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Change for the better

Mariane Pearl talks to Jess Bowie about the work of Chime for Change, and her mission to empower women to make a difference


Words: Jess Bowie

Mariane Pearl came to the world’s attention under the worst possible circumstances. In 2002, when Pearl was five months pregnant, her husband, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel, was abducted and beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan. This horrifying moment was filmed by Daniel’s captors and subsequently appeared online for the world to see.

Within a year of Daniel’s death, Pearl – also a journalist – had published a memoir of these harrowing events from her perspective, including the vital role she herself had played in the efforts to investigate her husband’s disappearance. In 2007, her book, A Mighty Heart, was made into a film starring Angelina Jolie.
By then, Pearl was travelling the world to record inspirational stories of other women who have overcome injustice to make a difference. Her interviews, published in Glamour magazine and later in a book, In Search of Hope, ranged from a child sex slave in Cambodia who went on to help rescue girls from forced prostitution, to Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.
Now, more than 10 years after her husband’s murder, Pearl, 45, is continuing the work that has become her life’s mission: to give a platform to ordinary women who display extraordinary courage. She is managing editor at Chime for Change – a charity which aims to improve the lives of girls and women worldwide by raising money through the crowd-funding tool Catapult. Some very well-known faces are involved: the campaign’s advocates include Beyoncé, Salma Hayek and Arianna Huffington, while Gordon Brown and Desmond Tutu sit on its advisory board. 
Mercy is a 23-year-old Malawian woman who in February this year decided to come out publicly as a lesbian. Malawi is a country which sees homosexuality as almost on a par with satanism, so, Pearl tells the House, it was “a huge story there. She was brought to church to be exorcised, she was kicked out of her home, I mean huge.” Mercy’s declaration made front page news in Malawi and since then she has had to go into hiding for her own safety. Now, however, her story has been told on chimeforchange.org, and shared through Twitter and Facebook. These days Mercy is not only receiving support from the global community, but the media spotlight on her plight may mean she is less likely to be further persecuted in her own country. 
Coming from a more traditional journalism background, Pearl admits that “this whole global arena [of blogs and social networks] where we find ourselves is confusing in some ways”, but she is also quick to point out the role new media can play in empowering women: “Because of all these different elements of social networking, that courage of women that has always been there and been ignored, is now finally getting some recognition.” 
And just as stories about everyday heroes have the power to change society, so politics itself should “come from the ground”, Pearl says – admitting that her own relationship with formal political structures is complicated. Much of her skepticism stems from her upbringing: Pearl’s mother is Cuban and her father, who was Dutch, “was someone who tried to believe very much in politics”. “He came from a generation in Europe that wanted to believe, in this case in the Cuban revolution. That whole movement at the time, especially after the war, was a true avenue for hope”. 
Pearl says her father’s disillusionment after the collapse of communism meant that for her, “it was a survival tool not to believe in politics in some ways”. “When that was so hard on him, very early on, I determined that if I was going to believe in something, as hard as it was, it was going have to be people.”
It’s an outlook which means Pearl is uncomfortable discussing which female politicians she admires, as she “sees the person before the politician”. She also is concerned about the idea of the ego in politics, and when asked whether Margaret Thatcher was a role model she expresses unease about what she calls Thatcher’s “raw power”. 
“She definitely awoke a lot of very strong feelings. When you see how much influence one woman had on so many people, you also can see [the effect] someone who has the human quality to be a great leader could have on her people. Regardless of what she did or didn’t do, I see the influence of one person, one politician on her people.
“If we think of great leaders today… we are still hanging to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, because they were people who were able to overcome their own ego, I guess, or their own relationship with power.”
Pearl’s role models are, then, politicians who are humbled by real people. They can be men or women, although she does think women have “more potential for that kind of quality”.
The election of a black President in 2008 was a political first for the US. Does Pearl think America is now ready for a woman President?
“What about the Pope!” she exclaims, saying she found it interesting that everybody was discussing whether we could have a black pope before we could have a woman pope. As for America, Pearl says it was probably “a big, big, big thing for them to have a black or brown president” and that times are changing for women too – not just in the States but the world over. 
“Women have gathered so much strength because they have been alone for so long. The thing is, when you have so many difficulties in your life you become strong and you become independent and I think women have achieved that status – they are just going to go on, they are just going to grow regardless. I think there is going to be no choice but to except that eventually, and that [time] is basically now, or in the next 20 years.” 
With the global women’s movement looking healthier than ever and Hillary Clinton topping a recent poll as the most popular politician in the US, Pearl is indeed optimistic that the leader of the free world could be soon be female. “Yes, I think that is around the corner,” she says. 

Gone but not forgotten

Eight months ago Louise Mensch stunned MPs when she decided to quit Parliament, but if anyone thought she found it challenging to be a...

WORDS: SAM MACRORY

Louise Mensch is about to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who is in Los Angeles. Such are the perks of being The Sun’s US-based political commentator – Mensch’s day job since she decided to quit Parliament last summer after just over two years as a Conservative MP. 
The Governator might have been impressed by Mensch’s no-nonsense decision to terminate her political career, but elsewhere it drew a mixed reaction of shock, sadness and anger. Anger that she was deserting her Parliamentary duties half way through a five year term, and shock (or sadness, depending on party allegiances), that a high-profile product of David Cameron’s celebrated A-list should give up on politics so early in her career.
Through her membership of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which saw Mensch take on Rupert Murdoch – just as the News Corp boss was about to be attacked by a foam pie – and later break off from questioning James Murdoch after announcing that she was leaving the committee early to pick up her children, her profile soared. A string of interviews – including a run-in with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, who focused on Mensch’s appearance and whether or not the 41-year old had gone under the knife – followed, and a promotion in the forthcoming reshuffle was expected. Instead Mensch announced her departure, no longer able to juggle a life which took in a day job at Westminster, children in her Northamptonshire constituency, and a husband – Metallica manager Peter Mensch – in America. 
But while she may only have been an MP for a short time, Mensch knows all about the challenges of being a woman, and a mother, in Westminster – and one whose appearance seemed to create as much newspaper coverage as her actions. 
Speaking down a trans-Atlantic phoneline, she admits that her new life as a commentator is “certainly more relaxed”, but insists that her work-life balance as an MP was never a problem.
“As I said in my resignation letter, which nobody paid attention to, I had a perfectly good work-life balance,” Mensch argues, explaining that the Prime Minister had gone “quietly over the heads of the whips” to allow her to spend Thursdays and Fridays in her Corby constituency.  
“The problem for me was that I was separated on a permanent basis from my husband and it would have been impossible to move my children in 2015,” she continues. “We took advice on it, and we were told it would have been too late to uproot them in 2015. We had a choice: do it now or don’t do it all and make that marital separation permanent. So it really wasn’t about spending time with the kids – I spent half the week with my children.”
Being in Parliament, she says, was “fantastic – it’s not a job, it’s a vocation”, but she admits that at times she found being an MP “highly stressful, perhaps in my case particularly so because for one reason or another I got more attention than most backbench MPs.”
That attention was partly based on her appearance, with Mensch recently appearing on Newsnight to argue that such a focus was “trivialising women politicians”. So are journalists, particularly those in Westminster, to blame?
“I don’t really mind being taken the mickey out of, but I think you could doubtless find personality traits that you could have a go at more than traits of appearance,” Mensch argues. “That was the whole reason why I refused to answer that Guardian journalist when she asked about surgery because I knew – and as a matter of fact in that case I had said several times, indeed before I got elected, that I had had surgery – that if you start being specific [then] that’s a story, and it’s a story for any woman politician who talks about, sort of, beauty issues or looks issues, and that is a bit annoying. That doesn’t come from Parliament, that comes from the press.”
However, having made the leap to the other side, Mensch is quick to defend the fourth estate. “In fairness to the press, the press only serve up what the public are interested in. There’s this endless fascination with cosmetic surgery – it’s worth a good six page spread in the Daily Mail any time. They report what people want to know about. We should look at ourselves before we blame the press as an amorphous body. They give the public what they want and the public are interested in looks. And not men’s looks, they’re only interested in women’s looks.”
Some people argue that another challenge for women in Westminster is the raw aggression of the Commons chamber. “I hate that,” Mensch interrupts when the theory is put to her, insisting that “it’s quite wrong to say that only the boys enjoy it.”
And while Mensch describes herself as a “big fan of the Speaker” in most regards, she has one criticism: John Bercow’s “idea that ‘let’s treat the House of Commons chamber like a school room where the children must be quiet and sit at their desks’” is “nonsense...the reason that Prime Minister’s Questions is one of the only political programmes that anyone watches or cares about or gets engaged with is the bear pit nature of it.”
And female MPs, she argues, are happy to be there.
“Women are some of the loudest barrackers. Look at any of the footage of me and [Ealing Central MP] Angie Bray during the various budget speeches – we were shouting our heads off. It’s entirely wrong to say that this is a boys’ club thing because that diminishes women and says we’re shrinking little violets and want to sit around and have tea and cake. We give as good as we get. You don’t go into British politics if you’re not prepared to put in a bit of stick and take it. It’s quite wrong to say that only the boys enjoy it. That’s rubbish. If I don’t like Ed Balls’ flatlining gesture I can yell at him. And that’s good.”
With the chamber ruled out as a place that poses problems for women, Mensch also dismisses the notion of Parliament as an outdated building full of randy male politicians with wandering hands. “I can honestly say, without lying or spinning, that never once in my time as a Conservative MP was I sexually harassed at any point by anybody. I had a couple of sexist remarks made to me but that had nothing do with being sexually harassed,” Mensch makes clear. 
So the type of allegations aimed at Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard aren’t widespread?
“Only the Lib Dems have major problems with women,” Mensch replies. “They position themselves to be a party of equality but they have not selected women in winnable seats, they don’t have a single ethnic minority MP, their record of equality is absolutely dire. They profess to be more liberal than thou, but it’s shocking.”
On the subject of selections, and how to bring more women into Parliament, Mensch is also typically forthright. All women-shortlists are a bad plan, the Conservative A-list is a winner. 
“We needed a level playing field and I thought the A-list was an elegant solution,” says Mensch, pointing to a party where 91% of MPs were white men before the last election. “No constituency was ever compelled to select either an ethnic minority MP or a female MP but they were compelled to consider them. That’s the difference.” 
And all-women shortlists, she argues, “should only be used if the selectors are so sexist that you can’t get anywhere…”, such as when a run of pre-2010 safe seat selections repeatedly saw white men put forward and David Cameron threatened to intervene.
“As soon as that happened, all of a sudden… oh look, a few women were selected for those safe seats. [But] you need it only as an absolute last resort.” 
Since her departure, Mensch has remained ultra-loyal to Cameron and his Government, but that loyalty comes with the freedom to offer advice – and Mensch has a number of plans to help the PM demonstrate his commitment to the female cause.
The first is to bring in a job-share for the post of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder. 
“I was told that I could never advance in the party because I was always in my constituency on Thursdays and Fridays and it was pointed out to me on a practical level that if you’re a minister of any kind you need to be in London five days a week. I can’t be in London five days a week. I have children in Northamptonshire. It’s as simple as that,” Mensch explains, adding that “even as a PPS, they told me, you need to be here to shadow your minister and your minister needs to be in London five days a week.” 
With Mensch insisting that “my ambition was only to ever be a PPS,” she then “suggested a job share.” And intriguingly, she thinks “there seems to be an idea that it might happen.”
If a shared-PPS post would make life easier for women in Westminster, Mensch’s second suggestion could help raise the profile of women across the country.
“I would encourage the Prime Minister and the party that one change they really ought to make is to make the Women and Equalities Ministry a separate ministry and not have it folded into anything else,” says Mensch. In the age of civil service savings and departmental cutbacks, that might be a hard sell, but Mensch is convinced that the post “has been poorly treated and should be taken seriously” – and sooner rather than later. 
“It shouldn’t be an afterthought – it doesn’t say a lot that that ministry is an afterthought,” she argues of a post which had previously been a part-time responsibility of Home Secretary Theresa May and is now competing for Maria Miller’s diary space along with the Culture Secretary’s other demands. It’s not just a Conservative problem, she says: after all, Tony Blair famously appointed Meg Munn to the role of women’s minister and then “incredibly” made it the only unpaid post in Government. “The Women and Equalities portfolio was done previously by the Home Secretary but of course she was the Home Secretary. There should be a separate minister for women and equalities,” says Mensch. “By the way, it doesn’t have to be a woman, but it probably should be someone from some group that has experienced discrimination, whether that be lesbian, gay and transsexual, ethnic minorities, or a woman. I think that would make more sense, but that portfolio ought to be separate and that minister ought to be separate.”
Mensch herself might have made a good candidate for that position. Instead, she names her chosen candidate. “Goodness knows we’ve got so many talented people on the Tory backbenches who need roles. How about Therese Coffey? She’d be brilliant.”
Coffey gets an endorsement, but there is one woman MP who is unlikely to be getting a positive write up from Mensch: Nadine Dorries. Her one-time Conservative colleague has kept up a permanent barrage of criticism following Mensch’s decision to leave Parliament, recently accusing her of being guilty of trying to “diminish her role as an MP.” Mensch, who in turn has attacked Dorries’ decision to take part in I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here, no longer seems unduly bothered: “Who? Oh well, who cares?” she replies when asked about Dorries’ latest criticism. “She likes column inches and she thinks she can get them that way. I don’t care.”
Mensch, who says that “sometimes I totally and absolutely miss Parliament very much”, insists she would have stayed if circumstances had allowed, at least until 2015. 
So would she come back one day, when the children are older and her husband’s career – Peter Mensch is 60 – has wound down?
“I don’t know…” she replies after a short pause, adding, perhaps a little wistfully: “I think in life you have to move on.”
 That’s not exactly a no, but don’t expect an about-turn anytime soon.
“I’m married, I’m in America, I’m here for the long haul, I’m enjoying myself over here,” is the unequivocal statement.
However, she’s keeping her eye in. “I hope to get involved in the Conservatives Abroad and serve the party that way. I clearly remain a Conservative commentator. I’m a vociferous supporter of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and I always was and I always will be,” Mensch make clear, before adding: “But my husband still needs to live in America and I still need to be with my husband.”
And with that, Louise heads off to meet Arnie. Will she be back? Don’t rule it out. She may have left Parliament early, but Louise Mensch had no problems with being a woman in Westminster. 

Steady Speed Cheryl

As the longest serving woman on the Conservative benches, Cheryl Gillan knows all about the highs and lows of party politics and the c...

WORDS: TONY GREW

“I am not really very high-profile,” Cheryl Gillan protests when she greets The House in her penthouse office in Portcullis House. 
The Government’s plans for a new high-speed railway through her Buckinghamshire constituency may change that for good. 
After her forensic denunciation of HS2 in the Commons this week, no one can be in any doubt about the strength of her feelings. 
“It is a boy’s toy,” she says dismissively.  
“It is a boy’s train – it is about speed and about going faster and there are some very basic juvenile instincts attached to it.”
HS2 posed a constant challenge for Gillan during her two years as Welsh secretary.  
“Everybody knew where my cards lay. I almost used to think the transport secretaries moved in the opposite direction if they saw me coming down the corridor! 
“I had many, many meetings with my colleagues – we are on our third transport secretary, of course.” 
Was it a factor in David Cameron’s decision to ask her to leave the Government?
“You will have to ask the Prime Minister,” she replies. 
Gillan adds: “I don’t think anybody leaving office would be happy about it, I don’t know a single politician who has left office who jumped for joy. 
“I am really fortunate; I am only the fifth elected woman in the Conservative Party to serve at Cabinet level. 
“The first was Florence Horsbrugh, then Margaret Thatcher, then Gillian Shepherd and Virginia Bottomley, and then me. Caroline (Spelman) and Theresa (May) came to the House after me. Janet Young wasn’t elected. 
“That is pretty amazing and I am really proud I was able to do that for my constituency and they were able to have a Cabinet minister. They took a big risk 21 years ago choosing a woman.” 
Gillan is the longest-serving woman on the Tory benches, elected to the safe seat of Chesham and Amersham in 1992. She has fond memories of serving as a junior minister under John Major, a man she clearly admires. 
I remind her that there were 60 women MPs in 1992.
“As many as that?” she replies. “It seemed less.” 
Born in Llandaff in Cardiff in 1952, she is the daughter of a British Army officer and a director of a steel company. 
Her mother was a Wren who attended the Central School of Speech and Drama and once advised her daughter that she was not talented enough to become an actress. 
Gillan took another career path, via Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the College of Law.
Before Parliament she worked in marketing for IMG and Ernst and Young.
“It was very different coming in here because instead of working with a team you suddenly find yourself on your own,” she recalls.
“I am still, 21 years on, naïve enough to think it is a team game but unfortunately I think that I am increasingly in a minority. It looks to be an individual pursuit these days.”
During the last Conservative Government, she was PPS to Viscount Cranborne, the Leader of the Lords. 
“I was described as ‘the Prime Minister’s little ray of sunshine’ in my early days,” she recalls. 
“I still am an enthusiastic Conservative and I always was. I had that training with Robert Cranborne – he is a consummate politician and he had been an MP himself. I think he recommended to John that I was good ministerial material.”
Gillan describes Major as “tremendous in the last two years of a dying government” in which she was a junior education minister from 1995 to 1997. 
“Quite the contrary to the picture that was painted of him and how he was lampooned, he was decisive and supportive and, far from being grey, was very animated at the time.”
Gillan is wary of drawing a comparison between Major and Cameron. 
“It is hard to compare the two in many ways because one was a Conservative Government and this is a Coalition. 
“How that has manifested itself is in the decision-making process, the Quad, which has now become public. People are aware of it now, the four men that run it. 
“The size of the Cabinet predicates against collective decisions. It is difficult. No company would have a board of what is it now? 32?”
She adds: “There is collective responsibility – or at least there was in my case, not for other colleagues in the Coalition – and I always observed that.”
Gillan says the Coalition has worked, but it is “fractious”.
“Even to outsiders that fractious nature will become more apparent as we move towards the General Election.”
Gillan’s frustration at the behaviour of some Lib Dem Cabinet ministers may stem from the fact that collective responsibility over HS2 stoked controversy in her constituency. “Ministers can really only talk about their subject matter. Well, with one or two exceptions for Coalition colleagues. The Liberal Democrats manage to speak out on other matters.
“People who aren’t Westminster anoraks don’t really understand how it works, that if you are not out there banging a drum you can’t possibly be doing your job properly – actually it is quite the reverse.”
