Women have different experiences of life, different economic positions, and these voices need to be heard, says Natalie Bennett
Standing in pouring rain recently, listening to a female speaker at Occupy Democracy, squashed on a narrow pavement with Parliament Square fenced off by officials to “protect the grass,” it struck me how the position would have been familiar to female political campaigners through the ages: physically marginalised, subjected to official harassment and struggling to be heard.
Of course across the road in “the mother of all Parliaments” it isn’t that different.
Women make up just 23 per cent of MPs, only 25 per cent of serving ministers are women, and when we see the line-up of people making the big economic decisions that have such a critical impact on women’s lives, they’re all men.
What’s more, when you walk the corridors or visit the bars, the gender balance of the staffers, the interns, the advisers is if anything worse than the elected reps.
In 2010 a lot of the coverage of “women in politics” was about the leaders’ wives’ wardrobes.
Next year, we are so far offered a series of official debates involving four male leaders covering a very narrow political spectrum — excluding, as Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and I recently got together to highlight, not only the women leaders of parties but our anti-austerity political perspective.
One of the things we can be proud of about Britain is our long tradition of female dissent and protest: go back to the civil war and the Leveller Women’s Petition.
It proclaimed: “Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right?”
You can then move on to the Suffragettes and the Greenham Common protests, with many other potential stopping points in between.
However, the narrowness of what’s been called “history,” the lack of chances for women to promote and publicly talk about other women, means it can’t be called a continuous tradition — but it is one that can be recovered, highlighted and celebrated, as an inspiration for a move towards a new, more equal British politics.
Now I’m not an essentialist.
I don’t believe that women are fundamentally different to men.
But they do have different experiences of life, different economic and social positions, and if those perspectives aren’t equally represented in Parliament then our democracy is greatly weakened — just as we need the perspectives of disabled people, of black and ethnic minority people, of people from different social and financial backgrounds.
We can thank the Fawcett Society for highlighting the fact that one-fifth of the average woman’s income comes from benefits, while for men that figure is one-tenth.
And we know that the cuts have hit women hardest — about two-thirds of the cost coming out of their pockets, while tax cuts have benefited men.
Childcare, responsibility for which still falls overwhelmingly on women’s shoulders, is expensive, inadequately supplied and often unresponsive to parents’ needs.
More women in Parliament, in formal politics at all levels, more women in campaigning groups and NGOs, are essential to rebalance British politics.
And it’s great to see there are strong and varied campaigns doing just that.
I recently spoke to a meeting organised by Engaging Women in Frome, Somerset, a non-partisan group set up, as the name suggests, to get women more involved at all levels and in all forms of politics.
This in a town which has been leading the way in political innovation, through a town council dominated by a group of independents determined to do politics differently.
The collective energy and enthusiasm was impressive, and a sign of one important element of the way forward. As a former chair of Green Party Women I’ve seen similar tactics work in the Green Party — women working together to encourage each other to stand, to get involved, to take on roles and responsibilities.
It’s one element of the new kind of approach we desperately need — a more co-operative, sensible alternative to the Punch and Judy politics epitomised by Prime Minister’s questions.
This is part of a peaceful political revolution that could deliver a politics that works for the common good, not for the few, within the environmental limits of our one planet.
What does that look like? That’s a whole other article, but the Green Party believes that it must include a living wage for all workers, as part of a broader package that includes banning zero-hours contracts.
We want a universal basic income that could transform the lives of many women, particularly those with caring responsibilities, and an ending and reversal of the failed model of privatisation that has simply cut the pay and conditions of workers and downgraded the quality of services while shovelling public money into private hands.
More women in politics, more women’s voices being heard at all levels, is not sufficient on its own to deliver these kind of changes, but it is necessary.
Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.