This one’s for you if… you’re interested in the views of the longest serving female MP on women’s rights and life in politics as a woman.
Women’s rights is a challenging problem to solve. Before reading this book the question I kept coming back to was what do we mean by equal rights? Women and men are inescapably different. Only women can carry and give birth to children. So what do we want our utopian world to look like? Can equality realistically mean that having children has NO negative affect on your career? And is that fair? Having children will inevitably involve time off work, so for me I felt that “equality” was the opportunity to progress in your career at the same rate as men, using number of days worked as the measurement.
Obviously we are currently a long way off any utopian view of women’s rights, whatever that may look like. Until we can get away from the female/male stereotypes that were shown by the BBC programme “No More Boys and Girls” to be so deeply ingrained by primary school age, women will always be expected to do more at home, be more responsible for childcare and be less likely to have the higher earning job and therefore more likely to give it up when children come along.
However, Harriet Harman thoroughly educated me on policies, their potentially positive effect on the economy, and addressing the imbalance where having children does so much more to halt the progress of mothers’ career’s compared to fathers’. Ideas such as compulsorily sharing of parental leave so that the “hit” on female work is less skewed. Making childcare provision more affordable so that women’s jobs do more than just breaking even. The point is that should a woman wish to work, society should be able to provide the training and childcare support required to enable that to happen. Many of these ideas rely heavily on state supply of these services, which is a debate for another day on how much we should and can expect of the state in terms of what support it can provide us with.
I recognise the progress that needs to be made on women’s rights and don’t for a second think that we should rest up on pushing for that progress. But as an optimist, I also like to reflect on how much progress we have made. Harriet Harman reminds us of the restrictions on women as she grew up and when she entered politics. It really is incredible to see how much progress has been made, and how much she has contributed to this.
In addition to the history of the women’s movement, this book is a fascinating account of life in politics as a woman. There are multiple examples of how unaccessible parliament was for women when Harriet Harman was first elected in 1982, demonstrating how male dominated systems must change in order for them to be accessible to women. The long boozy lunches and the late night votes didn’t exactly lend themselves to the ability to balance your responsibilities at home with your children. Harman also demonstrates how stereotypically female personality traits do not help in your progression towards seniority in politics. On multiple occasions she discusses how she put the party before her own interests and in so doing put up with treatment than many of her males colleagues would not. Inevitably every team needs a balance of skills and characteristics to achieve its potential. At some point in the future, I am sure we will have as many caring and sensitive men as women, and as many ballsy, ambitious women as men. In the meantime, balancing these characteristics remains another argument for increasing female representation in senior roles in all industries.
If you were recruiting for the people who were to run the country you might put qualities such as good communication, strong leadership and an ability to manage people in the advertisement. Naively or not, I was appalled at several of the examples of what goes on behind the closed doors of Parliament, demonstrating immaturity, betrayal, and petty power plays (see below).
To finish on a positive note, I have nothing but huge admiration and respect for what Harriet Harman has achieved so far in her time in politics and for the circumstances in which she has managed that. A fantastic role model for young women and men alike.
There was a time when “You can’t expect the same pay as a man, you can’t expect to be treated equally at work, you can’t expect men to play their part at home, you can’t object if your husband beats you, you can’t expect to be valued if you’re not young and pretty, you can’t expect to be taken seriously intellectually if you are…we were not going to put up with it.” p24
“A lone woman would be refused service at a hotel bar on the assumption that, if she was on her own, she could be there only in order to pick up a man- so she must be a prostitute.” p29
“The Parliament I entered in 1982, 97 per cent of whose members were men, was reported on by a press lobby of whom 95 per cent were men. They were not in the least interested in the women’s agenda.” p80
“men still outnumber women in the lobby by three to one. It’s wrong that the largely male world of Parliament is still reported to the men and women of this country through predominantly male eyes.” p84
Clare Short criticised Alan Clark for being drunk in the House but “it was she was reprimanded, for breaking the rule that it’s unparliamentary for an MP to allege that another is drunk.” p116
UNBELIEVABLE account from when Harman was on the front bench. She promised her children she would take them to the cinema on half term. She was phoned by whips and after missing several calls told them “I was not available”. It was assumed she was having an affair. “Firstly while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.” p121
Combining economic policy with women’s rights. “If mothers with young children could get the childcare and training they needed, they would be able to get back to work. Instead of claiming benefits, they would be paying taxes and in a position to se up businesses which would help the economy to grow. With mothers working, there’d be fewer children in poverty.” p149
“while I was sitting on the platform waiting to speak, Gordon had gone through it and typed in alterations. Gordon’s authority was such that there was no way special advisors, even two of them, could hold out against him.” p184 Why the need to go behind her back about her speech to the conference? Why not have open discussions and or say as leader I disagree and feel it would be better for the party for you to say x not y?
“Having previously had two members of staff in my constituency office and two political advisers, I hadn’t a clue how to lead a department of 93,000 people…With the change in my relationships with my colleagues and the complete absence of any ‘headspace’ in which to think about things uninterrupted, I lost my bearings.” p196
In the case of a women given 2 black eyes, 2 broken ribs and a punctured lung by an abusive husband, who was a Dr. “it was a travesty to minimise the violence this woman had suffered because her husband was outwardly jovial and well liked at work. The fact that he was a role model to younger professional colleagues made his behaviour worse, not better. And however welcome his appearances as Father Christmas, they were irrelevant and shouldn’t be a reason to to keep him from serving a custodial sentence.” p243 This reminds me of the recent and extraordinary case of the Stanford swimmer whose sporting prowess- which is in no way relevant to whether or not he committed a serious crime- was considered during his sentencing.
When she won the Deputy Leadership election she turned to John Prescott and said “I’ll need all you advice and support. I hope you’ll help me? ‘No’, he replied. “I won’t”. He had never liked or approved of me, but I was taken aback that he would put personal antagonism above the interests of helping his successor do a good job.” p271
“Prime Minister’s Questions is not just about your government’s policies, it’s about your performance as well. PMQs is like taking an exam, in public, where the syllabus is the whole world.” p284
“While we reshape our future, we must be careful not to misrepresent our past. We fought to get into government so that we could work on the problems caused by the Tories. Labour tackled pensioner and child poverty, modernised the health service and schools…Denigrating our past denies those achievements, strengthens the position of our opposition and pushed further into the future the day when Labour gets into office again.” p329
When she is on school visits “Most of the young women and men have been brought up in households where the mother takes the main responsibility for children, so, while the girls aspire to go further than previous generations of women have been able to in their work and therefore share domestic responsibilities, the boys see a model of home life with them as the main breadwinner and head of the household.” p367