Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Women of Westminster by Rachel Reeves MP
(originally published in Winter 2019 edition of Order! Order!
– pre-December 2019 election)
In the past one hundred years a total of 489 women have been elected to Parliament. Yet it was not until 2015 that the number of women ever elected surpassed the number of male MP’s in a single parliament. With over 4,500 men elected in the same time it may be a while before membership of our Association of Former MP's sees the 2017 parliament proportion of some 33% women members reflected in our ranks.
But who can fail to be curious about what it felt like to walk in the shoes of Nancy Astor as she took her first pioneering steps into the chamber of the House of Commons? What was her role and legacy - and that of the 37 other women who were elected during the twenty-five years she held her seat? How did women of all parties and none work together to change the agenda before, during and after the war years? What were the experiences of the 1997 intake and those who inspired them? They set the scene for many more to take their place in the mother of parliaments. How was it that Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle, high profile MP’s thought to be of prime ministerial capability, did not in the end come to fill such shoes - but Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May did? Reeves sets these stories, and many more, in the context of one hundred years of parliamentary history. Churchill and Cameron, Wilson and Callaghan appreciated the concerns and talents of women very differently. Reeves shows us how this led to differences too in the way they involved women in the roles which only men had previously been available to fill.
The Labour MP for Leeds West since 2010 Rachel has delved deep in researching the material for this informative book. Her sources are clearly referenced to the many articles, documents, books and personal interviews which she has drawn on. The depth and breadth of the work she has put into her writing give fresh insights into the experiences of women in becoming selected and elected; into what they brought with them to the House and what they experienced when they got there. Hers is a well-informed account of the extent to which women have changed the political agenda and how they did it. Book review accolades thus far - “compelling”, “fair and scrupulous” “comprehensive and insightful” - are well deserved.
Rachel tracks the importance of cross-party work amongst women MPs from the 1920’s onwards. In the early days, in times of sparsity of women on the green benches, this was a strong feature. She recounts how such work is again important now there are more women MP's. With the advent of social media, the attacks on members, their families and staff are of a kind and intensity not known to previous generations. Men are far from immune from this, but it is women and those of ethnic and other minority backgrounds who bear the brunt of it. The responsibility which many feel to find ways of tackling this together, so that new generations of women are not put off from following in their footsteps, is evident in what Rachel’s writes about this key challenge. She also sets out how her generation cannot and does not take for granted the hard-fought forward direction of policy change established by their forerunners. Acknowledging the constant attention needed to maintain, and further develop, such work Rachel references what she and others are doing across and beyond party bounds, inside and outside parliament, to build on the work of the late Jo Cox. Her final chapter “2010-2019 - More in Common” echoes the words of Jo’s 2015 maiden speech which have become so well known. “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” I’m pretty sure this will not be the last book authored by Reeves. Let’s hope that events which have yet to unfold and which may become the subject matter of such work can reflect such words.
Women of Westminster was published by Bloomsbury on 8th March 2019 to coincide with International Women’s Day. It has a foreword by Mary Beard. An audio version is available through Audible, performed by Rachel Reeves and Harriet Harman.