'Freeze!' And so we did. This command was issued to me during a University seminar. Once frozen and curious, my tutor urged us to look around the room, more specifically at each other. There were maybe fifteen of us, sat in a semi-circle on standard issue hard-back chairs. He pointed out that without exception, every man was sat, legs apart, arms unfurled. In contrast every woman was sat with their legs together, often crossed and their arms either folded or resting in their lap.
Fast-forward more than fifteen years and listen to and watch the powerful performance poet Vanessa Kisuule and her poem 'Take up space'. In between urging women not to shrink and cower, the message that we should talk proudly, laugh loudly, eat with gusto and learn widely, reverberates through every beat of music, syllable spoken and look down the lens.
Years ago we had the discussion that in effect, in that room, women were taking up less space than the men. Was it modesty that dictated we sit demurely with our legs crossed or an insidious belief that we should make ourselves smaller, contort ourselves into neat manageable packages and in taking up less space, apologise for the space we were taking? In saying sorry for the space we took, were we saying sorry for even being there?
I listened to and watched Vanessa Kisuule, inspired by her delivery, emboldened by her pronouncements, enjoying her witty word play and empowered by her message, she guzzled her chips and the music faded. I then felt crushed. Here was a young woman in 2015, probably about the age I was at University, who realised that this message still needed shouting out to young women because it was still as relevant and necessary today as it was then.
My political coming of age was during the 1997 General Election and whilst the 'Blair's Babes' tag made me squirm, the 101 Labour Party women elected in that election and the image of them lined up, ready to govern, ready to rule, ready to make their voice heard, was spine-tingling. I believed that every election after this would see significantly more women gaining seats and that it would be no time at all before the House of Commons more accurately mirrored the Country it served. Having researched the Suffragists and Suffragettes for an 'A' level history project, spending hours pouring over documents from the Fawcett library and having my impressionable 17 year old mind filled with gruesome images of forced-feeding and tales of the 'Cat and Mouse' Act, a mass of women surging through the doors of the House of Commons and actually plonking their bums on seats and taking up a whole load of room, was hope writ large, visually and actually.
In the recent 2015 General Election, just 29% of MP's are women, only increasing by 6% from 2010. The House of Lords is just 23% female. There wasn't a single Constituency that had an all female candidate list compared to 102 that were all male*.
Megan Beech, another fine and powerful performance poet, in her work 'Broader Broadcasting Corporation' talks about the need for us to see more women in very visible positions of authority in our media. For her it is not sufficient for women to be promoted and have equal pay and opportunity. We, women, girls as well as men and boys, need to observe women in positions of power and authority and I agree. For girls to have positive role models they need to see them. They need to see the full range of roles and positions that they could aspire to, take on and become.
I am older and much more cynical than my 1997 self. A significant part of me is astounded that in 2015 this is still an issue that is raging and far from resolved but, watching and listening to women like Ms's Beech and Kisuule greatly inspires me and gives me hope. Yes, there is so much work to be done but how wonderful that bright, eloquent, engaging, talented women are doing that work and doubtless there are many girls and women shouting the same message that may never get their voice on the radio or their face on the television, but they are working for the same goal.
I cast my mind back a little over fifteen years ago to my University tutorial and then forward about fifteen years and imagine that by 2030, we have stopped saying sorry for ourselves and are literally and very visibly, taking up space.
•Source: Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.