I have experienced men facing me in the chamber telling me to shush when I act “rowdy” in the House of Commons. Men who would never in a million years tell another man – certainly not one of their party colleagues – to be quiet. Yet I can see that when I heckle, hardly a rarity in the heat of the Commons, some men opposite look at me in sheer horror at my lack of decorum, as if it is behaviour unbecoming of a lady. Well, I am not a lady. And even if I were, I’d still heckle.
The trouble is that the alternative manner of behaving is also deemed unacceptable. I have, on numerous occasions, been accused by both men and women in the government of being too caring, and displaying what they consider to be behaviour more commonly associated with my sex. The Fawcett Society this week released a report that stated that 69 per cent of female MPs had witnessed sexism at Westminster, while only half of male MPs said they had. I’m stunned that 31 per cent of my female colleagues said they had never seen sexism in our workplace.
I’ve directly heard male MPs saying: “Loads of women make up sexual violence cases for money.” Just last month, one said to me that women are “just better at caring jobs” and that being an MP “might be too tough” for many. I replied that being an MP is a caring job – and there are plenty of men who seem to find it a pretty tough gig.
Still, I have been told that I am “led by my heart” when I am trying to improve legislation and practice on domestic abuse. I’ve been told that “grown-ups have to have hard heads”. It is quite difficult to take this attitude seriously, when it comes from a minister who knows nothing about the subject (compared to me – I have had nearly 20 years of professional experience). I’m not sad about the scourge of domestic violence in our country because I am “delicate”; I am sad about it because I am learned, and experienced, and I understand what a blight it is.
So, let me get this straight: when I act like “one of the boys”, that is “unacceptable”; yet when I act like a caring mother, I am not doing it right either?
Both responses are, in my view, incredibly patronising – women in Westminster are far too often treated like children, when we are, in fact, not just adults but elected representatives of the people. I am proud of my job. As Walt Whitman once put it, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I am a pretty successful MP, but I am also a mother.
It seems timely to speak of my eldest son: he likes to take the mickey out of me by doing faux-patronising tones and responses to me in conversation. He does this because of the fact that, quite often, young men try to patronise me in my political life. Yet his over-the-top acting is still nothing compared with how I have been spoken to by actual MPs.
Strangely enough, I have very rarely come across this type of sexism in my role as a constituency MP. I have had my constituents at times make jokes about feminism, such as “You’ve got the bloody vote, what more do you want?”, but these things are always said in jest.
If anything, my constituents are grateful for empathy and emotion, and are buoyed to be represented by a fierce and rowdy fighter. Patronising and diminishing behaviour rarely shows its face on the ground – but why? Could it be because we’re not in a traditional and austere place of power? There does seem to be something about the Commons (and the level of reverence some have for it) that brings out the spirit of the 1950s in some of its inhabitants.
But to my mind, neither self-reverence nor a reverential attitude towards the very institution itself squares with the idea that women should conduct themselves in a certain traditional manner.
I have the utmost respect for parliament. I have become, in many ways, a zealot in relation to representative democracy. I worship the place – because of the possibility of progress, rather than the conservation of some bygone norm.
But I’ve seen how you can be “othered” if you don’t speak the King’s English (there are people there who refer to swearing as “Anglo Saxon language”). If you fail to act like a gentleman; if you sometimes become animated, because you’re passionate – then you will be treated as a childish interloper.
Westminster is undoubtedly improved by the growing number of women elected, reporting and working there. It is not, in the most part, a hellscape for women; I really like working there around 95 per cent of the time.
But we should pay close attention to the Fawcett report. It should not be ignored by the institution of parliament. Westminster should be mindful and concerned that women are treated as targets of sexism regardless of how they act. Many of us are patronised – if not, then far too many of us are being sexualised for the kind of tights we’re wearing.
We can’t be too rowdy, nor should we be too emotional. Sometimes, just being there as a woman – let alone as a woman of colour, or a disabled or gay woman – means having that constantly pointed out.
I guess I should just be grateful to have the vote, right? Or that people voted for me? For some of the worst offenders at Westminster, that will never be enough.