Women who hate the House

Louise Jury and Clare Garner on female MPs' rapid disillusion
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Female MPs complain of discrimination and a hostile political culture at the House of Commons in a report published today.

Eight months after the election that swept more than 100 women into Parliament, the majority of the victorious females believe it is harder to be a woman than a man at Westminster. Some are thoroughly miserable. "I have been desperately unhappy since being elected ... I hate this place," said one woman MP who declined to be named.

Nearly three-quarters of those who replied to a questionnaire said discrimination by party selection committees was why there were so few women in Parliament. Male public-school attitudes, "yob culture" and "silly rules and secret conventions ... managed by men, for men" are blamed for the misery and hostile political culture women endure in the House of Commons, according to the findings by Fawcett, a women's campaigning organisation.

The election returned 101 female Labour MPs, 14 Conservatives, three Liberal Democrats and two Scottish Nationalists. Having arrived in the Commons they are keen to increase their ranks. Most feel it is important to get women elected to Parliament in equal numbers to men, with 87 per cent saying it is "very/fairly important".

But the new MPs are not optimistic about the balance improving. Only 1 per cent think there could be a 50-50 split between men and women by 2002 and only 6 per cent believe the balance could be achieved by 2050.

The overwhelming majority have taken steps to help other women along the path to Parliament, either by encouraging friends to stand (85 per cent) or giving talks to women's groups about being an MP (87 per cent). The majority supported their party's policy on women. Fifty-three per cent are against having a separate ministry for women, but 79 per cent are in favour of a minister for women. Ann Taylor and Harriet Harman were voted the most influential women MPs at present.

The MPs think that the three most important areas of policy in women's lives are childcare, a minimum wage and equal pay. As far as their own work as MPs is concerned, their views are more traditional: representing the constituency in Parliament, holding regular constituency surgeries and helping with individual problems emerged as the women's highest priorities

The majority of the female MPs who responded to the questionnaire are in their 40s and do not have children under five. A further 69 per cent do not have elderly relatives who are dependent on them and 60 per cent would describe themselves as a feminist. Nearly half of the respondents would favour changing the voting system to one of proportional representation as a way of getting more women into Parliament. Among those elected in 1997, more than half favour PR while only 38 per cent prefer a first-past-the-post policy.

Other popular suggestions for increasing the number of female MPs include party training programmes for women, the introduction of all-women shortlists - 42 per cent of the Labour respondents had been part of an all-women shortlist to get elected - better childcare facilities in Parliament and a three-day parliamentary week.

Thirty-seven per cent say they have been the target of a media investigation into their private life and 26 per cent had been to an image consultant.

The situation in the Commons may shock the new MPs, but according to Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax, things are much better for women now than 10 years ago. "I can see a big change," she said. "There are still things that you would change in a perfect world if you could, but I find it much better. It's a nicer atmosphere."

She thinks many men also find the proceedings hostile. "I think it's a shock. People come into the House and don't realise what the workload is - just constituency casework is enough for two or three people."