If we were to ask a school child to name a female politician, past or present, who do you think they would name?
As a feminist, and a socialist, I am saddened that the UK’s most famous woman politician is Margaret Thatcher.
Furthermore, her legacy is such that this country is still marked by her two terms as Prime Minister, with dangerously conservative ideology taking grip once again on UK politics.
While there are many women involved in politics, most do not make it to Parliament. At present there are 145 female MPs compared to 505 male MPs. This means that only 22% of our MPs are the same gender as 52% of this country’s population.
It’s baffling. However, that isn’t the only baffling statistic: out of our 650 MPs, only 28 are black or ethnic minority — that’s 4%! And even though there are some MPs under the age of 30, the average age is 50, which highlights the absence of young people and their opinions from Parliament.
Criticising this country’s decision makers is the easy part though. The problem that socialists, feminists and BME campaigners have so far struggled with is changing these statistics. We need a government that is truly representative.
The liberal feminist Fawcett Society has been running a campaign for many years now that calls for one in four MPs to be female.
We need 17 more women in government for this to be achieved, but what will that really achieve?
Will these women be able to empathise with the lived experiences of the women that they represent? I think that is quite unlikely.
Calling for more women to be present in Parliament will most likely only invite more politicians from elite universities, with little understanding of the struggle that most women have juggling work and family commitments, and juggling the costs of rent, bills, childcare, and transport to work to pay for it all.
Now I realise that news of our government being predominantly white, male and middle aged is far from a ground-breaking revelation, and I realise that I am far from the first person to suggest that such liberal tactics as a call for quotas in official bodies do not work, so what is our alternative?
We need to encourage more working-class women to become politically active so that they can tackle Theresa May and Louise Mensch on their own turf.
There are major obstacles to women becoming more engaged in politics, such as less free time (often due to childcare), less disposable income (for literature and travel to meetings), and, due to socially encouraged gender differences, a tendency to be less vocal in debates and discussion. This is where our efforts as feminists must be focused.
It is our role to address not only women-specific problems, but also women-specific experiences of wider problems. Furthermore it is our responsibility to promote self-education and build confidence in public speaking and writing. Women and active in grassroots activism in their local communities is just as valuable — if not more so — than the women visible in Parliament.
Having more people of all backgrounds and identities campaigning is our first major step toward a government that is more representative of the majority of people living in this country — all gender identities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sexualities.
Is there a need for quotas, such as the Fawcett Society’s FMP campaign? Arguably, yes. Trade unions have women’s, black members’, occasionally young members’, and low income members’ chairs on their committees to ensure that diversity is encouraged. But these are supported by the ongoing campaigns of their respective self-organised groups.
A demand for 25% female representation in government must be supported by politically active women in the wider population. Now that’s a campaign I’d get behind.