Joan Smith: We need female ministers not political wives

To dispel worries about her influence on her husband, Michelle Obama described herself as 'mom-in-chief'

Share

I like to think she stepped off the podium, nipped round the back and made a gagging motion with her fingers. The alternative – that Michelle Obama was unembarrassed about telling the Democratic National Convention how much more she loves her man since he became President – is simply too awful to contemplate. It's almost as awful as David Cameron's reshuffle, in which he sacked or demoted women and – this must be some kind of sick joke – appointed a Health Secretary who has voted for the time limit on legal abortions to be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks.

It's not a good time to be a woman on either side of the Atlantic. In a country where "vagina" is currently a dirty word, Michelle Obama apparently felt the need to dispel any worries about her influence on her husband by describing herself as "mom-in-chief". At least Mrs Obama talked about her husband's commitment to equality, while at Westminster the Prime Minister was busy shifting the Women & Equalities brief from the Home Office to Culture in a clear sign of its declining status. It will now be done by Maria Miller in spare moments from her day job looking after culture, media and sport.

Women are worse off after the reshuffle, despite Cameron's promise in 2008 that a third of all ministers would be female by the end of his first term in office. Just a thought, Prime Minister: how's that project going, dear?

Someone might reasonably object that the women Cameron ejected from the Cabinet – Cheryl Gillan, Caroline Spelman and Baroness Warsi – aren't very good. That's true, but just look at the men he's kept in or promoted. George Osborne, who's destroyed all hope of an economic recovery. Andrew Lansley, who's destroyed the National Health Service. Jeremy Hunt, who – where do I start? It turns out that the minister who became a laughing stock over the summer was actually doing such a fantastic job that he's been promoted to Lansley's old post. Who would have guessed?

Amid a slew of bad news for women, Hunt's appointment is one of the worst. As recently as 2008, he voted to restrict legal abortion to 12 weeks, and there's no indication that his views have changed since. Nor is he the only Cabinet minister with reactionary views on the subject. His new colleague, Maria Miller, supported an attempt by the Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries to strip counselling from abortion providers and hand it to organisations which might have an anti-abortion stance. Do I think our vaginas are safe in their hands? Not for a moment, and we now have a Government that's getting visibly more hostile to women as we head towards the next general election.

This is what happens when political parties fail to modernise. The days when Tony Blair put record numbers of women in Cabinet – five in 1997, eventually rising to eight – already seem a long way off. Even that wasn't good enough, as Ed Miliband acknowledged when he gave 11 out of 27 shadow Cabinet jobs to women. But because they have so few female candidates in winnable seats, electing a Conservative Government (or one in which they're part of a Coalition) is always going to mean a setback in terms of gender. Of 306 Tory MPs elected at the 2010 general election, only 48 were women – Labour had 81 – and the proportion of women ministers fell from 30 per cent to 17 per cent.

But systemic discrimination against women in the Conservative party has another, more insidious effect. As long as competition for seats is so fierce, it seems likely that women on the socially liberal wing of the party will continue to struggle to get selected. That means too few women on the Tory side in Parliament who will tell the Prime Minister frankly about the unequal impact of job cuts or argue for changes in policy to protect women. Female unemployment in the UK reached a 25-year high earlier this year, and that's a direct consequence of decisions taken by Cameron's male (and white, and public-school-educated) cronies.

In this atmosphere, the space for women to speak out boldly on a range of issues is becoming more restricted. It's not that I expected Michelle Obama to start a chant of "vagina, vagina, vagina" in solidarity with the Democrat who was banned from the floor of the Michigan State House for saying the word aloud. But Mrs Obama's convention speech was folksy and anecdotal, recalling the "guy who picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger-side door". It's what Sarah Brown did at Labour's 2009 conference in an attempt to humanise a husband with communication problems, and it's tragic to see centre-left parties resorting to such tactics.

I don't want speeches from politicians' wives. Nor am I calling for a day when a husband gets up to tell tear-jerking anecdotes about his brilliant wife, the prime minister. All I want – and is it really such a big thing to ask? – is more women becoming politicians in their own right.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003