With my colleague and co-chair of the All-party Women and Work Group in Parliament, Jess Phillips, I have written a piece for Stylist magazine which looks at some of the challenges, and indeed attacks, which women MPs have to face.
"What happens to female politicians does have an impact on wider society" – Flick Drummond MP
Women are still under-represented at all levels in politics, and there is definitely a sexist atmosphere surrounding us as far as the media are concerned. It may be true that the final two candidates for the next Conservative leader were women, but rather than demonstrate how far women have come in British politics over the last 100 years, it merely highlighted the negative stereotypes that still exist. Of course the press are rude about male MPs too, but there is a different tone towards women. It is more personal, more image-based, and relies on the same old stereotypes. A man can get up in the morning and put on a suit, and he’s dressed for work. Things are more complicated for women.
Take the front page of The Sun the day after Theresa May was confirmed as our new Prime Minister – it was a big photo of her shoes, leopard skin-print kitten heels, with the caption “Maggie May in at Number 10”. The tabloids have turned her shoes into her trademark, like they did with Margaret Thatcher and her handbag.
The papers have been full of Iron Lady comparisons, but it is just silly to compare every Conservative woman in politics to her. Mrs Thatcher had some great qualities, but we are in a different era now.
This is 2016, not 1979; I know Theresa, who is one of the first “modernisers” in the Conservative Party and said it had to move with the times and reach out to people, to be more human. She is going to be a very good leader, and I hope she will be bringing more women into government – there are some really good women MPs coming through, and I enjoy working with them.
We need to hear that message about humanity again after the referendum campaign, which was so full of abuse and misleading statements. We have had the senseless killing of Jo Cox. The political climate is ugly, for male politicians as well as female. Conspiracy theories and cynicism are widespread among the public. But the abuse aimed at women has a darker tone than just catty comments about our appearance or doubts about competence, and it has got to stop. It is too easy for people to hide behind their keyboards on social media.
I don’t think that we in politics should be a privileged class, but we do have a right to live our lives free from fears of violent attack or personal abuse. Our staff are affected by this too, and they are often the front line when people call our offices. What happens to us does have an impact on wider society. If we tolerate the sort of threats we see now, they will spread. We have fought so hard over decades to get to where we are now, and we must not allow our rights or our place in society to be pushed backwards.
Just as in the Women and Work APPG, which I co-chair, in Parliament there are women from all the parties working together to defend women’s rights in a variety of ways. Equality and feminism are not political issues – they matter to all of us.