Let’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs.But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. Relative to their presence in the population, the numbers of BME MPs needed to have doubled in 2017. It rose from 41 to 52 (8% of the House). Five disabled MPs have been elected (an increase of three from 2015), but this amounts to less than 1% of the House’s membership – compared to 1 in 5 of the population that self-identify as disabled.

In terms of women’s representation, we saw a small increase of 12 more female MPs. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women in the House of Commons was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). But these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

No doubt we’ll be accused of being ‘feminist killjoys’ but there are very real risks in not contesting the plethora of upbeat media accounts. It, wrongly, suggests that: (1) the job is done: the ‘problem’ of women’s representation has been solved; or (2) gender equality is on its way (#justbepatientladies).

If only we could be that optimistic.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  • Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in forecasting the ‘number of years’ it will take to achieve equality projections.
  • Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  • Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from all of the parties, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying the 2017 GE as ‘record-breaking’ for women is lazy journalism that belies the reality, and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (Check out The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, it is time for legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. Without them, the search party will not be called off anytime soon.

This article was originally published on the UK PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog

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Bad Habits? France’s ‘Burkini ban’ in Historical Perspective

This article was written by Dr Carmen Mangion from Birkbeck’s Department of  History, Classics and Archaeology. The article was originally published on the History Workshop Online‘s blog.

The ‘burkini ban’ issued by 30 French beach towns at the end of July 2016 sparked a media frenzy. Town mayors saw the burkini, the full-body swimsuit favoured by some Muslim women as a means of maintaining modesty while enjoying the sea, as a symbol of Islamic extremism and a threat to ‘good morals and secularism’. France’s 1905 constitution separates Church and State, and embraces a laïcité (a secularism in public affairs which prohibits religious expression) meant to limit religion’s influence on its citizens though still allowing freedom of religion. It originated as a means of eliminating the influence of the Catholic Church.Following ministerial criticism, France’s top administrative court investigated the ‘burkini ban’, ruling in late August that it violated basic freedoms.

Nuns at the beach

Nuns at the beach (Facebook/Izzeddin Elzir)

Amidst this furore, Italian Imam Izzedin Elzir’s image of nuns on the beach in their religious habits triggered an international media response. The image, appearing across social media and in outlets as prominent as the New York Times, implied the hypocrisy of a ban targeting Muslims and ignoring Christians. The photos were ironic on two counts:

First, some French mayors were emphatic that nuns in habits were also forbidden on beaches.

Second, and more apposite to this blog post, both the media and ‘ordinary’ citizens seem to be unaware that the ‘nun’ on the streets of Paris (and elsewhere) once sparked a similar outrage.

The historical context was of course different (it always is), but the indignation and the drive to control women’s appearance was just as virulent. Such outrage was not limited to France, but as the ‘burkini ban’ was initiated by the French, it seems appropriate to begin with this bit of French history.

The French revolution of the 1790s, with its cry of liberté, égalité, fraternité was not such a good thing for Catholic nuns. The nun, in her religious habit, became a symbol of the Catholic Church’s role in upholding the inequities and injustices of the ruling classes within France. Catholic nuns, then fully habited, were visible on the streets of Paris as educators, nurses and providers of social welfare, and became targets of anti-clerical outrage. The republican political regime set French nuns ‘free’ from their lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and their religious habit. It closed convents and confiscated their property. Some members of religious communities weren’t so willing to be set free, however, and were imprisoned. They were told to remove their religious habits (made illegal in 1792) and instead wear secular garb. Nuns including the Carmelites of Compiègne and the Daughters of Charity of Arras were executed for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

French citizens also made their umbrage against nuns known. One 1791 print representing revolutionary anticlericalism, La Discipline patriotique or le fanatisme corrige (‘The patriotic discipline or fanaticism corrected’), showed the market women of Paris’s les Halles disrobing and thrashing the religious fanaticism out of a group of nuns. Such disciplining of women’s bodies was both salicious and violent.

la_discipline_patriotique_ou_le_-_btv1b69446090

The patriotic discipline or Fanaticism corrected (La Discipline patriotique ou le fanatisme corrigée) (Image: BnF/Gallica)

This urge to control the religious ‘fanaticism’ of women and monitor their clothing choices was not only a French issue; it had earlier incarnations. The dissolution of the monasteries in England in the mid-sixteenth century also ‘freed’ nuns and monks from their vows — and their property. English women’s response to this was to form English convents in exile, many in France and Belgium. In the 1790s English nuns fled, often surreptitiously, back to England. But penal laws restricting Catholic practices were still in effect and English bishops initially discouraged nuns from wearing their religious habit. English citizens too showed their indignation for female religious life by throwing epithets and stones at nuns; the Salford house of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul was set alight in 1847. Similar events happened in the United States. Most notoriously the Ursuline convent in Charleston, South Carolina was burned down in the 1830s by anti-nun rioters. In the Netherlands, in Spain, in Belgium, in Germany and more recently in Eastern and Central Europe, nuns were also targeted. Women in religious clothing were (and are) easy targets of vitriol and violence.

