Stella Creasy on being a woman in public life
In my interview with Stella Creasy for Ethos Journal, which was mostly about her campaign against payday lenders and her views on empowering in consumers in other parts of the private sector and in public services (longer version here), I also asked her about being a woman in politics.
What about Laura Sandys, I said, referring to the Conservative MP who had just announced that she would be standing down at the next election (I interviewed Creasy in December – it has taken a long time for this interview to be published). Her reply was sharp:
Stella Creasy: OK. This is really interesting – where you won’t like me – why are you asking me about that?
JR: Because my woman editor thinks there’s a problem with the House of Commons and the way it treats women.
I absolutely think that’s an issue in a workplace that is four out of five men, like it is in the media, because we live in an 80-20 society, because it means that people do think, “Is that for me?” But I am just very sceptical because when Louise Mensch resigned I was deluged with phone calls saying, “Can I get a comment from you about whether this means women – ?”
I was like, “I’ll stop you there. I have not got children, yet, my partner does not work abroad, I don’t write novels, I’m not even in the same political party as this woman, why are you making the presumption that I could understand what she’s been going through? Here are the names of five of my male colleagues who have young families who I know are torn about the fact that they don’t get to see their kids as much as they want to – call them.” None of them got a phone call.
I just caution this notion that it’s always a gender issue first, not necessarily a parenting issue. As a committed feminist one of the sad things about my generation is that we haven’t cracked the fact that childcare is a parents’ thing rather than a woman’s thing. Still too often – I notice it with my friends, I notice it with my constituents – there is a fear about what having children will do. I don’t think this place is any different. I think the challenges about women in this place go beyond childcare and beyond whether people standing down is indicative of that. Actually it’s about language, it’s about tone, it’s much more about the unconscious expectations.
I got into a fight last night about this at Matt Forde’s Political Party. Somebody in the audience commented on what I was wearing. And I snapped back, absolutely, because I have a quiet anger that this stuff goes unchallenged – and sometimes it is not so quiet – and everyone got very cross with me and I suddenly thought that it is very hard to explain the different sensation of being a woman in public life and it’s not just about this place. It is in the media; it is the fact that your woman editor says, “Oh you should ask about this.” I don’t know her, I haven’t had these conversations, but just because I happen to be the same gender means that I understand what she’s going through. But there is that presumption, in the way that, if John Woodcock was sat here would you be asking him about one of the men who’s standing down – Bob Ainsworth?
When you start to call it out people feel very uncomfortable about having it called out, but one of the things we have to do is, as [Gustav] Ichheiser, the great sociology theorist, said about the absence of debates as well as debates – that what is missing is as important as what is spoken. You’ve always known that I’m a nerd –
JR: It is true that no one talking about the proportion of 2010 men who are standing down.
SC: There is a statistical challenge but in itself the presumption that I would have a special connection is the challenge that we face: the idea that there are women’s issues. If men were clever, feminism would be our top priority because societies that are equal are more prosperous and yet the numbers of men who will say to me, “Look at me, I am a feminist too,” as if I should be grateful and I think, “We all benefit from it.” I know that sounds spiky. I mean it in a gentle way. Until we start challenging these perceptions – this place is rife with it; that’s no different from British society. I’ve done debates here where when women have spoken they have been called emotional, irrational, and I think you’ve not done that to men and believe me I’ve been as boring as they are and I’ve called people out on this.
I was talking about the “No to Page 3” campaign to Liam Fox. He said he agreed with it but it was not really a big issue. I said, “I don’t know how to express to you what it is like to be judged on how you dress and how you look all the time.”
A journalist congratulated me [on the payday loans victory] for changing perceptions of women MPs. There is a journey we have to travel. It is not just about this place, it is about British society. That is why I am angry.Tagged in: feminism, Stella Creasy
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