producer of A Monstrous Regiment, in which 17 MPs feature, said she was surprised how they failed to blow their own trumpet, yet used the domestic wile of "nagging" to get their own way.

"A lot of the women quietly, behind the scenes, in select committees and standing committees, and in the House - wherever they could, keep pushing and pushing to get things done," she said.

"A number of them talk about persistence to get what they want."

:: Archive Hour - A Monstrous Regiment will be broadcast on Saturday, 10 September, on BBC Radio 4, 8-10pm BST.

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