As 2013 ends, the year in which our country lost her greatest modern Prime Minister, I find myself reflecting on the extent to which the position of women has changed since Margaret Thatcher first entered Parliament as MP for Finchley in 1959. Her first ministerial appointment came in October 1960, when she became Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, as it was necessary to bring another woman into the government with the departure of Pat Hornsby-Smith. This job was specifically set aside for women, as it carried with it the responsibility for widows’ pensions and little else, let alone anything remotely political. However, Thatcher herself saw much scope on ‘the human side … helping people’, and on ‘the financial side’ in ‘seeing that the scheme [was] sound’. It was also a job chosen particularly for her to keep her out of the way – John Boyd-Carpenter saw her keen interest and commitment to politics as a threat to the party, describing the new Undersecretary as ‘trouble’, and asking what could be done to ‘keep her busy’.
Of course, Mrs Thatcher was never afraid of being seen as ambitious, and unquestionably saw ambition as a perfectly acceptable characteristic for a woman. Shortly after being selected as candidate for Dartford, Thatcher expressed her hopes that the recent accession of Elizabeth II would ‘help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places’. Famously, she asked; ‘Why not a woman Chancellor – or Foreign Secretary?’. Yet she also contended that the term ‘career woman’ all too often implied ‘a hard woman, devoid of all feminine characteristics’, an idea which ‘far too often’ came from their ‘own sex’. So why does such strong prejudice against aspiration and ambition amongst women still exist?
In an article last year for the Telegraph, Josephine Fairley asserted that the term ‘ambition’, when applied to women, is a ‘dirty word’, even a slur, which has strong connotations of ruthlessness, whilst the same trait is commonly commended when applied to men. Meanwhile, no women, out of dozens, interviewed by psychiatrist Anna Fels for a recent study into female ambition, would admit to being ambitious, and instead associated the term with manipulation and even narcissism. Moreover, in a poll published alongside Fairley’s article questioning why ambition was considered such a ‘dirty word’ with regard to females, the most popular response, with over a third of the votes, was that it was seen as a ‘character flaw’ in women. The desire to succeed isn’t viewed as a ‘feminine’ characteristic.
Similarly, female politicians receive more attention, particularly in the media, for their appearance, not their policies. Theresa May’s most recent party conference speech was a stunning piece of rhetoric. She advocated the deportation of criminals before appeal and the narrowing of the grounds on which appeals could be made, outlining a number of key steps towards making Britain’s immigration system less like a ‘never-ending game of snakes and ladders’. However, the Daily Mail chose to focus not on her policy, but on the fact that she proved herself to be ‘more than a dress’, ditching the ‘more obvious power dressing stiletto’ and instead vowing to ‘kick out illegal immigrants’ with her ‘shiny patent brogues with jewelled heels’. Furthermore – even in the House of Commons women are subject to highly sexualised comments, just as Thatcher’s economic arguments received the following reply from Willie Ross: ‘We appreciate the honourable Lady’s statistics, but we do not like her figures – in the plural.’
Of course, attitudes to women are not going to change until women achieve true equality, both inside and outside Westminster. However, the way to achieve this is not through quotas. The problem is seen as so severe that even members of the Conservative Party are considering adopting all-women shortlists, an incredibly patronising (and un-conservative) policy. If anyone believes that, as a woman, I am not capable of competing with men on equal terms, they are seriously underestimating me. This is also a policy which was illegal until the Labour Party conveniently chose to change the law to make sexual discrimination in the selection of political candidates legal. Cameron may be feeling ‘frustrated’ and ‘irritated’ that local associations are not selecting enough women to stand for Parliament in 2015, however the real issue is why there aren’t enough good women applying to become MPs.
Approximately a third as many women as men apply for a position on the Conservative Party’s approved candidates list. Therefore any suggestion that there should be an equal number of male and female candidates chosen is also an argument that women are three times better than men – this is clearly ridiculous. One of the most vocal critics of ‘all-women shortlists’ has been Ann Widdecombe, citing that the Suffragettes “wanted equal opportunities not special privileges” and “they would have thrown themselves under the King’s horse to protest against positive discrimination and all-women shortlists”. Furthermore, Dianne Abbot, an early supporter of all-women shortlists, has criticised the failure of all-women shortlists to recruit ethnic minority women into politics – in 1997 none of the women selected using the system was black – with Abbot stating that such shortlists had in effect “been all white women shortlists”.
Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes and an advocate for all-women shortlists, claims that in terms of equality ‘the rest of the country has moved on and Parliament is lagging behind’. Yet this could not be further from the truth. Despite legal equality, the position of women lags behind in many areas of British life, such as the focus of the media on the appearance of women politicians rather than their policies. Furthermore, a recent study by Professor James Curran at the University of London found that ‘women tend to know less about public affairs’ and are ‘more disconnected to the political process’. The study also showed that women were only interviewed or citied in 30% of television news stories, but appeared much more often as sources in areas of ‘soft’ news, such as family and culture.
Despite all the manifest improvements in the position of women since Thatcher first entered the House of Commons, we still have far to go, and I do not feel that it is possible to move forward until the root of the problem is tackled. If we are going to achieve true equality between men and women, we must before anything else actually treat men and women as equals. This means no special treatment for women, just as our society no longer accepts giving men special treatment. This means no quotas, no all-women shortlists. Women are more than able to compete with men, and therefore should be allowed to do so. Legislation can only go so far, no matter how well-executed and indeed well-meaning, especially as equality has been achieved, at least legally if not in practice. No amount of ‘quotas’ or ‘positive discrimination’ will influence the situation unless the core issue – attitude – is addressed. The selfsame attitude which finds the label ‘ambitious’ derogatory when applied to women. This attitude must be changed before significant progress can be made.
Without doubt, the last word on the matter should come from the Iron Lady herself: “in politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
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