She adds: “But the Prime Minister always knew I would not compromise on HS2 and I still won’t compromise. To be fair to the Prime Minister I think he always wanted a Welsh MP [for Welsh Secretary]. I fully appreciate that is what he thought. He has got eight men to choose from.”
Eight months on from leaving the Government, Gillan admits there are good sides to being a backbencher again. 
And she is loyal to Cameron, despite HS2 and losing her job in the reshuffle, describing leadership plots “plain stupid”.
“I think that with matters pertaining to the leadership it would be helpful if people discussed those in private within the ’22 or other places.
“The trouble is that you go into a ‘private’ meeting, I used to find myself even in Cabinet sometimes, and I would come out and find it was all over the press.
“This is my party and my Prime Minister and if ever I choose not to back him he will be the first to know, and nobody else will know until I have told him. 
“Of course I back him, I am a good Conservative.”
That said, Gillan admits to “an old-fashioned view, which is ministers take responsibly”. 
“You don’t blame civil servants, you don’t choose your civil servants, you don’t appoint your permanent secretaries. These people should be intellectual giants, possibly better than the ministers themselves. 
“You don’t have to be the most brilliant person and have a double first from Oxbridge to get the best out of your civil servants. You give them protection and in that way they usually watch your back, and will tell you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear, what you should hear, and what the alternatives are.
“I don’t know whether anybody has actually had the courage to turn round and say to the Prime Minister or to the Secretary of State for Transport ‘actually HS2 is not the right project, you really are barking up the wrong tree’.”
In Government she secured extra tunnelling through two thirds of her constituency. “I am now trying to argue for tunnelling for the rest,” she says. 
“The problem is the more I have looked at this project the more I have realised that there are alternatives. 
“For me this ‘big bang’ project is going to be a money guzzling monster, it is not going to do what it says on the tin. 
“It should not be started as London to Birmingham. If you are going to connect the cities and stop that drag effect down to London, then why not start in the north?
“HS2 is going to saddle future governments with huge debt – it is a £40bn plus project.” 
She adds: “With the downsizing of the civil service, for officials and for HS2 Ltd, they see this as their job for the next 25 years. And of course all the commercial interests are going to be getting Government paying their cheques for the next 25 years.”
Gillan says she has “always fought Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham” and any talk of a pre-election pact is dismissed out of hand. “I want a Conservative government, a proper Conservative government that continues to bear down on expenditure and that cancels HS2 – that is really the number one local priority.
“I want a referendum on Europe. I want a strong team renegotiating our relationship with Europe and then putting it to the country in an in/out referendum. I would prefer that was before the General Election, but the Lib Dems will not allow the Coalition to legislate for that.”
Gillan says with hindsight the Coalition could have been shorter.
“Maybe if we had broken off after that first year, we would have won an outright majority. But of course the trouble is that when you are dealing with the sort of mess we found, it was not really the time to think.
“That is the thing about government, there is very little time to really think, you get on and you are ‘doing’. None of the frontbench team had had ministerial experience before. It was a very steep learning curve.”
When Gillan left the Cabinet, the press had some unusual questions for her. 
“I kept on getting phone calls saying ‘did you cry?’ or ‘Was he drinking wine?’
“It was an appalling way to treat me – ring the men and ask them if they cried. Why would I want to talk about a private meeting between me and the Prime Minister? 
“They wanted me to badmouth him and slag off the Government and that is not actually the way I feel.”
Gillan has a hinterland – she and her husband keep chickens, ducks and two sheep as pets. She reports that her famous rooster is no more. 
“Boris got eaten by a fox. He died an honourable death defending his chickens.” 
After 21 years as an MP, the media’s preoccupation with gender still “rankles”, Gillan admits. 
“The trouble is that you have got to be the best person for the job, it is not a question of your sex, quite frankly. 
“For Caroline and Theresa and myself, we fought those battles years ago and we are still to an extent fighting those battles for other women, trying to encourage them and bring them on.
“I am delighted to see a capable woman colleague promoted, but God forbid promoting anybody just to get a good media presence. You need to have a bit more than that.”
Gillan is frustrated by “this preoccupation with the women and whether they were treated differently”. 
“Caroline and I were the only women to leave the Cabinet. I expect nothing and then you will not be disappointed.” 

Touching on the problem

More women MPs are needed if the culture at Westminster is to change, writes Cathy Newman


WORDS: CATHY NEWMAN

When Channel 4 News broadcast allegations that the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard had behaved inappropriately towards women, I’d feared the reaction in Westminster and beyond would be a collective shrug of the shoulders.
Some of the women who had courageously spoken to me on camera were worried too that they’d be belittled by the general public and vilified by their own party for speaking out.
And in the immediate aftermath of our film in February, it’s true there were some who didn’t appear to see quite what the problem was with propositioning women and touching them inappropriately.
Lib Dem peer Lord Greaves dismissed what had happened as “fairly mild sexual advances” and a parliamentary candidate for the party, Jasper Gerard, said the debate was over “whether somebody did put his hand or did not put his hand on somebody’s knee”.
And the sociology professor Frank Furedi warned: “The campaign against ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in workplaces and political circles is turning into a moral crusade and is giving rise to a poisonous prurient climate.”
But despite the reaction from an unenlightened few, I do believe the culture is changing, and quite dramatically.
In the weeks that followed the allegations – which the Lib Dem peer continues to deny – I was amazed at how many women at work, at the school gate, and in the street came up to me and recounted their own experiences of everyday sexism. Experiences that, post-Rennard, they say they wouldn’t feel they had to tolerate.
It seems that virtually every woman has their own example of what’s become known rather euphemistically as “inappropriate behaviour”. 
I’ve written before about low-level sexism and harassment during my time in Fleet Street, such as the newspaper editor propositioning me – entirely unbidden – in the bar at a political party conference and then pursuing me in my room to ask if he could come and bed down with me for the night.
But while women in all walks of life have got a tale to tell, I think it’s fair to say Westminster has a bigger problem, and a bigger culture shift to make. Some of this is down to numbers. All those guys under one roof, many far from home, and plied with taxpayer-subsidised alcohol, isn’t an environment conducive to gender equality.
No wonder the Lib Dem former minister Sarah Teather has likened the Commons to “a public school full of teenage boys”. Barbara Follett, who used to be a Labour MP, recalls her male colleagues mouthing “melons” at her, and cupping their hands in the shape of breasts whenever she got up to speak. 
And if you think that kind of everyday sexism is a thing of the past, just ask the current Labour frontbencher Stella Creasy. She recounts being patronised by a serving Lib Dem minister, who called her “emotional” and “irrational”. Would he have used those words against a man?
There are still just 147 women MPs out of a total of 650. That’s way better than it used to be, but not good enough.
A hundred years ago, there were no women in the Commons. Nancy Astor was the first, in 1919. 
And to give Tony Blair – and the awfully named “Blair babes” – their due, the most dramatic transformation came in 1997, when the number of female MPs doubled overnight from 60 to 120.
But in some ways the progress in the last decade or so has been disappointingly slow. At the last election, 143 women were elected – an incremental improvement on Blair’s tally, but hardly another step change. And that’s what I believe Parliament needs to overhaul the culture irrevocably.  
Cathy Newman, Channel 4 News Presenter and Factcheck

