This week I will stand up in front a group of teenage girls at a school in Westminster with the theme – how to make it in politics. Or more accurately, how to make it as a woman in politics.
As we mark the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote, the topic has never been more urgent. As anyone who has seen the headlines in recent weeks knows, sexism and sexual behaviour have dominated the news. Just today as I marked on Facebook the centenary of some women securing the right to vote I received a comment from a man called Jesse Farmer, who I do not know, telling me to ‘stop talking crap and use my vagina for what it was given me for’. Well Mr Farmer I have, thank you very much, having given birth twice. Maternity didn’t prevent me going into public life having being first elected while seven months pregnant, and with a toddler in tow.
More recently, we have had a spirited debate on statues in Parliament Square which bears heavily on women in politics. Westminster City Council’s planning committee has just turned down a statue of Baroness Thatcher, amid an initial outcry this represented a snub to one of the most significant Prime Ministers of the 20th century. The reality was more prosaic – the Thatcher family didn’t like the statue. I am in favour of a statue of Baroness Thatcher in Parliament Square. Whether you admire or revile her, Baroness Thatcher was the country’s first female premier and paved the way for others to follow.
Last year, Westminster City Council gave the go-ahead for a statue of a more historic – but equally significant – woman in the form of Millicent Fawcett, founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. This bronze effigy will be the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square.
I am not the first woman leader of Westminster Council (the third in fact), but I can offer a thought on what it takes to get here. I did not come from a gilded political dynasty; I went to a comprehensive school in Cardiff and honed my politics as a Conservative in Wales (which at that time was a lonely occupation). As a Conservative activist in my 20s, I saw on the party conference circuit the casual sexism which was then still baked through the world of politics. As a strong woman, you were inured to this kind of activity and told foolish older men simply to behave. One of my concerns is that the current debate on sexual misdemeanours is at risk of conflating often intoxicated “men behaving badly” antics with the behaviour of serious sexual predators, for which there is never any excuse.
What is it like being a female leader? The same to being a male one. You make the same judgements as men, albeit sometimes informed by a different life experience. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has tellingly observed that nobody in the media refers to “the first male leader of a technology company”. On a light-hearted note, Marjorie Scardino, former head of Pearson PLC, was once asked by a journalist what it was like to be the first woman chief executive of a FTSE 100 company. “Well, I’m the only one that wears a dress”, she replied in her laconic Texan drawl.
We need young women to see politics as something that matters; an activity that rewards commitment. In recent weeks I have seen some great women candidates in local selections, so I know the talent pool is there, but it isn’t coming through regularly enough. Consider that at 49, I am the youngest female member of the Conservative group in Westminster.
I will tell my class of teenage young women: the way is clear for you to go as far as your talents will take you. And remember the debt you owe to those women of a century ago who fought unfairness with astonishing personal bravery. Mark their achievement; be worthy of their praise.
Nickie Aiken is leader of Westminster Council