Harriet Harman: “I’m gutted there’s been no female Labour Prime Minister”

Harriet Harman MP on being a stroppy teenager, her lack of maternal self-esteem - and being 'born into the sisterhood'

I was a fuming teenager. They talk about the angry young man – I was the angry young woman. I looked at my mother cooking my dad’s breakfast, then his dinner, not having been able to practise as a lawyer even though she’d qualified because she had to prioritise being a housewife. And I thought no way, that’s not going to be me. I didn’t want to accept a world in which the only value of a woman was whether she looked good.

My mother never said to us, I want you to have the opportunities that I didn’t. She didn’t wring her hands. That would have been like complaining, not accepting her role. She just got on with it. But she and my dad were very keen for us all to get an education so that we could make our own living and stand on our own two feet and have our own opinions. And my three sisters and I turned into pretty rebellious teenagers.

I was very driven as a teenager but it wasn’t all politics. There was The Jackson 5. There were mini skirts, Mary Quant and vast black plastic eyelashes you stuck on the top of your eyelid. It’s a miracle I didn’t blind myself, and that I have a single eyelash left. But when I look back I see myself as being consumed by this strong attitude. I wasn’t the only one. My sisters all thought the same. I was born into the sisterhood! There was a whole generation of women popping up saying, yes, we know it’s always been like this but it isn’t going to be like this any more.

There were mini skirts, Mary Quant and vast black plastic eyelashes

I think the 16-year-old me was probably quite annoying. I was contrary, non-compliant. Stroppy is probably the word. I look back and feel a bit sorry for my mum having to cope with me. She bore it with good grace but I think I must have been a bit of a nightmare. I wouldn’t want to go back to that turbulent time. To have all those questions ahead of you. I don’t have any nostalgia for being 16. I think being 66 and having a sense of who I am and what I’ve done is far preferable.

If I could go back to my younger self I’d tell her not to feel so tortured by the guilt that comes with being a mother and a Labour politician trying to get Labour into government. That anxiety that you’re doing neither properly and you’re caught between the two. I was very, very anguished but think now there’s no way to get that right, and so many ways you can get it wrong. So all you can do is get on with it. In a perfect world I’d have liked to have given up work entirely until the youngest child was five, then work part time until the youngest was 13, then return to my political work without the intervening years having had any impact. But it just wasn’t possible.

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I made a point of doing some things to help my fragile, often non-existent, maternal self-esteem. I always picked the kids up from school on Friday. I wanted to be in the playground, talking to the other mums, getting a sense of what was going on. No high heels, no briefcase, no suit – I’d be in a tracksuit, in my trainers, carrying a plastic bag. Then we’d all go home and have a takeaway. Those Fridays made me feel that at least for one day a week I was a proper mum.

The 16-year-old me would be astonished I’d ever get to be an MP, never mind be in the Cabinet . The Cabinet then was just a load of stuffed shirts and Mrs Thatcher! The idea that I’d find myself into the government one day – my teenage self would say, give over, that will never happen. But I’d have to warn her, it takes a very long time to make change. We were protesting in the early ’80s about men killing their wives and not being charged with murder because they said their wives had provoked them by being unfaithful. It wasn’t until 2009 that we got that abolished. I’d tell my younger self you’ll have to stick at it for a long time but it’ll be worth it.

I had to prove women were just as capable speaking in the House of Commons as men

When I came into the House of Commons there were hardly any women, and those who were there had this kind of matronly Thatcher style. Tweedy suits, silk shirts with pussycat bows. I wasn’t going to wear that! I was a 30-year-old wanting-to-be-stylish woman. But turning up in a floral frock in the House of Commons made me look even more ludicrously out of place than I already felt. I couldn’t wear a girly dress, I looked so unlike an MP anyway. The average MP was a 54-year-old man. I was a pregnant 32-year-old woman. So the question of what to wear. I wanted something that wouldn’t attract criticism – one MP said the Speaker shouldn’t call me because I wasn’t appropriately dressed – and would give my constituents confidence that I would be strong for them fighting their case. I had to look like a professional. That’s where the smart trouser suits, heels and shoulder pads came from.

I remember well my maiden speech. I was very anxious, heavily pregnant in a red velvet maternity dress. It was very daunting. But I knew exactly what I wanted to say and felt it was incredibly important to say it. If people realised my knees were knocking and it all seemed impossible, that would be no good for all the women I was representing, who were coming up to me and saying: “Keep going.” I couldn’t let them down. And I had to prove women were just as capable speaking in the House of Commons as men. So those thoughts made me feel stronger than I really was.

I’m absolutely gutted there’s been no Labour woman prime minister or deputy prime minister. We are the party of equality so it’s torturous for the women in our party that it’s the Conservative Party who have produced two female prime ministers. But while it’s important to see women in power, it’s more important what you actually do for ordinary women. And Tory cuts have hit women workers and mothers very badly.

A lot of women I meet, councillors and MPs, say I inspired them to do what they’re doing. But I certainly wouldn’t want them following in my footsteps, I’d want them to do much better than me. We have new problems now, with social media, on top of the old, as yet unsolved problems. But it was an amazing thing to be part of the radical progressive women’s movement and I feel it was my great fortune to be there at a time when we felt so determined and empowered, ready to beat the odds. I see a new wave of women now ready to do the same thing and I’m right behind them.

A Woman’s Work by Harriet Harman is out now in hardback (Allen Lane £20)