So burkinied Muslim women and habited Catholic nuns have far more in common than one might think. The nun’s religious habit, like the burkini, has links to religious identity as counter to cultural norms. Critics say that women in burkinis challenge the French secular way of life. History shows that the habited nun also challenged both a republican version of Frenchness and also an English version of Englishness.

Within this context, the burkini furore illustrates two points.

First, it is yet another disappointing reminder that women’s bodies and appearances remain far too often more relevant (and newsworthy) than women’s intellects and voices. Clothing regulations are an excuse to control women and to divert attention from more substantive issues. They are a means of enforcing a societal version of femininity that doesn’t allow for difference. Women choosing to wear religious dress (or dress associated with religious affiliation) should not be stigmatised.

Second, by focusing on the burkini, we forget the more salient issue of figuring out how diverse people can live together peacefully. It is the social, economic and political factors that need attention: cultural inclusion, high unemployment and participation in civic life. Criminalising what women wear on the beach doesn’t even come close to addressing these issues.

Further Reading:

  • Carmen Mangion, ‘Avoiding “rash and Imprudent measures”: English Nuns in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1801’ in Communities, Culture and Identity: The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800 edited by Caroline Bowden and James E. Kelly (Ashgate, 2013), pp. 247-63.
  • Gemma Betros, ‘Liberty, Citizenship and the Suppression of Female Religious Communities in France, 1789-90’, Women’s History Review, 18 (2009), 311–36
  • For a robust comparison of nineteenth-century American nativism to the politics of Islam see José Casanova, ‘The Politics of Nativism Islam in Europe, Catholicism in the United States’, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 38 (2012), 485–95. A short and accessible version of this essay can be found here.
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Invisible Women

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on the LRB blog.

I heard that the octogenarian Joan Didion was to be the ‘new face’ of the Parisian luxury brand Céline when I was in the middle of commenting on a new monograph by Margaret Gullette called How Not to Shoot Old People. It documents countless grim instances of neglect and contempt for the elderly across a vast ageist spectrum. We oldies live in schizoid times.

Old fashionistas are suddenly all the rage (if hardly plentiful) at Vogueand Dolce & Gabbana. Living longer, old people can be encouraged to consume more, especially by cosmetic and fashion industries promising to keep us looking streamlined and elegant. We may, undesirably, be no longer young, but we can at least dutifully defer to the dictates of fashion. Didion even has the skinny look of a fashion model: hardly an inch of flesh, mere bones on which to hang clothes and accessories.

Meanwhile, social media trolls pour forth hate speech against the elderly. Only occasionally is it directed at those with the resources to resist, such as Mary Beard. Older women in need of care regularly report being treated with impatience or disdain, but only the most scandalous cases of neglect attract public notice. There were mild complaints five years ago when Martin Amis, in the Sunday Times, called for euthanasia booths to deal with the threatening ‘silver tsunami’ of old people who would soon be ‘stinking out’ the streets of London. He said he could ‘imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time’. His words resonate with the constant hum of alarm – almost panic – about the increasing numbers of elderly people, with our distinctive needs.

The most terrifying images of old age – the witch, hag, harridan – have always had a female face, whether in myth, folktale or horror movie. This can have stark material consequences. Women are twice as likely as men to end up living alone in old age, with no companion to care for them. Their pensions are generally smaller, too, as they are confined to fewer areas of the labour market, paid less, and more likely to have taken time out from their jobs to look after other people. In September 2013, the Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women provided stark evidence of the continuing invisibility of older women in public life. Eighty-two per cent of BBC presenters over the age of 50 are men. More generally, unemployment among women aged between 50 and 64 had increased by 41 per cent cent in the previous two and a half years, compared with 1 per cent overall.

In this dismal landscape, it is pleasing that ‘Fabulous Fashionistas’, older women with a flair for bright, distinctive dressing, were sought out and celebrated on TV last year. They were presented as role models for invisible women everywhere. The programme’s producer, Sue Bourne,confessed it had taken her two years to find the half dozen confidently colourful and stylish older women in the UK, but she’s hoping they are setting a trend. Perhaps Didion will boost that trend: her chic self-presentation mirrors her precise, elegant prose. Didion will never frighten the children, unlike the ‘old woman of skin and bones’ in the playground song, who goes ‘to the closet to get her broom’, and may fatten them up for supper. Didion represents instead the cheery resilience that the government and media look for in those older women who are allowed a certain visibility to tell us all how to grow old gracefully. We must all keep looking healthy and feisty; making few demands on others, and least of all on the public purse.

Didion offers the ironic detachment of a woman able to see through the duplicities and deceptions that any celebration of ageing cloaks, knowing that our culture continues to worship youth, and youth alone. Let’s rejoice that she can ride these contradictions, at least for now. As one young fashion model said, ‘It’s so cool, it hurts.’ Quite.

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