Gender discrimination shadows women, from cradle to grave

A petition to include mothers on marriage certificates has gained 70,000 signatures. To some it sounds trivial, but excluding mothers’ names serves to wipe women from historical record, and it's just one example of sexism that women face every day

Parliament is a peculiar sort of place.

Upon standing to speak there earlier this year, wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘No More Page Three’  - in support of the namesake campaign - I was metaphorically plonked into the naughty corner.

No one batted an eyelid at my waving a copy of the page in question. But then its bare-breasted images are readily available throughout the Westminster estate.

When I suggested that The Sun was removed from our workplace until Page Three put some clothes on, the Prime Minister seemed to find the whole thing very amusing.

This is just one of the many ways in which gender discrimination shadows us still, from cradle to grave.

It’s even stamped upon our marriage certificates – a fact which has gained some column inches of late.  These legal documents require the details of a bride and groom’s fathers. But mothers receive no mention – no space has even been made to do so. This stands true for opposite and same sex marriages alike.

To some it may sound trivial. But this recalls a time when marriage was seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom.

It beggars belief that our law should perpetuate such a draconian message. It also presents a very practical problem. This is a legal document. Excluding mothers’ names serves to wipe women from historical record. It matters. When a son or daughter gets married, they should have the right to document those people who helped them become who they are.

It seems that many people agree. A petition, launched this year by Ailsa Burkimsher Sadler, has raised almost 70,000 signatures. It calls for marriage certificates to comply with the Equality Act by including space for mothers’ names. Many of those who have signed have written their reason for doing so – it’s certainly worth a read.

In support, I tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM), pressuring the Home Office to make history by changing the laws - and to permit mothers' names to be added retrospectively to existing certificates.

Ailsa initiated the petition from a fierce sense of justice. She wanted, she said, to generate enough conservation so the Home Office had to “sit up and pay attention”.

And so it now is.

My own EDM has gained strong cross-party support to become this year’s ‘most signed’ - supported by more than 100 fellow MPs.

But sexism doesn’t only raise its ugly head on our big days. As captured by the Everyday Sexism project, it’s a profound normality. It’s systematic and it permeates every aspect of life – from education and the media to our titles and our workplaces.

Our media is positively sodden with it. Page Three is just one, very visible, example.

"Women have been degraded, belittled and served up as sex objects in the press for years"

Women have been degraded, belittled and served up as sex objects in the press for years, despite the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) repeatedly identifying the links between the portrayal of women as sexual objects with attitudes underpinning violence and discrimination against them (a position backed up in a review commissioned by the Government).

Gender discrimination pervades our places of work. The Mind the Gender Pay Gap campaign cites new figures from the Office of National Statistics Annual Survey of Hours and Incomes: namely that the pay gap between men and women in their twenties has doubled in the past three years.

My own workplace is far from immune.

When I stood up in my white slogan-emblazoned tee-shirt, I did so in an immensely privileged position, at the heart of the British Parliament.

But this institution has been starkly complicit in our country’s systematic oppression of women.

Arguably, it remains so. Certainly it upholds some disquieting traditions.

Mr Cameron’s belittlingly blasé take on Page Three, ready dismissal of its supporters and ‘Yes, Dear’ attitude is, sadly, far from unusual.  

There is a huge amount of work to be done. High on my priority list is parliamentary reform and, part of that is addressing that 'old boys' club' mentality and moving Westminster into the 21st century.

We have some fantastic female voices in politics but they remain woefully under represented.

A new campaign – calling for a fairer ‘50/50’ representation of women in politics points out that just 23 per cent of our MPs are female. We’re topped in that table by Afghanistan.

Time may stand still for no man – or woman! – in life, but Westminster knows how to drag its feet: there’s a long hard slog ahead to reform, both inside its walls and out.

But I’m excited – I think there’s a genuine cause for optimism.

There are so many exciting feminist voices emerging today and movements taking root. They’re gaining in confidence, gaining attention and making real headway in helping us push for real – political – change.  

You can sign Ailsa’s petition for mothers’ name on marriage certificates, and read the stories, at: change.org/nameequality

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