I don’t know about you but, in the among the headlines and the fear and the gloom, there are windows of hope and determination and light. Social-media streams are peppered with calls to action; impassioned conversations are taking place around kitchen tables; people are organising, donating, doing. After last week’s global march, spanning from Nova Scotia to Nairobi, there’s a powerful dose of oestrogen in the air that is intoxicating and motivating. “The march has become a movement” the front cover of Time magazine claims. The revolution is here, Greenpeace’s banner emblazoned with the word RESIST, hanging over the White House, told the world.
However, this dizzying feeling of progression and action was sharply punctured for me last week when I saw a tweet from the former Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford, Dame Joan Ruddock. Joan Ruddock was Labour’s first Minister for Women, a role created under Tony Blair. Controversially, she accepted the role unpaid and, along with the help of Harriet Harman, tried to push through some pretty radical measures (for the time) around childcare and violence against women. But New Labour wasn’t, it would seem, actually ready for a new way of doing things and, just one year later, Ruddock was sacked. She did, however, remain an MP, campaigned on numerous issues and encouraged the women around her. The very impressive Heidi Alexander has said that it was thanks to Ruddock’s continued mentoring that she found the courage to stand.
What was going on? Had the bad guys won? If our heroes are defeated, where does that leave us?
Ruddock knew better than anyone about the sexism lining the corridors of the Commons. In her resignation speech in 2015, she said, “I have been a woman Member of Parliament who did not want to play the boys’ games”. Previously, she recalled, “There was one occasion in a debate, I raised the strip searching of women in Northern Ireland, and I heard a Tory opposite say, clearly, in a way I could hear it across the Chamber, ‘I’d like to strip search you’. That was said in a debate; the Speaker didn't turn a hair.”
Ruddock, as you may have gathered by now, is nothing short of awesome. But, last week, Ruddock tweeted the following: “Fought all my life to get more women into parliament but reluctant now to recommend to young women b/c of the abuse.”
Talk about a heavy heart. It landed like a lead balloon under my desk and I scooped it off the floor, the way a small child tries to pick up a dog that’s three times their size. What was going on? Had the bad guys won? If our heroes are defeated, where does that leave us?
Ruddock was referring to a survey published by the BBC, which found the majority of women in parliament had experienced abuse, a third had considered quitting and half had received physical threats. That is terrifying. And so common is the fact that women are abused online that the words bounce off us like plasticine bullets. But there’s nothing phoney about this. Luciana Berger, former shadow mental health minister and Liverpool mayoral candidate was, at one point, according to police, the subject of 2,500 hate messages in just three days using the hashtag “filthyjewbitch".
And so, does Ruddock have a point? Would you advise anyone to run through a burning pile of shit while strangers threatened to rape you and murder you?
Well, actually, I would. Because we need women in parliament.
We need women in parliament to recognise issues that impact women and make decisions that understand and improve the lives of women. We need women in parliament because we have to continue to show that women are capable and powerful. We need women in parliament to fight against a misogynistic culture that is so threatened by women in power that strangers on computers threaten to decapitate them, gang-rape them or put a bomb under their car. We need women in power because seven American men just signed to repeal the global gag rule. And we need more women in power. Theresa May doesn’t tick off the problem of representation because she sure as hell doesn’t represent me. We need to be there when history is being made – when people’s lives are being shaped and moulded by the laws of the land. We need a voice. And the stronger the voice is, the weaker the voice of the abuser becomes.
But, hey, Joan Ruddock knows this, right? When she arrived as an MP in 1987, there were just 41 female MPs. She knows this fight far better than I ever could. God, I bet she was sad that Hillary didn’t make the White House. And I bet she’s delighted to learn that, since the election, nearly 5,000 women in the US have registered to run for public office. I bet she fully supports the Labour mentorship scheme set up in memory of Jo Cox.
But we can’t let the abuse stop the chain of women helping each other on, further and higher for the next generation. Know someone who should run? Tell her to stand (There's a simple way here). Think an MP is amazing? Tell her. See someone being an arsehole on Facebook? Call them out. Now is the time we pick sides. Whose side are you on? If we want more women MPs, what are we going to do about it? And to you, Dame Joan Ruddock, don't let the bastards get you down.
I’ll leave you with this. It’s the account of a journalist who met the fearless Labour MP Edith Summerskill. Summerskill entered parliament in 1938 and campaigned waaaaaay ahead of her time on issues such as abortion, contraception and greater healthcare for all.
“[Summerskill] enquired what I had done for the feminist movement. I replied I had done nothing of any significance. She seemed much taken aback by this information. Well, what movements did I belong to, then? None at all, I replied. None at all? How old was I? And was I educated? Upon learning that I was twenty-seven and had been educated at Oxford, she drew herself up in her chair as if I had delivered some savage insult. Did I not know who she was? Did I not know that she had spent years of her life working so that girls like me could go to Oxford? … And what was I writing this book for anyway? Just out of interest, I replied feebly. Interest, she exclaimed! I was obviously writing it for the money. She had nothing in common with me; she would tell me nothing; and she thought I had better leave. Within ten minutes of meeting Lady Summerskill, I found myself on the other side of her front door.”