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“Parliament Was a ‘Male Club’ Back Then”: How Women MPs Experienced Sexism in Parliament in the 1980s

Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Hall (Interior). Source: Library of Congress.

By Pasqueline Agostinho

Diane Abbott described Parliament as a “male club” back 30 years ago in a meeting as part of Women’s History Month.

The meeting, hosted by Parliament on March 17, 2021, was called “Decided on By Men” sharing anecdotes and interviews of former women MPs and their experiences in Parliament due to their gender.

The meeting was introduced by a couple of hosts, Dr Emma Peplow and Dr Priscila Pivatto, who had interviewed the MPs, as well as Diane Abbott.

The MP said: “Women had changed it [male club] for the better. Women tended to do women subjects back then, like education” – or other women-orientated roles. But it has changed since there are now women in all types of roles.

Abbott gave the example of the current Home Secretary and the fact that the Labour Party has a female Shadow Chancellor.

Peplow showed extracts of these interviews including one by Rosie Barnes who was a former MP for a now-defunct Social-Democratic Party.

She said: “There was just an innate sexism, that the whole thing was a place decided on by men for men, the rules were all made for men, and they had got this cluster of women in and they did not quite know what to do with them.”

Marion Roe, who was a former Conservative MP, made the point that “men operate in gangs” and “it is very difficult for a woman to break into a gang”.

Roe said that it was very difficult for women to get into these male specialist groups and that women “did not have a group at all”.

Peplow expressed that female MPs still expressed disagreement amongst each other. Just because they were women, it does not mean that a female Labour MP will agree with a female Conservative MP.

As Ann Taylor, who was an MP for Labour, said: “The Labour women kept together and the Tory women – I am not sure I talked to, very often, any of them.” She also stated that there “was not a lot of cross-party female solidarity”.

Pivatto described the interviews as being “closer to a memoir than political interviews” and they “took over several sessions” to conduct them.

The average interview was around four hours and took place where the woman MP felt comfortable in, like their home. The aim of these interviews was to reflect the most open representation of the MPs and their lives before and during their career.

Diane Abbott became an MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987, aged 33. She was one of the 41 female MPs in Parliament out of a total 600 MPs. She was also one of the 21 female Labour MPs.

Abbott also stated that women MPs on average were older than now and that she was one of the youngest MPs to enter Parliament “if not the youngest”.

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