Even when you’ve spent a lifetime fighting for equality, you can still be floored by the way discrimination manifests itself. I never thought parliament would tell me to choose between being an MP and being a mum. My Labour colleague Tulip Siddiq was forced to postpone a C-section so she could cast a vote in the debate on Theresa May’s Brexit deal in January and that caused a rightful outcry. Westminster can – when it wants – make it possible to combine parenthood with legislating and Siddiq’s push for progress on a system that would have allowed her to vote by proxy demonstrates it. But allowing an MP to nominate someone to vote on their behalf when they need to be at home with their children is just one piece of a much bigger equality puzzle.
During my first miscarriage, aching and bleeding, I joined a protest for the extradition of a man who had raped and murdered a constituent. The day after I found out that another baby’s heartbeat had stopped, I led a public meeting on gang crime. I even scheduled the procedure to remove the body on a day I didn’t have a constituency advice surgery. Heartbroken by all the years that I have struggled with fertility, I’ve kept these events to myself and made sure my constituents have never been affected.
Prejudices and unhelpful tropes about motherhood suffocate female representatives – whether we have children or not
Now I’m pregnant once more and terrified – not just that it will go wrong again, but because I know that my resolve to keep my private and professional lives separate has become impossible. I’m coming forward publicly to talk about it because, as for far too many women, the personal inevitably becomes political when reproduction is involved.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) is the independent body that since 2009 has, on behalf of taxpayers, regulated the pay of MPs and authorised the budgets we claim for our work. Ipsa has a duty to ensure that we are resourced appropriately to carry out parliamentary duties. But it says it does not “recognise” that MPs go on maternity leave. Thus, it feels no responsibility to make provision for any paid cover for what we do outside the parliamentary chamber; the campaigns, constituency casework and municipal work that all MPs do. Harriet Harman wrote movingly of trying to cover constituency duties with babies in tow in the 1980s. Despite warm words about maternity cover two years ago from Ipsa, things have gone backwards. Humiliatingly, it is making me beg for extra staff funding – or give up any chance of spending time with my child to make sure my constituents don’t miss out. If a GP or vicar were on leave, a locum would be provided to ensure continuity of community services. In Denmark a member of the national parliament would have a substitute MP appointed.
My experience is not unique. Other MPs who have had children since Ipsa was created have told me of the same rejection of their requests for help on the basis that MPs “do not take maternity leave”. Siddiq herself had to return to doing casework three days after a C-section. Some MPs have tried to be with their newborn child at least for a few weeks, hoping residents don’t notice their absence and the correspondence didn’t pile up too much, or begged colleagues to cover casework. Several have ended up taking their children with them to meetings so they could feed them, with constituents acting as proxy babysitters while trying to talk to their representative.
No community should miss out on representation because its MP is pregnant – nor should my opponents be able to argue there’s a cost to my constituents because I may succeed in my quest to conceive. For all the talk of being family friendly, Westminster is still struggling to offer deeds instead of words. And if we can’t get this right for MPs, how can get this right for parents elsewhere?
Britain still has a long way to go to ensuring that fertility isn’t a barrier to equality. A third of employers think it’s acceptable to ask women about their plans for having a family at a job interview. Non-disclosure agreements are used frequently to cover up pregnancy discrimination, with the legal advice service Pregnant Then Screwed receiving on average 350 calls a year. This inequality isn’t just in the workplace. Fertility treatment is a minefield in terms of access and quality, leading many to going abroad. If thousands of Brits went overseas for experimental optometry, it would be a national priority to ensure no one returned blind. But women are left to congregate in online chatrooms to share IVF reviews and pricing plans, as a commercial industry supplants public provision in a way we wouldn’t accept with any other branch of healthcare.
Increasingly, our bodies are the battlefield of political change. We need to bring together the fight for the right to reproduce and the right not to do so – not least because in these Trump-inspired times those who seek to control women find it politically expedient. In Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana I would potentially have faced a criminal investigation to ensure I had not caused my own miscarriages because they were later than their six-week abortion deadline. Our own government forces women to continue unwanted pregnancies by retaining an outright ban on abortion in Northern Ireland.
Prejudices and unhelpful tropes about motherhood suffocate female representatives – whether we have children or not – in a way that is rarely true for our male counterparts. For my work on abortion rights I have been trolled relentlessly with the charge that it is my own childlessness that drives my “desire to kill other people’s babies”.
Campaigners opposed to providing LGBT sex and relationship education in schools once surrounded me in my constituency screaming that I didn’t have children of my own, so how could I understand their concerns. My political opponents have printed campaign leaflets highlighting their candidates’ motherhood and marriage to demonstrate how I was deficient. When I talk to male colleagues – whether fathers or not – none of this behaviour even rings a bell.
Achieving a world in which women are not discriminated against because they can carry children means challenging all of these attitudes – and the policies that go with them. From the parliamentary authorities to our healthcare services and workplaces, it’s time to stop asking nicely for the discrimination to be dealt with. It is time to refuse to wait patiently and instead to make it a a priority. As a politician I’ve never stopped fighting for women to have control over their own bodies through the provision of reproductive rights and services as the non-negotiable prerequisite of equality. As a pregnant woman this recent experience is another bitter reminder that it’s still often men – this time the Ipsa executives – who will make the choices that determine if that battle will be won.
• Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow