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Dawn Butler: Growing up with four brothers helped me navigate male-dominated Westminster

“I had to show that I could stand up completely on my own,” Dawn Butler told The Big Issue in her Letter to My Younger Self.

Dawn Butler speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool

2018 Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. IMAGE: Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo

The proportion of female MPs is at its highest ever in the UK, but women still make up only just over a third of representatives in the Commons. Labour’s Dawn Butler has faced both sexism and racism as the MP for Brent Central in London, but she says her family background – particularly growing up with four brothers – prepared her to hold her own.

In her Letter to My Younger Self interview in this week’s Big Issue, the former shadow minister for women and equalities said she had to develop a “loud voice” to be heard at the dinner table, honing the skills she needed in the male-dominated Commons years later.

“I had to formulate my arguments before I made them, I had to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and show that I could stand up completely on my own,” she said.

“Never underestimate your upbringing or the influence people have in your life, and how they formulate how you approach a situation, how you act, how you talk. It was that upbringing that made me who I am now.”

Butler says she was continually frustrated by the strict guidelines her parents imposed on her, and the future they insisted was appropriate for their daughters.

“I grew up in a very strict household,” she explains. “We were not allowed to do lots of things. I used to play in the steel band and I remember coming home from school one day to tell my parents the school wanted me to go to Trinidad to play in a steel band there. I was so excited. Can you imagine? And my mum said no. No was my mum’s favourite word. I was devastated. And of course I definitely was not allowed to have a boyfriend. It was very much, you get educated, you get a job, you get married, then you have kids.”

However, the strength and warmth of her family community was a crucial support.

“We’re a very close, very big family,” she added. “So much so that there was almost no room for friends. If you have a party, you’ve got 50 people before you even think of friends. But it was great because it was a very safe space.

“My dad was a musician and would sit me down and talk to me about words in songs, what the words meant. We would have meaningful conversations. Music is very important in a Jamaican family because it also symbolises freedom. Music was the way we communicated when Black people were enslaved. They were forced to not speak their language or not read, so they communicated through music. That is part of our rich tapestry of our history.”

Despite an enviable tenacity and a strength of will, it took years for her to believe she stood a chance of making it as an MP.

“Politics wasn’t my kind of thing because nobody looked like me in politics,” she reflected. “It was mainly white males who spoke posh. So I thought, politics really isn’t for me. Diane [Abbott] was an MP but even she spoke kind of posh. But then, in true Dawn style, I just went for it.”

Butler went on to make history as the first Black female MP in the Parliamentary Labour Party to speak at despatch box. But she still feels that the UK Parliament is not a welcoming place for women like her.

“It’s a very lonely job, being a politician. Because there’s always somebody that wants your job,” she said. “There’s always somebody ready to criticise you, especially if you’re a Black woman. If I make a mistake it’s amplified.

“If I do something great – oh my god, I’ve got to talk about it. I mean, I made history but it’s hardly ever referenced unless I reference it myself. And I feel like, excuse me, if you’d made history you’d be talking about it morning, noon and night. I’d like to go back to my younger self and say, ‘Blow your own trumpet Dawn, Blow hard on your own bloody trumpet’.”

Big Issue issue 1578 cover - featuring vendor Bex and her dog Rainbow

Read Dawn Butler’s full Letter To My Younger Self in this week’s Big Issue, available until 27 August.

A Purposeful Life by Dawn Butler is out now (Transworld, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today. Or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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