The Natural Rebels: Women of Westminster Who Changed Politics

It’s almost 100 years since Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons. On her first appearance in the House, she was physically stopped from sitting down by her male colleagues, whilst ‘supposed’ close friends Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain ‘would blank her in the corridors’.

Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics is by Rachel Reeves MP. Published by IB Tauris (£18.99) 

Scanning the headlines from a tumultuous week in British Politics, you’d be forgiven for thinking little had changed in our attitude towards women MPs. Labour MP Stella Creasy has outlined how MPs endure physical risks on a daily basis; from the lack of maternity and paternity arrangements to the threats of stalking – which Creasy has been subjet to for the last decade – by a man who ‘showered’ her with bizarre gifts because he ‘wanted her to be his wife’

Then there was Conservative MP Mark Field, who manhandled a female protestor at the Chancellor’s annual Mansion House speech. Tory outriders, such as the ever-increasingly right-wing Jonny Mercer, defended the response, urging the public to ‘try being in our shoes… if you think this is ‘serious violence’, you may need to recalibrate your sensitivities’. Mercer’s ‘be thankful this wasn’t worse’ – whether he intended it or not – is the language of a domestic abuser.

The Conservative Party appear to have ‘jumped the moral shark’, happy to ignore the police being called to Boris Johnson’s home following a domestic argument with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds. Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man who enjoys lecturing women on pregnancy – dismissed the intervention as the ‘antics of curtain twitching neighbours’. Yet anyone with the slightest understanding of domestic abuse cases will understand how intervention, and recording of such incidents, have proved vital in protecting women. Such loose behaviour adds up – as Paul Mason has argued in Clear Bright Future – to an alarming pattern of misogyny that now unites elements of the alt-right movement. 

History shows us that it is women MPs that have been at the forefront of the battle against misogyny. Battling ‘against the odds’ is a prevalent theme of  Rachel Reeves new book the Women of Westminster: The MPs who Changed Politics. Whether it was Ellen Wilkinson challenging her own party over the cause of the Jarrow Marchers or Barbara Castle fighting for equal pay,  the injection of women into Parliament has radically altered our national life.


The recent BBC documentary series Mrs Thatcher: A Very British Revolution offered viewers a stark reminder of the attitude of male MPs towards women in leadership. In the documentary, former Labour MP Shirley Williams recounts the rare moments of female solidarity between her and Mrs Thatcher; telling her that ‘we must not let the men get the better of us’.

It was Thatcher’s bravery in standing against Edward Heath – when the more experienced colleagues around her refused to – that was rewarded when she became the first female leader of a British political party in 1975.  Her party underestimated her. As she grew into the leadership role, her Cabinet admitted to finding it awkward to debate her, having been brought up in a public school environment where ‘you never talk back to women’.

Thatcher and Williams: The battle to be Prime Minister

Labour underestimated Margaret Thatcher throughout her political career. In 1975, many within the Labour Cabinet heralded her leadership victory as ‘winning us the next election’. Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle immediately sensed that the political landscape would be different.

Remember, it was Williams, not Thatcher, who had been championed as Britain’s first potential female Prime Minister. As early as 1967 when the Sunday Times identified her as having a ‘prime minister’s baton in her briefcase’. As Rachel Reeves outlines in Women of Westminster, Williams was the subject of much attention in the Commons and continually had ‘her bottom pinched by male MPs’ to the extent that she wore stiletto heels to fight back the offenders.

Such sexism was not new to her. Before entering politics, Williams was barred from penning Financial Times editorials when she worked there as a journalist on account of it being ‘a man’s job’. At University, Williams had fought to get women elected to the Oxford Union, writing in Isis that the restriction of women meant they were ‘debarred, in effect, not just from a private club, but from full participation in University life’.

By the mid-1970s, the tide was slowly shifting. The Sun welcomed the introduction of the Equal Pay and the Sex Discrimination Act and in 1974 they crowned Shirley Williams as Woman of the Year and the ‘most likely’ person to become the UK’s first female PM. When Mrs Thatcher became Conservative leader, the media were quick to antagonise Williams arguing that ‘any chance of her becoming Labour leader was now scorched.’ 

Williams June 7th 1984.jpg
Williams was depicted as a ‘dazzling flirt’ by the media

It would be Mrs Thatcher who became the apple of The Sun’s eye over the next decade. Devoid of the top job, the media instead focussed on the ‘sex appeal’ of Williams. Robin Day, the prime political interviewer of the era, claimed she was ‘the most celebrated undergraduate of her time’ with a stream of prospective students vying for her affection. When Williams left Labour to form the SDP in the early 1980s, she was increasingly attacked for her switch from a ‘cuddly’ persona to a ‘serious’ person with ambitions to be Prime Minister.

The Sun became her biggest critic depicting her as a flirtatious tease’ for ‘changing her mind’ between Labour and the SDP. Such depictions of Williams ‘sex appeal’ remains present today. Just a few years ago, the Daily Mail referred to her as ‘the dazzling flirt’ who was a ‘devilishly flirty minx’ compiling a list of serious interviews for their site with the caption ‘Williams when she was a dazzling flirt’.

The Joyless Feminist 

It was during the 1980s that women MPs moved from being ‘flirtatious’ to ‘joyless’ in the media. The culture of male-dominated politics was challenged by a new group of Labour MPs, which included Harriet Harman. Reeves charts how the group ‘challenged the structural injustices that kept women from fulfilling their potential in public and private life’

Harman, before becoming an MP, challenged the Labour Party to be more accommodating to women. Writing in Tribune, she took on the male-dominated Bennite-wing of the party, arguing that ‘the debate about the alternative economic strategy has been almost wholly confined to male trade unionists and economists.’

