Why Rachel Reeves wants to see a female Labour party leader

In the introduction to her book, Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics, Leeds West Labour MP Rachel Reeves observes: “One third of the MPs in Parliament today are women...

By Neil Hudson
Friday, 8th March 2019, 6:46 am
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 8:43 am

“When I Was born, forty years ago, that proportion was just three per cent… I want my daughter - and my son - to grow up in a world where women are paid the same as men, where women are not absent from the board room… where there is more than just one woman on our banknotes, where the US has a woman as a president, where the Labour Party elected a woman leader…”

This is an important book, a stocktake, if you will, of the present state of affairs in relation to equal rights for the sexes. While it’s clear from the 300-odd pages that much progress has been made, there’s still more to be done before we reach the point of equilibrium. As Rachel notes: “Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act in 1970, women are still paid less than men.” Even in 2010, the House of Commons had a shooting gallery but not a nursery, something which has now rectified.

Even when women were first elected, they had a cool reception from their long standing male counterparts. In what would surely be rounded upon in today’s social media dominated world, Winston Churchill once quipped: “I find a women’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing to defend myself, not even a sponge.” But from the off, the women of Westminster have given as good as they have got. The female MP at whom that remark was levelled, Nancy Astor, famously retorted: “You are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.”

Reeves says: “We have come a long way since Nancy Astor was the sole woman in Parliament. Today, 208 of the 650 MPs are women. That’s progress, but nowhere near the 50:50 balance we need to reflect the people we serve.

“When Alice Bacon was elected as the MP for Leeds North East in 1945 as Yorkshire’s first woman MP, the man she beat told her to enjoy her short stay in Parliament. In fact, she was there for 25 years and is still Yorkshire’s longest-serving woman MP.”

Born almost a decade before women got the vote, coal miner’s daughter Alice from Normanton became a Minister under Harold Wilson and helped bring in reforms including comprehensive education and the abolition of the death penalty. Since Alice’s time, Yorkshire has sent 37 women to Parliament including Shirley Summerskill who was Labour MP for Halifax from 1964 to 1983 and Elizabeth Peacock, the Conservative MP for Batley and Spen from 1983 to 1997.

“We might also want to lay claim to Barbara Castle, born and brought up in Bradford, and Parliament’s first woman Speaker Betty Boothroyd who hails from Dewsbury…. Women MPs are responsible for so many reforms that have improved family life. But as well as the new laws, women have changed the way politics is conducted.”

Rachel Reeves

Reeves adds: “Right now in politics, we desperately need more cross-party working. Yes, certainly on Brexit – but also on devolution, improving our public services and ensuring fewer people are living in poverty. At a time when public trust in politics is ebbing away, the stories I tell in Women of Westminster might help convince you there is a noble cause in politics and that when we try to find the common good, we can deliver change that can improve lives by working together.”