Six decades not out

Gisela Stuart celebrates 60 years of women MPs in her constituency

WORDS: GISELA STUART

Edith Pitt was elected the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston on 3rd of July 1953. It wasn’t a smooth path. Following the death of the incumbent, the local association had selected a gentleman from Nantwich – but there were rumblings in the letter pages of the Birmingham Post. Why can’t we have a local candidate they wondered? We have a very good one, a local councillor, some mused – even if she is a woman.
Common sense prevailed, the Colonel form Nantwich stood down and Edith Pitt was elected as the first woman MP for Edgbaston. The Edgbaston woman had quite a fearsome reputation. The first Birmingham woman councillor came from the patch, not to mention being the home of the Girl Guides!
Thirteen years later Pitt’s untimely death caused another by-election. Well, we had a woman some locals said, so now it’s the turn for a man. The argument didn’t cut any ice with the young Jill Knight. She argued that she would only accept that line of reasoning if the principle was equally applied to seats previously held by men. She was elected in 1966 and served the constituency for 31 years. Labour made Edgbaston a target seat and the local party volunteered to become an all-woman shortlist. 
In 1997 Edgbaston turned red, with another woman MP. The Tories had chosen to field a man, and he must have been the only Tory candidate who was taken to task for being “a man” during that election. Edgbaston quite likes its women politicians.
We now have the longest unbroken record of women MPs in any constituency.  Sixty years and I am determined to keep the tradition going.
Nationally we still a have long way to go. The great breakthrough came in 1997 when in one Parliament we had more women MPs than in the combined history of Parliament up to that point. But the 120 women still only represented 18%. Progress has been slow and in 2010 it was still fewer than one in four. The great offices of state are still heavily male dominated. The current cabinet is distinctly “women-light”. There still aren’t enough women standing as candidates in elections. All that’s just not good enough.
When we celebrated 50 years of women MPs it was right to look back and be proud of what’s been achieved. But now it’s time to reach out and say ‘where is the next generation and how can we, those who have made it, help?’
On 3rd of July there will be a dinner at the Botanical Gardens in Birmingham. Not only is it the most beautiful spot of the constituency, it is also the place where in 1953 the count for Edith Pitt’s election took place. We will be raising money for a special unit in the local women’s hospital as well as for a group of young women who want to give more support to young mothers who have trouble breastfeeding their babies. 
But above all I’m encouraging our guests to buy an extra ticket for someone young in their professional field and bring them along. It’s about kicking doors open and showing that we come from all walks of life and ‘if we made it – so can you’. But as Labour learnt back in 1997 this won’t happen all by itself. The process needs a helping hand. 
If you’d like to be there, or, if the whips won’t let you out and you just want to sponsor a young woman who’d like to come into politics, but needs a nudge in the right direction, get in touch: stuartg@parliament.uk.
I might not be around to celebrate 70 years of women MPs in Edgbaston, but I hope there will be a woman who does and maybe by then the House of Commons will have reached the magic of 50%. There’s hoping!  

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