We desperately need feminists in Labour – and that includes the male ones

It's not true for women that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want – many work extremely hard and still fail because of discrimination against them

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The Independent Online

Over a century ago a woman named Margaret Travers Symons, a secretary for a Member of Parliament, became the first women to speak from the dispatch box in the House of Commons. She wasn’t invited in.

Outside the House of Commons that evening, she watched as crowds of Suffragettes were struggling with the police. Protesters were hospitalised and Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested and sent to prison for three months. 

Margaret Travers decided to take action. She asked a male escort to take her to the door of the Commons where there was a small window where women could peak inside, and when his back was turned, she ran into the chamber, reached the despatch box and shouted: “Address the women’s issue!”

Today we’re not peaking in from outside. We aren’t there just as secretaries anymore. I stand in the Scottish Parliament leading my party.

There has been so much discussion about how people were disappointed that none of the five women Labour leadership candidates were elected and about how our male leaders must appoint women.

But today, like a century ago, we can’t wait for permission to take our place at the despatch box. We won’t be invited in, we have to take it for ourselves.

We support our leaders today but we have to organise so that, next time, we do have female leadership.

And our strategy has to realise that, for all our organisation, there will never be equality until men are committed feminists too.

The MP to whom Margaret Travers Symons was secretary was Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party who died a hundred years ago on Saturday.

In failing health, he dedicated his last years to the women’s cause, standing side by side with the Pankhursts who recruited him and inspired him.

Let’s challenge the male leaders in our party at every level to show the same commitment to feminism today.

But let’s also challenge the idea that having a female leader is in itself an inspiration and that if a young woman works hard enough she can be anything she wants to be.

We have heard it in the past and we hear it again in Scotland today.

It just isn’t true.

That sentiment totally ignores the barriers that a young woman faces when she tries to succeed in our society.

It ignores the fact that there are young women who, no matter how hard they work, will never achieve what they want because of the institutional discrimination they will come up against.

Whether it is access to science and technology skills; tackling the gendered violence that 1 in 4 women will face; or the culture of low-paid, low-skilled, part-time work.

Having women leaders talking about these issues is a start, but it is only a start.

We need not just women in positions of influence, but feminists in positions of power. Feminists who will transform the lives of women across our country.

Kezia Dugdale is the Scottish Labour Leader

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