119 ways to change tack

Will our new female MPs get down to the real women's issues? asks Rebecca Abrams
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Fortress Westminster has been stormed. Not only by New Labour, but by a whole generation of new politicians, and, more excitingly still, by a new generation of female politicians. The number of women MPs taking their seats on the benches of the House of Commons has doubled with this election, from 62 to a staggering 119, almost a quarter of the total of elected members. Labour now boasts 101 women politicians, 19 of them in ministerial posts, five of them in the Cabinet.

Political commentators are anticipating that the presence of so many women MPs will change forever the culture of Parliament. The Boys' Own feel of the place will be swept away. The gentlemen's club atmosphere will evaporate. Newly elected Labour MP, Julia Drown, has said "It's time to modernise Westminster". If the new women in Parliament do succeed in challenging the culture of the Commons, all well and good. But a more interesting and important question is what they will do to challenge the culture of the country.

Never before have we had so many women in a position to influence the direction of British politics, to present - and crucially, to represent - a female perspective on social and economic issues. Will they rise to this challenge? Specifically, will they challenge a male culture of work and over-work? Will they help to correct an imbalance in our social and personal priorities that exacts a heavy toll on us all, but on women especially?

Harriet Harman, newly appointed Secretary of State for Social Security, thinks so.

"The simple fact of women being there will make an enormous symbolic and practical difference," she says. "Men and women's lives are different. A male-dominated Parliament didn't need to address the issues that primarily affect women - child-care, care of the elderly, family-friendly policies in the work-place. The new women in Parliament are just like women outside Parliament: they know what it's like to try and balance different responsibilities. Having so many women MPs is a huge step forward."

A step forward it may be, but there is still a very long way to go. The Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga wrote in his classic book Homo Ludens that "Play is one of the bases of civilisation ... It adorns life, amplifies it, and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual and for society." In respect of work and play women in Britain today are still far from equal citizens. Despite the fact that two-thirds of women are now in paid employment, despite the fact that they now comprise half the labour force, they are still concentrated in jobs with low pay, low status and low security. Just 6 per cent of women earn more than pounds 15,000 a year. Their earnings are still 30 per cent lower than men's on average.

Although the majority of women work part-time, they still manage to clock up an average of 30 hours of work a week. And that's just the work they're paid for. As survey after survey reveals, they also do the bulk of unpaid work. Only one man in a hundred does an equal share of housework. Eighty per cent of working women nevertheless do all the ironing and laundry. Looking after children also remains a predominantly female responsibility. Of women with children under five, well over a third are combining motherhood with paid employment.

Women today bear a triple load of paid work, housework and childcare. Not surprisingly, they have consistently less free time than men. Women's leisure time has fallen by 10 per cent since the mid-1980s, and now stands at 15 hours a week less than men on average. Even where women work the same hours as men, they still have less time off once domestic chores are accounted for. And at the end of their lives, women are rewarded for their years of hard work with poverty. Many female pensioners are living below the poverty line. Only 12 per cent of single women of retirement age have above-average incomes, and poverty in old age amongst women is expected to increase dramatically unless urgent steps are taken.

While women MPs are as affected as other women by these trends, and better placed than most to do something about them, it is less certain that they will identify themselves with such explicitly "women's" issues.

Sally Keeble, Labour MP for Northampton North, and mother of two young children, knows all about juggling. The day I spoke to her, she'd had to cut short a live radio interview when her one-year-old made a break for the stairs. Nevertheless her optimism about change was muted. "Most of the women MPs are very new to the job. We will have to find our feet as politicians before we can start to shape the political agenda. Women's issues will come to the fore, but only slowly. It will take time."

If Keeble is right and newly elected MPs, female or otherwise, are reluctant to rock the boat, for whatever reason, it could happen that "women's issues" feature no more noticeably in government policy than they did during the election campaign.

Ruth Kelly, who won Bolton West from Home Office minister Tom Sackville and is expecting her first child in June, is more hopeful. "I don't think the new women MPs will be silenced by the male culture of the place. One in four politicians are now women and for the first time many of them have young children. Women's issues are uppermost in their minds. It's bound to make a difference.The culture within Westminster will have to change, and that will lead the way for the country generally."

Bridget Prentice, Government Whip for London and the South East, agrees. After two years in the Whip's office she is very optimistic about change. "Wanting time for work and time to spend with the family affects women politicians just like any other woman. The sheer numbers of women now in Parliament will bring a new perspective to politics. I think that Parliament as a whole will become much more sensitive to the fact that over 50 per cent of the population want to achieve a balance in their lives. It's going to make it easier for men with young children to raise these issues, too. A male MP was saying exactly that to me just this morning."

Whatever changes take place within Westminster - and change seems likely, if not entirely inevitable - genuine equality for women will not happen until measures are introduced that enable women outside Westminster to balance the various aspects of their lives. And not only women, but men, too.

This means introducing workplace practices that enable men to share more fully in the task of raising children. It means not only remunerating women for the paid work they do (equal pay remains a legal right more often than a practical reality), but also recognising the economic value of the unpaid work they do. It means setting up child-care provision not simply to release women from one type of work into another, but to enable women to take some much needed time off work. It means taking immediate steps to alleviate the poverty that women face in old age. It means addressing women's urgent need for a life beyond work of one kind or another.

"There can be no effective and satisfactory work without play," wrote Charles Dickens in Hard Times, "there can be no sound and wholesome thought without play." Yet play is a debased word in contemporary culture. It is seen as something trivial, frivolous, something for children. If we could only reinvest the word with some of its former dignity and relevance, we would see that herein lies a concept of continuing value. A playful society is one that, at a most fundamental and profound level, nourishes and upholds society by enhancing the lives of the individuals who make up that society.

Women have made great progress in terms of the right to work. It is not so clear that this progress has brought us any nearer to real equality between the sexes. Will the new women MPs now rise to the challenge and fight for a woman's right to a quality of life beyond the work ethic that has dominated for too long both inside and out of Westminster? Will they fight now not only for a woman's right to work, but for her right to play? Only if they do, will we all - women and men - stand a chance of reaping the fruits of this new Government.

The writer is researching female friendship at Nuffield College, Oxford. Her book, `The Playful Self', was published by Fourth Estate last week.