THE BLOG

Women To Win?

19/04/2017 08:43
Toby Melville / Reuters

Theresa May has seized the moment and set the agenda. She begins her bid to win her own mandate with every prospect of strengthening her grip on power.

For the first time in decades, the performance and policies of a woman will be the focus of a General Election. It is more than a decade since Theresa May helped set up Women 2 Win - an organisation to help women get into politics.

She will set the tone for a very different campaign from those of recent years.

At last night's brilliant one-woman show by the former Labour special adviser Ayesha Hazarika I was reminded of Harriet Harman's pink battle bus at the last election in 2015. It was a desperate attempt to ensure women's voices were heard in the contest between David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Ayesha hilariously recounts the efforts of Ms Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour party, to get into the room where men were taking the key strategy decisions.

This time, surely, things will be different.

I am struck by how much attitudes have changed since I started working at Westminster more than 20 years ago. It was the final year of John Major's government. Like Theresa May, he was a Tory leader with a slender majority, struggling to heal divisions over Europe.

It was a time of plots, in-fighting and knife-edge votes and as I ventured into the members' lobby of the Commons for the first time I was filled with anticipation at the gossip I might glean. A senior Conservative caught my eye. "What's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?" was his opening line. I was irritated and somewhat taken aback. But at the time I remember being more surprised at such a ridiculous cliché from a supposedly articulate politician, than at the blatant condescending sexism of the remark.

I had travelled widely as a foreign correspondent and was far more concerned about my lack of political expertise and contacts than the macho culture at Westminster. Compared with the threat from a Somali youth pointing a Kalashnikov at your head or a Serbian gunman blocking your way, sexist comments seemed no more than a minor annoyance.

I never considered myself to be on a mission to challenge the male dominance of the time and have been amazed and flattered that so many women have told me I have been a role model for themselves and others in journalism and politics.

Of course, women at Westminster still face significant hurdles and I do not for a moment underestimate the seriousness of the on-line abuse and threats that many in public life still face. But politics has been transformed in recent years, largely by the women who now wield power at so many different levels.

When I joined the BBC's political team all the key players at Westminster were men. John Major had just two women in his Cabinet. Labour's rising stars were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. There were 60 women MPs - less than 10% of the total.

I noted at the time that there were more BBC Political Correspondents called John than there were women in the Westminster lobby.

Today the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Scotland's First Minister and the leaders of both main opposition parties in Scotland are women, as are the leaders of the DUP and Plaid Cymru.

Women are no longer inhibited by the macho culture which used to be such a feature of big debates. Just watch Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson take on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood, telling her to "Sit down"... during passionate exchanges on Scottish independence. Or Theresa May regularly trouncing Jeremy Corbyn at Question Time.

No longer is the coverage of politics dominated by men. I have been proud to work alongside the brilliant Laura Kuenssberg, the first female political editor of the BBC. Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart share the role of political editor at the Guardian. Sky's Sophy Ridge has made the breakthrough into the male-dominated world of the Sunday political programmes, clinching an interview with the Prime Minister on her debut.

Of course, it is infuriating when a national newspaper decides that when the Prime Minister and Scotland's First Minister meet to discuss the future of our constitution, the shape of their calves is the most important matter. But the outcry at "Legsit" is surely evidence of how much attitudes have changed.

Unnoticed amidst the election news was the announcement that Turner prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing is to create a statue of the Suffragette leader Millicent Fawcett at Westminster, breaching another male bastion. It will be the first statue of a woman, and the first created by a woman, to stand in Parliament Square.

The Prime Minister has said Millicent Fawcett's struggle for equality continues to inspire the battle against the burning injustices of today.

Of course, Brexit will dominate the campaign, but perhaps some policies to tackle those inequalities and challenge outdated attitudes will also get at least some attention.

As we prepare to mark next year's centenary of the Act which first gave women the right to vote, that would be a real cause for celebration.

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