It’s been a slow climb for the women of Westminster

It’s been just over a century since the first female MP was elected. Since then, women have revolutionised Parliament, but the struggle is ongoing says Rachel Reeves MP

A century ago there was just one female MP in Parliament, when Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in December 1919.

Speaking about her experience, she said: “Pioneers may be picturesque figures, but they are often rather lonely ones.”

Her election and 26 years in Parliament encouraged many brilliant women to enter politics. Over the last 100 years there have been 552 women elected to the House of Commons.

Among them was Margaret Bondfield, who made history as the first female cabinet minister when she became minister of labour in the 1929–31 Labour administration.

Brought up in poverty in Somerset, she was the 10th of 11 children and became a shop assistant at 14, moving to Brighton where she was a tailor’s apprentice.

She became the first female Labour MP in 1923, and later declared that she took on her ministerial role not for herself, but for all women after seeing how female workers were exploited by their male bosses.

Ellen Wilkinson, who was education minister under Clement Attlee, introduced free school milk and free school meals in the 1940s. She was just one in a long line of female politicians who changed Britain for the better and encouraged other women to do
the same.

Their achievements in Parliament transformed society in a host of areas, including equal pay for women, maternity and paternity leave, child benefit, abortion law reform, equal guardianship of children and action on domestic violence. More recently, the changes have seen laws to combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Cross-party working has been the hallmark of the approach of women MPs over the century.

Women from all parties worked together to drive these issues on to the political agenda and secured the legislation needed. Cross-party working has been the hallmark of the approach of women MPs over the century.

I have been an MP for a decade now and have spent all of those years in opposition. Sometimes that can be deeply unsatisfying, especially when I know the plans in our last four election manifestos remain on the drawing board. Those plans would have changed lives across the country and in Leeds West, where my constituents need and want a Labour government.

But that’s not to say that I have not been able to make changes over the last 10 years.

My proudest achievement was the successes when I took on the work of my friend and fellow Labour MP Jo Cox to tackle our society’s hidden epidemic of loneliness after she was murdered doing the job she loved. I hope I followed in her footsteps, and those of my female predecessors at Westminster, by working together with women across the political spectrum to deliver change.

When Jo became an MP, her campaigns included protecting civilians in war zones, drawing attention to conflict in Syria, and tackling the loneliness crisis here at home.

For each of those campaigns, Jo picked out Conservative MPs to work with because she knew getting government support for her plans was crucial.

On loneliness she worked with Conservative MP Seema Kennedy, a close aide of then-PM Theresa May. After Jo died, I continued her cross-party work with Seema and together we made a real difference.

We now have the first ever Minister for Loneliness, a strategy for tackling loneliness and a government fund for investing in projects to tackle loneliness across society and among young and old. Loneliness does not discriminate, as Jo would often say.

As the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I know the cap on energy prices, the focus on the collapse of construction firm Carillion and corporate misbehaviour would not be on the political agenda without the work that I led. Politics can and does make a difference.

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A hundred years later, there are a record 220 female MPs. That is a huge improvement, although still nearly two thirds of the 650 MPs are men. We have had two women Prime Ministers, a woman Speaker, and four female Home Secretaries. There is now a nursery in Parliament to help MPs juggle work with family life, and proxy voting which allows MPs to nominate someone to vote on their behalf for the first six months of their new baby’s life. These are both positive changes that did not exist when I became an
MP and a mother, and something I hope will help more women to consider becoming MPs.

However, there are still challenges when it comes to encouraging women to take on high-profile public roles.

Since the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, female politicians have had to endure intolerable levels of insults and harassment.

My colleagues Heidi Allen and Nicky Morgan both stood down as MPs at the general election in December, citing the abuse they suffered.

Another friend and former MP, Luciana Berger, was subjected to such appalling antisemitic trolling by Labour members, and a lack of support from party leadership, that she quit the party altogether. We must tackle these problems if we are serious about encouraging more women to go into politics.

But I feel I am standing on the shoulders of the 500 women who went before me and have made it a little easier for my generation of women at Westminster. I hope my generation will be able to leave a better legacy for those who follow us.

Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West and the author of Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics, published in paperback on March 5  (IB Tauris, £9.99)