Angela Eagle: Politics and the Patriarchy


‘I am the 164th woman’ Angela Eagle began her talk ‘Politics and the Patriarchy’ at How The Light Gets In festival. And to get that in perspective, Parliament has been running since 1707 and currently has 650 MPs within its walls. In 1992 when she was first elected, 60 out of 650 were women – the largest proportion ever at the time, and a reason to celebrate. Eagle described going out for a meal with a group of about ten other female MPs at the time. Their return back to the house was treated with suspicion – Why were the women congregating in private? Were they plotting together?

Eagle, now Shadow First Secretary of State as well as Shadow Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, spoke candidly about her experiences, as being a woman in parliament. Improvements are being made she conceded, pointing out that in last year’s election 191 women are elected, meaning 29% of MPs are now female.  But this is not good enough, she asserted, when women actually make up over 50% of the population. Politics is not a comfortable place for women: the adversarial system used in Parliament – characterised by conflict and opposition - is not easy to identify with as a woman, Eagle explained. She sees women as more natural collaborators, and less comfortable with traditional models of leadership found within politics.

The media buys into this, choosing to interview politicians with a combative style. ‘Journalists want to skewer politicians’. She describes how the labour party are now making a concerted effort to always have a least one woman to represent the female voice at conferences. But to not much avail – journalists will rarely ask this candidate any questions. And for this reason, Eagle believes that women disappear when big votes or referendums happen. And you may think of the EU referendum that we are currently in the throes of: Where are the female voices being heard representing either campaign? They are ominously absent. Men run party campaigns, Eagle told the audience. And often women are appealed to by politicians as a seemingly minority group. My mind goes back to the Labour pink bus…

Women don’t do politics like men do, Eagle says. Men 'trade favours and manoeuvre', whilst women naïvely believe the system to be meritocratic – and that by doing a good job they will be able to rise to the top. She described a time when she was backed by John Prescott to get on to a committee, but did not reciprocate when he was running for deputy leader, wanting to back a woman rather than a man. Prescott refused to talk to her for years; she was not even aware that she had entered into negotiation, that this 'unwritten contract' existed.

So the fight goes on – and this is what we must do, Eagle told us: we must fight for progress. She acknowledged that improvements have been made and are happening all the time but there was is a long way to go. And why is it so important to fight for proper representation of women in Parliament? She told a final story to illustrate her point. Recently a committee came together to discuss what healthcare the NHS should provide. Everything not on the list would have to be covered by insurance. Maternity, gynaecology, and sexual health did not feature. Unsurprisingly this was an all male meeting. Eagle told the audience that as a group women are still the ‘other’ despite being a majority. Without proper representation in parliament by women, for women, women, and ‘women’s' issues will always be marginalised.

(c) Katie Jackson

Angela Eagle spoke at How The Light Gets In Festival in Hay-on-Wye. It ran from the 26th May to the 5th June.

Author's review: