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Friday 12 April 2019

women in 2020

Dear Amy, Elizabeth, Kamala…

  • A record number of women have announced they are running for the Democratic party presidential nomination, hoping to win the right to take on Donald Trump for the White House

  • They are already facing undue scrutiny over what they wear, whether they are ‘likeable’, and whether they will be able to balance family life with being a leader

  • Even though Britain currently has its second female prime minister, Westminster, too, has a long history of blocking women’s progress – a key challenge now for female politicians across the world, is to represent women’s policy interests whilst avoiding being pigeon-holed

By Rachel Reeves

Dear Amy, Elizabeth, Kamala, Kirsten, Marianne and Tulsi,

As the number of women putting themselves forward to be the Democratic nominee in 2020 grows, I’ve started to imagine what it would feel like to see the 46th president of the United States being sworn in as “Madam President”. I’m sure that, amidst all the stump speeches and rallies, you too have reflected on the significance of this moment, and imagined the crowds swelling around the Capitol with joy, hope and relief.

It is truly exciting to see that there are record-breaking numbers of female candidates seeking the presidency. To those of you who have already announced your candidacy – Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Marianne Williamson, Tulsi Gabbard – and the many more women rumoured to be running, you are all making history. The record number of candidates is a testament to the resilience, determination and defiant nature of the women’s movement. When the future appears bleak – with a misogynist in the White House, Brett Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court and attacks on reproductive rights – there is power in hope and in sisterhood.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, right, takes part in a protest against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court

But if this is a moment of hope and excitement for women in politics, it is also a moment to pause and take stock. All too often, moments of hope for women in politics have fallen short of smashing the final glass barrier – political leadership on our own terms. Already, many male presidential candidates have been self-righteously announcing that they will have female running mates, as if that were good enough. It’s time – past time, in fact – that we had a woman in the top job. If these men are true allies of women, they will stand aside and support one of the truly fantastic women seeking the presidency. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen – so that’s where you all come in!

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I’ve spent the last couple of years working on a book that takes a long look at the women of Westminster – the MPs who changed politics. So, what lessons from the British context can be drawn for the female presidential candidates? What struggles have British women MPs encountered while climbing the political ladder, and how have we best resolved them?

Elizabeth Warren joins Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016

In the 100 years of women sitting in the House of Commons, we have only had two female prime ministers. To the embarrassment and shame of my party, the Labour Party, both of those have been Conservatives. A string of Labour women have come close – Barbara Castle in the 1970s, Shirley Williams in the 1980s and Harriet Harman in the 2000s. These brilliant women were without doubt as competent and passionate as their male counterparts, yet leadership eluded them.

Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in the British parliament, in 1923

The links between US and British politics have always run deep. The first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons was an American, Nancy Astor. Having met her husband, Waldorf Astor, on the boat over from New York, Astor took Waldorf’s seat on his accession to the House of Lords following the death of his father, the first Viscount Astor. “They would rather have a rattlesnake in the Chamber than me,” she once said. Winston Churchill told Astor: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing to defend myself, not even a sponge.” She rebuffed him with a wry smile: “You are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.” Her male colleagues even physically blocked her from getting to her seat, but she pushed past them and ensured her voice was heard.

The public quickly warmed to her. Being a Virginian gave her more than a penchant for Virginia hams, chewing gum and pineapple brittle (of which she received frequent deliveries from the States); it gave her a sense of directness, temerity and non-stuffiness. But in parliament she was ostracised, condescended to and undermined. She later reflected: “Pioneers may be picturesque figures, but they are often rather lonely ones.” I’m sure most women in politics can identify with that feeling.

Of course, the first woman to be prime minister was Margaret Thatcher in 1979. I expect that many of you – as Democratic women – would rail against what Margaret Thatcher stood for and did in government. When Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street, I was just three months old. Aged eight, I knew I didn’t agree with Thatcher – I was an early convert to the Labour cause – but I never doubted that a woman could lead and be prime minister. Role models help; the women running to be president will already be role models for young women and girls in the US and across the world. Imagine if one of you were in the Oval Office and what a contrast that would make with today’s incumbent.

Edward Heath introduces his successor, the new leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, in 1975

Margaret Thatcher was, without doubt, a formidable woman who worked phenomenally hard, getting by on very little sleep. Yet one of the key reasons she was able to reach the top was because her male colleagues simply underestimated her. Thatcher’s predecessor, Edward Heath, promoted her to the Cabinet “only belatedly and grudgingly”. She ran against Heath for the leadership in 1975 and, despite speculation that she would inevitably lose to “someone more serious”, she won. Even when she was prime minister, she was continually undermined by her male colleagues, who were not used to taking orders from women. Thatcher’s Labour opponent and then prime minister, Harold Wilson, referred to her as “my dear” when they were debating in the Chamber.

When Theresa May became the second female prime minister in 2016, it was also partly a result of people radically underestimating her. Whereas she remained cool-headed in the leadership election which led to her coronation as PM, some men vying for the top job tripped up or blundered in their frenzied pursuit of power.

It may be true that in Thatcher’s time, it would have been impossible to smash the glass ceiling without sporting the iron glove of conformity with patriarchal and masculine norms. But today, that does not hold. Our current prime minister, Theresa May, famously wore a T-shirt saying “This is what a feminist looks like”. That would have been inconceivable for Thatcher. Thanks to the efforts of pioneering women, we now have a string of female role models who are pushing back against age-old gender norms. Smashing those norms is a task for all of us. The next woman leader – whether in the UK or the US – must take on that challenge, just as Jacinda Ardern is doing in New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern’s compassionate leadership after the shootings in Christchurch was an inspiration

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Ardern’s leadership is that she has been one of the first leaders to uncompromisingly embrace her status as a woman. Unlike many women leaders who have felt pressurised to sacrifice family life, Ardern has defied that convention by having a baby in office and even bringing her baby to a UN assembly general meeting. Her compassionate, unwavering and immediate action in the wake of the horrific Christchurch attacks, when she visited the families within hours and wore a hijab in a sign of solidarity, is an inspiration to us all.

The next female leaders in the US and the UK should follow Ardern’s lead, governing with strength, sympathy, and sisterhood. That means challenging the status quo and taking up space, not just in terms of reaching positions of power, but by redefining the agenda.

Let me also say this: never doubt that you have the ability to lead, and encourage your supporters to call out sexism and misogyny whenever it occurs. Already, many female presidential candidates are being scrutinised for what they wear, whether they are “likeable”, and whether they will be able to balance family life with being a leader. These are criteria that would, quite simply, not be applied for a man. We must refuse to dignify these questions with answers.

But one issue you will have to answer is what causes and policies to put front and centre in your campaigns. A key challenge, for female politicians across the world, is to represent women’s policy interests whilst avoiding being pigeonholed. Throughout history, women MPs have championed women’s issues and put them on the political map. But the very idea that women’s interests are a niche area of policy, detached from the rest, needs to be challenged.

It all started in 1925, when the Liberal MP Margaret Wintringham and the Conservative Nancy Astor worked across the aisle to achieve the equal guardianship of children. Before that, mothers had no rights to their children upon separation or divorce. Ever since, women MPs have championed issues of child benefit and family allowances, equal pay, action against domestic abuse and sexual harassment and much more. When I interviewed Theresa May for my book, she told me that her proudest achievement was taking action against human trafficking and modern slavery, which disproportionately affects women and girls.

I know that increasingly in the UK, and in the US too, the biggest challenge of being a woman in politics is the abuse and vilification, with social media anonymity lowering the bar for people to attack us. The regular rape and death threats that we face on social media can become all too real, as they did when my friend and fellow Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a neo-Nazi in her own constituency, just a week before the EU referendum.

There is no “right” way to deal with this abuse. But the only tactic that is faithful to who we are is to carry on speaking out and remember that, ultimately, the perpetrators of abuse are attempting to silence us. Diane Abbott, who in 1987 became the first black female MP to be elected in the UK, received half of the abusive Twitter messages sent to all female MPs in the 2017 general election.

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been subjected to massive online abuse

In both the UK and the US, women of colour such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Jewish MP Luciana Berger disproportionately receive the most abuse. “You don’t get inured to it, it’s very painful,” Abbott told me. She went on: “But if I was to say I’m going to step down from parliament because I can’t take the abuse, then they would have won.” That’s the same for running for the White House – don’t let anyone silence you or turn down the volume. When we speak together, our voices will grow even louder. We must and will challenge, call out and root out abuse whenever we find it, and stand together as women in defiance.

The same applies for sexual harassment and objectification. In the 1980s, when male MPs used to pinch the bottoms of female MPs as they walked through the packed division lobbies to vote, Labour’s Shirley Williams devised a plan with her female colleagues. They decided that whenever they were due to vote, they would wear stiletto heels and dig them into the foot of any offending male MP. When one of the culprits hobbled into the tearoom later that day, several stiletto-clad women gathered around him, fussing and feigning concern. He pretended it was gout.

The presence of women in our political institutions has brought a sisterhood of cheerleaders for women, and the issues facing women. That sisterhood has often transcended the political divide, with women working cross-party to achieve change. In doing so, they have put into practice Jo Cox’s famous words: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” On reproductive rights, domestic abuse, the gender pay gap and much more, women have strength in numbers. When women come together to oppose sexism and corruption, something extraordinary happens. We saw it with the MeToo movement. And we saw it when Democratic women in the House wore the colour of the suffragette movement in the States – white – in anticipation of Trump’s state of the union address.

Democrat women dress in white in Congress for Trump’s state of the union address in February

That spirit of sisterhood is alive and well in both the UK and the US. It is time to bring it to the White House.




Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West. Her book, Women of Westminster: The MPs That Changed Politics, is out now.

Further Reading

  • Full text of the landmark Declaration of Sentiments delivered at the first women’s rights convention in the United States in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York.
  • Leading suffragist campaigner Millicent Fawcett’s 1911 book Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement.
  • Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance and Revolution in Trump’s America is a collection of essays from 23 feminist writers, including Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit

All Photographs by Getty Images