Rachel Reeves: The women still fighting to smash glass ceiling in politics

Rachel Reeves has written a biography of the pioneering MP Alice Bacon who is pictured at her Normanton home in 1970 when she was Education Minister.
Rachel Reeves has written a biography of the pioneering MP Alice Bacon who is pictured at her Normanton home in 1970 when she was Education Minister.
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WOMEN smashing glass ceilings in politics.  It all seemed so possible a few weeks ago.  Now we have four years of President Trump ahead of us, a man who boasts of groping women.  A friend asked me the day after the Presidential election how he would explain to his daughters how Trump had got the biggest job in the world. It’s a difficult one to explain.

It’s 96 years since women first got the vote in the USA and 98 years in the UK.  The UK has had two women Prime Ministers, while the US has failed to elect a single female President.  But here in the UK, there are more men serving as MPs in Parliament today than the total number of women who have ever served as MPs – 450 women ever and 461 men in the Commons. 

So, who were the early pioneers and what debt do women today owe them? 

When I was elected as the MP for Leeds West in 2010, 22 per cent of MPs were women. It’s now 29 per cent. A lot has changed in 100 years, but it is still quite a man’s world.

When I went to collect a ‘spouses pass’ to give my husband access to Parliament, the man in the pass office told me ‘how exciting it must be’.

Giving him a slightly confused look, he asked if my husband had been an MP for long. Assumptions take a while to shift. 

Like when my colleague Stella Creasy was reprimanded by a male MP for using the lifts when the division bell for a vote was ringing.  He assumed that she couldn’t possibly be an MP. 

A month before the last General Election, a male MP suggested that I wasn’t suited to a job in the Cabinet should Labour win because I was due to have a baby. My little brain wouldn’t be able to cope with being a mum and having a big job.

Really? I was pretty shocked, but a national radio station devoted an hour-long phone-in to the subject. I didn’t notice people questioning David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair’s suitability for office when they became fathers while serving as PM.

As the MP for Leeds West, I’m only the second woman ever to be elected in the city, my only female predecessor being Alice Bacon, MP from 1945-1970.

Leeds has been served by some top-rate politicians over the years – Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey, Merlyn Rees, Keith Joseph, Hilary Benn. But in looking for inspiration I looked to Alice. What was it like being a woman pioneer? How did her constituents respond to the novelty of a woman serving them? What did her peers in Parliament think? And what has changed in the 71 years between when Alice was first elected and now?

My journey of discovery began and next week my biography, Alice in Westminster, is published.

First of all, Alice was at pains to say she should be judged “not as a feminist, but as a socialist”. It would be wrong, she argued, to be a woman’s MP – though she did say a woman MP had to do all that a man did, and “a little bit more”.

Herbert Morrison told the new women MPs in 1945 to stick to “women’s issues”, while Gerald Kaufman noted that neither Alice Bacon nor indeed Barbara Castle would have ever been selected if the local party members had thought there was the faintest chance they would become MPs. The 1945 landslide wasn’t foreseen in the late 1930s when they were chosen.

Certainly the status of women in politics was an inferior one. One of Betty Boothroyd’s earliest memories in the Labour Party was winning the beauty contest at the Labour women’s section rally – and being presented by Alice Bacon with a book by Clement Attlee as the prize!

And in terms of doing the job, women were relegated to the floor of the House of Commons, because there were only seven desks in the Lady Members Room by 1945. 

It’s a world away from today. There’s a crèche in Parliament now. Through the night sittings have been practically abolished, and half of my cohort of Labour MPs first elected in 2010 are women.

We have taken huge steps forward.  Or is it just that the battles and the challenges are different today?

Perhaps most troubling is the abuse – online and offline of women MPs. Luciana Berger faces horrific online abuse as a female Jewish MP.  Jess Phillips has written about the violent misogyny that she faces online and the additional security she has had to get. 

Less than six months ago, my friend and colleague, Jo Cox, was murdered for her beliefs as she attended a constituency advice surgery.

Alice Bacon would not have known what online trolling was, and the idea of being murdered, in Yorkshire, because of your politics, just doing your job, would have been unthinkable.

Alice never married and never had children. Her contemporaries Barbara Castle and Jennie Lee both married but neither had children.

In his autobiography, Leeds East MP Denis Healey said that Alice had something of Jane Eyre but unlike Jane, “never found her Mr Rochester”. 

But Alice did more than increase women’s representation. She helped shape post-war politics too.  Alice was on Labour’s National Executive Committee for 30 tumultuous years of Labour history. Hugh Gaitskell’s daughter, Julia, remembers her father being hugely reliant on Alice for support in the grass roots of the party as well as for organising the votes on the NEC and at party conferences.  

Those left-right battles secured Labour 13 years in opposition from 1951 to 1964, with Healey nicknaming Alice the “Terror of the Trotskyites”. The parallels to today’s schisms in my party are as obvious as they are depressing.

Women like Alice make it a little bit easier today. Many battles have been fought while others remain.  I hope my generation of women pass on something better to those who come after us. And I hope in my lifetime America elects a woman as President. As Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech in New York: “I know we have still not shattered that highest, hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.” I honestly believe that will be the case.

* Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and the author of Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon’. The launch takes place on Thursday at 6:30pm in Waterstones, Leeds. Extracts will feature in The Yorkshire Post next week.

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