There’s something exceptionally powerful about seeing a woman’s emotion in the House of Commons – the place that normally looks like a debating club for the political elite, where the most privileged get to make schoolboy jokes at the expense of the lives of ordinary people. It is a place we mostly see as a point-scoring exercise.
Which is why, when a woman brings her story of loss or abuse, or the abuse of other women, into the chamber, the story feels even more raw, even more poignant, because she’s dared to bring it to the platform of banter and in-jokes. She’s dared to expose the experience of being a woman in the political equivalent of the locker room.
But, when a woman does find the courage, the chamber is eerily quiet. There’s no groaning and moaning or eruptions of laughter as if from a corner of the pub. It’s united in its patience. And, for once, there’s no point-scoring.
Like, last year, when MP Antoinette Sandbach told the story of the night her five-year-old son died, to call for better bereavement care (in this instance, MP Sam Quince spoke as movingly about his wife giving birth to a stillborn baby). Earlier this year, Vicky Foxcroft MP spoke emotionally about the death of her five-day-old baby, which she gave birth to at the age of 16. And, just last week, MP Michelle Thomson spoke candidly about being raped as a teenager. On International Women’s Day last year, Jess Phillips MP read out all the names of the women who had died from domestic violence in the past year to the deafening silence of a packed house.
The presence of women in the House of Commons not only reflects our society more accurately, but it alters the style of debate; it’s alters what is debated; it changes how democracy conducts itself and how we tell the story of our times. But it mostly (although not exclusively) relies on women to have the courage to bring these stories to a place where they have historically not been welcome.
Tears in government surely legitimise the feelings of so many women, while forcing the issue on to the public agenda
It requires women MPs to expend almighty bravery, displaying emotion and sharing personal and private experiences (two things often not acceptable in politics and wider society) in order to put that issue on the government's agenda. And I have no doubt that seeing an MP cry because she was raped, seeing an MP cry because she had a stillborn baby, is very powerful. Tears in government surely legitimise the feelings of so many women, while forcing the issue on to the public agenda. (And, no – to the idiot who is about to say something about women being overly emotional and crying too much, or that I’m stereotyping women for crying too much, displaying vulnerability is not a weakness; it’s a strength.)
And this is why I was so pleased to hear this morning that, since the US election result, 4,500 women have signed up to run for office, according to Time magazine. With an administration made up of individuals who have a record for being anti-abortion, who have voted against reauthorising a bill that protects shelters and services for domestic victims, who have voted against promoting equal pay and minimum wage, it’s safe to say that America needs the stories of women told in their highest chambers of power more than ever.
In the UK, an organisation called 50:50 Parliament has launched a campaign called #AskHerToStand. Women are notoriously reluctant to enter politics. Just the other week, I was sat in the pub with a social worker in south London, who is very active in the Labour party. “Are you going to run?” I asked her. She sighed. She wasn’t sure – either about politics or herself. And, on top of the fact that the institution of government has been the preserve of men for centuries, coupled with the modern phenomenon of female MPs facing heinous abuse, it’s easy to see why more women aren’t champing at the bit to launch a political career.
But we need women – to tell our stories and to tell them in a dialogue that connects with other women; not the jeering banter of PMQs, but the quiet story of personal tragedy. Surely there’s nothing more fundamental and essential in the experience of being a woman than sharing your story with another woman? So, it only follows that we respond when we see our representatives do the same.
And that’s why we have to celebrate those 4,500 women who have found the courage to fight back; that’s why we should ask the women who privately think they might be able to, but who shrug when you ask them, to stand and support them into doing so. Women have been led to believe that courage is ambition, and ambition is not a favourable trait in women. Women have been led to believe that their contributions are not valid, and women have been led to believe that their stories are only worth sharing, quietly, with other women, behind closed doors.
But the voices of those women are louder to me than a hundred jeering men.
Know someone who should run? #AskHerToStand