LINDA McDOUGALL: There's not been a better time for women in politics

LINDA McDOUGALL: It’s taken a bitter fight but I believe there has never been a better time to be a woman in politics

Way back in 1977, I became a Westminster wife when my husband won Grimsby for the Labour Party. He joined 649 other MPs, of whom just 23 were women.

You’d never know it by the fit of the vapours consuming the House of Commons last week, but there’s never been a better time to be a woman in politics.

It’s taken a long and bitter struggle. The big breakthrough came in 1997. Remember the photo of 101 female MPs surrounding a new Prime Minister? It showed a beaming Tony Blair at the centre of the female intake of his New Labour government.

Inevitably, they were dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’ – never a phrase that these fiercely intelligent and highly driven women liked.

Indeed, Blair’s wife Cherie described the nickname as ‘disparaging’, saying it implied ‘they were there to be looked at, not to do’.

A sexism row has been ongoing about Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner (pictured), after there were alleged comments about her crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the Prime Minister

Linda McDougall believes there has never been a better time to be a woman in politics, she believes a turning point came in 1997 when Tony Blair was pictured with 101 female MPs (pictured)

In truth, these 101 Labour stalwarts who’d fought so hard for power and recognition weren’t going to let any nicknames or nonsense get in the way of their work.

Today, 25 years on, Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner would do well to summon up their collective spirit.

She has found herself at the heart of a ‘sexism’ row triggered by comments she was reported to have made to colleagues on Parliament’s terrace about the way she had tried to disarm Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions.

She was outraged by the report of her alleged comments in The Mail on Sunday, saying it was ‘offensive and demeaning’, adding: ‘I stand accused of a ploy to distract the helpless PM, by being a woman, having legs and wearing clothes.’

All week, Westminster and radio and TV phone-ins have been full of howls about ‘sexism’. Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle joined the chorus of virtue-signalling, saying the story was ‘misogynistic and offensive’.

Cue calls from Ms Rayner’s Labour colleague Harriet Harman, the longest-serving female MP. She said, seemingly grudgingly, that while certain aspects of life for women have certainly improved since the early 1980s, there is still a very long way to go.

Harriet Harman MP (pictured) is the Mother of the House, having been an MP since 1982

Before the Speaker considers asking the editor of Vogue magazine to advise women MPs not to wear blouses that are too revealing, let me remind you that not only have we had two women Prime Ministers, but the current holders of the offices of Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Leader of the House of Lords and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are all women. Next week, women, including me, will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Blair’s Election victory – one that saw the ratio of women in Parliament double overnight from nine to 18 per cent – 120 were elected largely because of Labour’s all-women shortlists campaign.

Today, the good news is that women MPs are much more widespread among all parties in the Commons. Women account for 35 per cent of all MPs and the numbers continue to rise steadily.

Labour has more female members (104) than male (98).

Indeed, Angela Rayner is the first woman MP for Ashton-under-Lyne since the Lancashire constituency was created in 1832.

Women in politics have improved their position considerably in the past quarter of a century, and that improvement has slowly begun to spread through every field of life.

There are more female managers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and businesswomen than ever before and there are more hard-working, sensible women in Parliament battling for their constituents.

When I first started working with politicians at Westminster as a TV documentary-maker, the small number of female MPs bore huge pressures. Male members thought it was perfectly acceptable to interrupt their female colleagues mid-sentence. Parliament’s door-keepers assumed most women were typists or visitors until otherwise explained, and Margaret Thatcher was the oft-quoted honourable exception to it all.

I’m a big fan of Angela Rayner. When I wrote her biography for a book titled The Honourable Ladies (the first complete record of all female MPs), I felt she was one to watch. I don’t mind at all if Angela and other women MPs on all sides of the House use any female tactics to get their way and improve their lot and that of women generally in Parliament.

After all, we have put up with just a few hundred years of men using every trick in the book to keep us subservient. Why shouldn’t we do whatever we can to improve equality and hammer out a fairer deal?

Just one word of caution.

Now that finer weather is on its way, some women MPs may dare to go bare-legged in the chamber. But it’s not wise to discuss with male colleagues the tactics you may use to grab attention.

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