By Rose Lock
The struggles and achievements of the Women of Westminster were discussed during an event in Hove on Friday (April 12).
Hove’s City Books hosted a discussion with Peter Kyle MP and Rachel Reeves MP on her new book at the Regency Town House.
The book explores the history of women MPs over the past 100 years, from Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in parliament in 1919, right up to our Prime Minister Theresa May.
Labour MP for Hove, Mr Kyle, welcomed the chance to have a discussion that wasn’t about Brexit.
He said: “It’s a fascinating read, I’ve learnt so much.”
Power on their own terms?
Ms Reeves, who is Labour MP for Leeds West, has spent the past two-and-a-half years doing interviews with MPs past and present.
She said: “Women have gained political power, but have they always done it on their terms?
“For example, I’m thinking of Margaret Thatcher having voice coaching to lower her voice, to be taken more seriously in the chamber.”
During the discussion Ms Reeves described how parliament could be a hostile environment for the early women MPs, who were often ignored.
Some MPs even tried to physically block Nancy Astor from getting to her seat on the green benches.
Barred from joining the men’s private members’ clubs, women were given their own Lady Members’ Room.
Nicknamed ‘the Dungeon’, it was down two flights of stairs, about a quarter of a mile from the debating chamber.
Ms Reeves said: “There was a lot of cross-party working from many women MPs.
“Most of them felt ostracised by their own parties, and so they found friendship and a sisterhood in the Lady Members’ Room with the other women.”
A voice for neglected issues
Over the past 100 years women from all parties have worked together on issues such as family allowances, equal pay, equal guardianship of children and, more recently, on access to abortion and domestic violence.
But Ms Reeves also explained how some women in parliament had found the question of what issues to champion a dilemma.
She said: “They wanted to provide a voice for the issues that have been neglected, but they also wanted to be taken seriously on the terms that male MPs are.
“That, even up to this day, is a challenge that faces women in parliament.
“There has never been a woman chancellor and there’s never been a woman defence secretary.”
Today just under a third of MPs are women. So what can be done to get more young women into politics?
Mr Kyle and Ms Reeves agreed further reforms to the hours and culture of parliament are needed.
But both said they believe the biggest barrier for young women choosing a career in politics today is the online abuse MPs receive.
Ms Reeves said: “Social media companies are publishing abuse on their platforms, and they should take responsibility.”
More in Common
The last chapter of Ms Reeves’ book is called ‘More in Common’, after the maiden speech made by Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a ring-wing extremist in June 2016.
Ms Reeves said she agreed with Ms Cox’s view: “The whole history of the 100 years of women in parliament has shown that working together across the political divide can deliver lasting change.
“This book is intended to inspire the next generation of young people to put themselves forward for politics and public service, but also to rewrite some of these fantastic women back into our political history.”
Inge Sweetman, co-owner of City Books for the past 33 years, said: “They were perfect speakers – eloquent, informative and funny.
“The Regency Town House was a great setting with the added bonus of being so local.”
Ms Sweetman said City Books has been holding similar events since 2001 with a diverse range of authors, including a long line of politicians.
She said: “Our audience never lets us down.
“They ask really good questions and without fail the authors have a great time and will often pay us a return visit.”
Signed copies of Women of Westminster are available from City Books.