Bucks Federation member Deb Sanders was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from her MP to attend the 21st November 2018 #AskHerToStand event organised with the Fawcett Society, 50:50 Parliament in partnership with the Jo Cox Foundation, and the Centenary Action Group. The reception, exhibition and panel discussion was to mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 when women were first able to stand for Parliament.
|Photo credit: Deb Sanders|
Here she recounts her experiences during her day at Westminster.
It’s amazing where your WI membership can lead you! I’d never have thought I’d be going to a conference aiming for 50/50 gender representation in Parliament. After asking my MP, Dominic Grieve, for a formal invitation, within 48hrs I had an appointment to have coffee with him in Portcullis House, Westminster, even though I was a non-political delegate.
As I only found out about the opportunity to go on the event late in the day I missed applying for tickets for Prime Minister’s Question Time and the Women’s Equality Select committee but nonetheless my day was really interesting. I did make a complaint, as I had climbed up the two flights of stairs to register at the start of the day, and there was no provision for people with mobility issues.
In the exhibition all the political parties had a stand including the Women’s Equality Party. The Fawcett Society was advertising itself as “the largest women’s campaigning organisation in the UK” so I reminded them of the nearly quarter million WI members nationwide!
The next port of call was Portcullis House by Westminster station. 213 MPs have their offices in this impressive building so security is key. Once inside I waited in a communal area to be allowed in by my MP. We passed Laura Kuenssberg from the BBC holding a media interview. The meeting with Dominic Grieve was around thirty minutes – definitely not long enough to discuss either local or national politics but it was a good opportunity to ‘flag wave’ for the WI. We had an interesting discussion about the intense workload of MPs and how this can be so disruptive to family life.
Mr Grieve then escorted me through the tunnel that links Portcullis House to the Palace of Westminster and into Westminster Hall. What an impressive building, you could feel the years of history around you. A full size Lego model of Emily Pankhurst is currently on display (see photo). After thirty minutes to take in the splendour of this building, all participants gathered for a group photo with many female MPs including Harriet Harman, Penny Mordaunt and Amber Rudd.
Then back to Portcullis House and the dreaded security checks. This took so long that I missed a buffet lunch! However I made it in time for the keynote conference: ‘Ask Her to Stand’. The Rt.Hon Harriet Harman QC MP, Mother of the House, was the keynote speaker. Other women MP speakers included Vicky Ford, MP - Chair of the APPG on Women in Parliament, Layla Moran, Rosena Allin-Khan, Mhairi Black, Penny Mordaunt, Maria Miller and Helen Whately. The Q&A session was much more positive and friendly than BBC Question Time.
All spoke passionately about the rewards of being in Parliament and having the opportunity to make a difference. Despite the pressures and long hours, the job is rewarding was the unanimous thread. There are a few disadvantages: Penny Mordaunt had to turn down an evening with Hugh Grant so that a committee of which she was a member was quorate! Other threads were that women take years to make the decision to stand for Parliament and often lack the confidence to do so but that the collaborative nature of working together in Parliament was rewarding, and women seem to be more compassionate. ‘Women network together to communicate, men work together to gain information and power’ was another statement. ‘The dynamics of Westminster, and all other levels of local government change when there is a fairer representation of women’ was another thought. This was a powerful and uplifting session which left me with much to think about.
The final part of the day was a seminar event back in Church House where we’d registered. Delegates were looking at the problems of ‘hard to reach’ women in the community. It was suggested that the term used should be ‘Easy to Ignore Women’. I sat at a table with a group of women from a variety of backgrounds which included councillors from a very deprived area of the country. We all faced similar problems but I was impressed with the energy and compassion of these councillors who really understood their area and were so committed to action. Discussions ranged around measures that government can take and practical local solutions for these women with no ‘voice’. We all agreed that austerity has made social isolation a bigger issue and especially in adult education.
This was a fascinating day and I returned home with more questions than answers. Why was I there as a WI representative and what can we do to improve 50/50 representation at all levels of public life? The political parties are making great efforts to train and support women who wish to stand for election. This, however, creates a body of women who owe their allegiance to a party and less to a community.
I joined the WI thirty years ago. With the mentoring and friendship I received from local members I have chaired a number of committees, been a school governor, been a town councillor, and gained a Diploma in Stitched Textiles. The founding members of the WI were not afraid to campaign in public. The WI is in a unique position to encourage and train women to get involved in all levels of public life without the mantra of party politics. Are we doing enough? Have we got a little fluffy at the edges and concentrate too much on the craft and baking skills? It’s really hard to get local members inspired to campaign for our resolutions, should we be doing more to boost the confidence of members to speak in public and thus have the tools to be able to campaign?
It is time we had equal representation in all levels of local and national government but this requires giving women confidence and the tools to do the job. What can we as WI members do to facilitate this?