Elected as an MP in 1982, Reeves recounts how Harman’s pregnancy was used against her in the Peckham by-election by Dick Taverne – the SDP candidate – who warned voters ‘she would not be able to do the job’ as a result. Harman’s victory, however, marked the beginning of a new era for women MPs as she joined ten others on the Labour side in a Commons that was 97% male. Working on campaigns to tackle domestic violence and sexual harassment, Harman became a hate-figure for the right-wing media along with Clare Short took on The Sun over the use of page three. In challenging the darker side of page three, she proved to be ahead of her time:

The pictures in The Sun, besides being demeaning to women, distort and corrupt men’s idea of sexuality and their conception of the sexual relations that they may have. They are damaging, and possibly affect the climate that allows the incidence of rape to increase. That is my objection.


Short’s radical intervention into the debate on censorship was chastised by newspapers and MPs alike. The Sun dismissed the notion that ‘topless pictures’ could ‘encourage men to commit sex attacks’. Even sympathetic male MPs refused to engage in the subject arguing that  ‘Clare can speak better on this subject than I can because of the difference in our sexes.’ Short continued her campaign in 1988 arguing that:

I have talked to teachers, including my brother. He asks children to bring newspapers to school for use in discussing current affairs or for making paper mâché, and so on. Both he and the children are embarrassed by the children’s reaction to the page three pictures.”

Tackling such issues was not without consequence. Short became the ‘go-to’ figure for the ‘joyless loony left’ and was nicknamed ‘killjoy Clare’ for the next decade. The Sun took it upon themselves to attempt to destroy her morale by sending busloads of Page Three girls to picket outside her mother’s house, to the delight of Kelvin Mackenzie. At one stage, a newspaper believed they had photographs of Short in her nightwear before she pointed out that someone had superimposed her head on another body.  However, the anti-page three campaign drew in lots of support, which she outlined in an essay for Dear Clare:

Hundreds of women told me how they had hated the pictures for years but never dared to object because they would be accused of being jealous. They said how happy they were to find out that other women felt as they did.

Short was somewhat vindicated in 2015 when the Sun scrapped page three after 44 years. Short and Harman faced a hostile media and a hostile House of Commons whilst Labour remained in opposition in the 1990s. A video emerged last year of Harman being heckled by Tory MPs-  in 1996 – ‘as a stupid cow’. The speaker – another pioneering woman in Betty Boothroyd – forced an apology from the Conservative MP.

As the 1997 General Election approached, Labour women became greater targets for media attacks. In April 1997, the Daily Mail posted photographs of Mo Mowlam, asking ‘why is she so big?’ and ‘look what she’s done to her hair’. Commenting on her size, the paper claimed she had ‘shoulders like Frank Bruno and bears an undeniable resemblance to an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker.’

Daily Mail attack on Mo Mowlam prior to the 1997 General Election

Enter Blair’s ‘Babes’

A significant change occurred at the 1997 General Election when the number of women MPs in the Commons doubled overnight. Momentum recently argued that New Labour’s ‘legacy was the austerity that followed’ Blair’s ‘failure to stand up to big finance’. Yet Reeves highlights the changes which occurred between 1997 and 2007 to the culture of politics, due to the sheer number of new women MPs. Yvette Cooper recalls how some of the older Tories just couldn’t cope with the idea of there being so many women’.

Initially dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’, the now infamous picture of the group with Tony Blair now has ‘something a bit handmaiden-ish about it’ in the eyes of Jacqui Smith. Retrospectively this may be the case, but it is important to acknowledge how the media began to speak of women MPs in a more positive manner post-1997. The Daily Mail, for example, was forced to pay homage to the new intake:

Mail Front Page

Moreover, as Harriet Harman argues, the increased number of MPs shaped Labour’s progressive policy for the next decade; from ‘plans for childcare and maternity rights’ to tacking ‘domestic violence’, the change ‘transformed the political dynamic in the PLP’. Reeves argues, quite rightly, that ‘the New Labour era marked a distinct shift towards women-focussed policies’.

This progress cannot negate from Harman’s own criticism of Gordon Brown’s sexism as Prime Minister. In refusing to appoint her as Deputy Prime Minister – despite being Deputy Leader of Labour – the party missed a great opportunity to break new ground. As such, sexism within the Labour Party remains its Achilles heel. In the late 1970s, a question was posed to Shirley Williams that it was Labour who had its bigger share of male chauvinists, particularly in the trade union movement when compared to the Conservatives who had elected a female leader. Williams predicted the ‘great day’ when nobody would ask about ‘women in politics’. She hoped that before her time in politics was over, nobody would remark about a ‘woman Foreign Secretary’ or ‘a woman Chancellor’.

Williams time in politics is over and neither of those aims has been achieved. Whilst there has been a distinct improvement – in terms of the representation and the working conditions for MPs –  a new set of challenges have emerged. A continuous stream of online rape and death threats have put MPs in a more dangerous position than ever. It is why the seemingly irrelevant ‘low-level misogyny’, accepted by the Mercer’s and Mogg’s of this world, must be rooted out at every opportunity.  The Labour Party, meanwhile, has still not come close to electing a woman leader. It is an ever-increasing source of shame. Rachel Reeves book shows us that it is often women MPs that have taken the first bold steps to enact huge change, at great personal expense, in the face of a hostile media environment. It is that kind of rebellious spirit that Britain – and the Labour Party – so desperately needs today.

One thought on “The Natural Rebels: Women of Westminster Who Changed Politics

  1. Pingback: Fightback in 2020: Tides of History Books of the Year – Anthony Broxton

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