Harpy friend gherkinfiend kindly volunteered recently to fill us all in on what’s been going on in the UK and what it means for women.
The United Kingdom has just held a General Election, the first since the economic crisis unfolded. Yet you probably haven’t heard about it, because despite being probably the most important election in the country for a generation, the whole affair has been surprisingly muted. Part of this is probably due to the famed British stiff upper lip that abhors a fuss and some was due to the political uncertainty that suggested Britain was heading for its first hung Parliament in over 30 years. The whole campaign seemed slightly apologetic and rather subdued.
And nowhere more so than for the female electorate. In a country where women make up over 50% of population and have long been acknowledged to be the most important cross-section of voters in General Elections, a casual observer could easily have thought that women neither have the full vote or are eligible to represent the electorate.
Right from the announcement of the electoral campaign in early April, it became obvious that this was not to be an election where women were invited to join in on a level playing field. This was abundantly obvious in the treatment of the most senior female politician in the country, Harriet Harman, then Deputy leader of the Labour party. She stood to be in charge of the country (albeit temporarily) if the party retained their majority, but Gordon Brown resigned, yet she was barely seen in public throughout the campaign, even in her London constituency. When she finally appeared on a televised BBC debate in the last week of the campaign in her role as Minister for Women and Equality, the questions centred around her support of abandoning all women shortlists in a constituency where her husband was running for Parliament. While this was a major policy reversal for the whole Labour party, it was presented mainly as a woman being wholly accountable for her husband’s actions.
Despite challenges such as this, more female candidates stood in this election than any previous contest, giving the opportunity for the first female Muslim MPs and black female Conservative MPs in Britain to be elected. Instead of focusing on these women’s political aspirations and experiences, the press continually referred to them as Cameron’s Cuties, Brown’s Babes and even Nick’s Nymphets and featured them in make over style photoshoots in the Sunday glossies rather than the main paper. Even the fact that two of the smaller political parties, the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland and the UK-wide Green Party, were being led by women was totally sidelined.
Instead all the focus on women in the election was on on the wives of the three main party leaders, particularly Samantha Cameron who happens to be pregnant. While female MPs struggled to be seen on the campaign trails and women’s issues took a backseat, the press squealed with glee when it turned out Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah had oddly shaped toes. Little mention was made of her work to reduce maternal mortality worldwide, but every frock was scrutinised as if it might be the new Prime Minister on May 6th. I half expected these three dynamic women who capably combine motherhood with high flying careers to be asked to bake a nice cake and pack a lunch for their husbands when they appeared on the new televised Prime Ministerial debates that formed the cornerstone of the election campaign.
None of these women, let alone the campaigning MPs were allowed to speak out on female-centric issues such as the UK’s shameful 6% rape conviction, the fact that 2 British women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, the fact that maternal mortality in the UK is higher than Albania or the fact that British women still only earn 83 pence in the pound for the same job as a man despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Even issues such social housing provision, education and strategies to eradicate child poverty which proportionately affect women more were barely mentioned. Instead all three parties chose to concentrate on ‘the family’ with these policies mainly focusing on Working Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits which are paid to low income couples with children to supplement their income. Childcare provision was rightly discussed by all parties. However the Tories put forward a tax break for married couples while insinuating that the majority of benefit claimants (predominantly women) were in some way scrounging or fraudulent.
Even as a single childless woman, I understand that childcare and the concerns of parenthood are of course an extremely important issue for many women, but it is patronising to assume that women only care about the issues that affect their offspring or potential offspring. This obsession with women as the sole source of parenting excludes fathers and reinforces gender stereotypes for further generations. It suggests women are only as important as the product of their wombs. Ironically abortion is not the election issue here in the UK that it is in the US, but yet the predominantly male politicians have still managed to reduce women solely to their ability to reproduce.
It also completely ignores the vast number of women in the UK who are not mothers to children under 18 (as well as being heteronormative and managing to exclude all single childless men too). This disportionally affects women over 50, reminding them that their importance in society wanes as their fertility does. It also ignores the estimated 20% of women who are childfree by choice in the UK. In fact it somehow manages to patronise practically every woman in the UK individually.
Despite this minimization of women throughout the campaign, Britain actually elected its highest number of female MPs yet with women making up 22% of the 650 seats in Parliament. Both the female led SDLP and Green Party gained MPs and increased their share of the vote. Three Muslim women were elected for Labour while the Conservative party got their first black female and openly lesbian MPs. It was actually a succesful evening for female representation, but these achievements were barely mentioned. Instead the focus was on Jacqui Smith, first female Home Secretary in the UK, losing her seat over her expense claims for pornographic films watched by her husband. This wasn’t even seen an opportunity to address the loss of feminist politicians in Westminster, but more as a chance to snigger smuttily about porn and women like a saucy seaside postcard.
With this depressing backdrop, Britain moved toward the first hung Parliament since 1974 and political attention focused on the coalition talks between the unlikely bedfellows of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Five days of intense discussion culminated last night in the formation of first coalition government since the Second World War. Not a single women sat at the talks for either the Tories or the Lib Dems, but I’m sure they were encouraged to make sandwiches and keep the tea flowing behind the scenes…
The details of the historic Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition began to emerge as Gordon Brown resigned and David Cameron became the new Prime Minister. We started to hear what concessions each party had won on the route to power and Cabinet seats started to be announced. At the time of writing, only one woman, Theresa May, has been offered a Cabinet seat, making the previous government’s paltry 4 female Cabinet seats look generous.
Britain’s political climate is fraught and tense right now as the electorate waits to see if the coalition government can work together in a time of deep financial deficit and make the country more stable. Defense, immigration, taxes and education are the main areas mentioned for the parties to work on. It remains to see if any of these policies will address their specific impact on women or if either of parties in power will realise that tackling female-centric issues such as rape conviction rates is in fact beneficial for the electorate as a whole?
As a lifelong Liberal Democrat voter who has always opposed the Conservatives, I do not feel positive about the next five years as a female voter in the UK. I anticipate the coalition giving privately educated straight male politicians the opportunity to squabble like schoolkids over issues that directly them, while ignoring those that keep women safe and respected in society. It’s either time to retreat to a bunker somewhere and live off the land or emigrate…I doubt any of the politicians will miss this hard to please feminist!