Book review: The Women Who Shaped Politics
Sophy Ridge celebrates leading women in politics while documenting the sexism that they faced.
Women have arrived at the top in politics. The UK has its second female prime minister, Germany has its first ever female chancellor, Scotland and Northern Ireland both have female first ministers, women currently lead the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives and Hillary Clinton came closer than any woman to the White House.
So is that it? Well up to a point as Sophy Ridge points out in The Women Who Shaped Politics. Her book is not a serious overview of the subject but concentrates on the experience of the UK. It is very much a personal narrative that unreservedly centres on Westminster and the author’s own area of knowledge and expertise.
Ridge flags up to the reader that it is highly selective and there are omissions. She begins her story with Queen Mary and the Bill of Rights, a point at which she claims Parliament begins to emerge from the miasma of history in a recognisable form.
The book explores the question of culture and the attitude of men and society to women who work. Ridge would claim to have direct experience of this as she has worked all her life in the media having until recently been Sky’s senior political correspondent. She knows all about male prejudice and the strong tradition in the work place for men to dominate women, with differentials in pay and conditions and in politics the belief that women just couldn’t cope with the rough and tumble, and in any case were far too emotional.
Ridge has been asked about the thesis of her book. It is not intended to be a dense text of academic theory. Instead she hopes that it would be seen as a simple celebration of women in politics and the compelling, tragic, uplifting stories of the shoulders on which our current leaders stand.
The author shows that for most of the period until the 1920s women were supportive but marginalised in political discourse. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sending communications to influential men was, for many early female voters, the most effective way of influencing political debate in a period where public speaking was frowned upon.
Ridge shows that women who wanted to be involved in active politics used the route of reforming the legal constraints placed upon them. Reformers like the eighteenth century Mary Wollstonecraft acted in a period where little progress had been made towards educational equality, and the reality for women who block marriage laws were essentially property rights and everything a woman owned belonged to her husband.
A series of intelligent, articulate and forceful women slowly persuaded men to change the law, and without that process there would have been little in the way of progress. The rights of working class women were slow to improve, not least because of class conservatism by these very women.
Ridge documents the divisions within the suffragette movement, and how a minority were prepared to use violence, excluding killing, to persuade the male establishment to change the electoral laws. In fact whilst Nancy Astor was the first elected MP, Constance Georgine Markievicz was the first elected MP who did not take up her seat. Looking back on the last century one is struck by just how slow the progress was in getting women elected and in government gaining ministerial office. All too often women were side-lined into minor appointments and very much on the welfare side – Margaret Thatcher is a case in point.
Ridge shows that the women who succeeded had immense determination, worked very hard and could not easily be characterised as women libers. Both Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher, in different ways just got on with the job, and in the case of Castle received a lot of backing from Harold Wilson. Quite rightly, Ridge says the great change came in the 1997 election when a mass of new Labour women MPs were elected, many of them as a consequence of all women short lists for selection. It took the Conservatives a decade to start to catch up, not least due to the work done by Theresa May.
Ridge documents the sexism that women have faced in parliament – everything from provision of facilities to sexist comments from male MPs. She interviews a number of contemporary female MPs who complain about being barracked and insulted. Your reviewer would gently point out that in twenty years in the House he has noted how a number of female MPs are just as robust. So great changes but more to come.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and book editor for Total Politics.