Boys' club grudgingly gives room to women

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Watch out, boys - they're coming. From now on, the House of Commons will no longer be a men-only club - albeit one which has grudgingly opened its doors to women.

Yesterday, women MPs, both new and old, welcomed in the dawn of an era in which they hope their critical mass will begin to shift centuries of male domination.

In the new intake of MPs there will be a total of 116 women, 101 of them sitting on the Labour benches. In the last Parliament there were 60.

It has hardly been a storming of the bastions, of course. Seventy-nine years after the election of Britain's first woman MP, some might even think it sad that having five male MPs to every one female was a cause for celebration.

But the number of women in Parliament, which has crept up gradually ever since the Irish republican Countess Markievicz refused to take her Dublin City seat, has finally taken its great leap forward.

While the new intake is still searching in vain for the ladies', of which there are there desperately few, the old guard plans to take significant new ground. All the intake of `97 believes there will be changes, both physical and cultural.

They hope for a less confrontational atmosphere, a more constructive approach and more opportunities to raise issues which matter to women, including child-care and education.

Margaret Hodge, who became MP for Barking in 1994, says she believes there is now a critical mass of women in the House which will help to blow fresh air into some of its fustier corners.

"What I have felt in the past is not necessarily that the men were sexist, but that they felt uncomfortable with us in their club," she says.

"They were used to conducting their day-to-day lives in their own way. I think we have probably cracked it now."

The arguments will continue to rage, of course, over whether the number of women in Parliament really matters at all.

While some believe women can be just as confrontational as men - "look at Margaret Thatcher", they say - others believe they are more constructive.

One sitting woman MP says that in committees, female ministers have a different approach and are easier to deal with.

"It doesn't mean you get any further but at least you don't constantly feel you are in some sort of duel," she says.

Angela Smith, who has won Basildon, in Essex, was one of 35 candidates selected through all-women shortlists before an industrial tribunal put a halt to Labour's controversial policy last year.

She believes the lists "set an agenda" for the party and that even though they have gone, the momentum will continue. She hopes the sight of more women MPs will keep new entrants coming in.