Women’s suffrage: Diane Abbott on discrimination 100 years on – and her own struggle for respect as first black female MP
- Credit: Archant
Diane Abbott made history as the first black female MP to hold a seat in the House of Commons. As the Gazette marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington talks to the Gazette about her election in 1987 and the challenges women still face
Diane Abbott’s entry into politics was more formal than she expected.
Moving from a casual television environment to Parliament where everyone wore suits “was like being surrounded by people who were perpetually going for job interviews”.
“It was very formal, very male, very middle-aged,” says the MP of 30 years, as she sits down with the Gazette to discuss her political career after her weekly surgery in Stoke Newington Town Hall.
“I’d taken over from an older man and although some people were really excited at the idea of having a black MP, there were others that were sceptical about a young woman and a black woman as their MP.”
This week, the Gazette marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Speaking with Ms Abbott about her three-decade journey through Parliament, we learn how far we have come and how much more we have yet to achieve to gain true equality for all women.
Elected in 1987 at the age of 33 as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Ms Abbott made history as the first black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons.
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“It was quite an unpleasant campaign in ‘87 and although many people didn’t talk about my race explicitly, it was clear that was an issue,” she says. “Being a younger woman as well, it was challenging to get the respect you should get.”
One of these challenges arose when she became a mother and “there was no question of maternity leave”.
“It was very unusual to have a baby as a Member of Parliament. Because women were older, they tended to have had their families or not have families at all.
“I worked up until the Thursday, I had the baby on Monday and I was back in Parliament working eight days after I had my baby.”
Some of the male MPs from across the parties “were a bit odd about it”, and she was repeatedly asked why she didn’t just “dump him with a nanny”.
She praises Harriet Harman’s efforts in pushing for leave for new parents. It was only a few days ago that MPs voted in favour of a new system of “baby leave”, which could see great improvements for MPs of all genders, particularly those younger.
As a politician who came young to Westminster, opening the floor for other young women is important for Ms Abbott – but she admits she has experienced a fresh set of challenges that could risk putting women off.
“What is completely new is the level of online harassment,” she says. During the 2017 election campaign, Ms Abbott received “a hugely disproportionate amount of abuse”.
An Amnesty survey found she was the target of half of all the abuse levelled at women MPs during the campaign.
“Women MPs in general tend to get more abuse than men, and I think that is off-putting for people. Why would you want to do a job where people are threatening rape and being abusive about you? Young women come in to do work experience and they start to see the abuse coming through and you can see they’re thinking: ‘Do I really want to tackle this?’”
But the citizens of Hackney were an antidote throughout the campaign, stopping her in the street to congratulate her or offer their support.
“The more intense this all got, the more supportive people in Hackney got. At the worst of it, people would say: ‘Can I give you a hug?’ They understood that I was under assault and just wanted to lift me up and assure me that they weren’t swayed by all of that.”
It was a sentiment proven when she got one of the biggest majorities in the country, winning 75 per cent of the vote.
“I was very struck by how positive people were,” she concludes.
#MeToo and Time’s Up
It feels as though the energy of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have created ripples throughout society. But have they extended into the world of politics?
“Issues of sexual harassment have reached Westminster,” says Diane Abbott. “Male MPs are thinking about it in ways they’ve never had to think about it before: partly because there was this idea that what happens in Parliament stays in Parliament, partly because Parliament is very patriarchal and about male power, and partly because in the era of camera phones it’s very hard to keep things secret.
“The #MeToo movement is like a thread and it’s all unravelling.”
Talking of the Financial Times’ expose of the Presidents Club dinner, at which hostesses were groped and harassed and a number of male politicians were in attendance, she says: “What I thought was interesting was the amount of men who were meant to be on the guest list saying ‘well, I never saw anything’ or ‘I left early’, so they understand that you can’t defend that type of behaviour any more. I think even as recently as a year ago, they would have tried to.”
‘Women are bearing the brunt of government cuts’
With cuts to refuges, health care and social housing, women are feeling the majority of the effects. Figures obtained after the last budget showed that 86 per cent of cuts in 2017 fell on women.
“There’s no question that austerity and cuts to benefits and cuts in things like social care and the NHS have fallen very heavily on women,” says Diane Abbott. “So, despite the fact that we’ve got a woman Prime Minister, women, particularly in a place like [Hackney], are really bearing the brunt of austerity and government cuts.”
So what does Ms Abbott feel is a particularly important concern to be tackled?
“I think childcare is a really important issue and we’re looking at how we can improve access to childcare,” she says.
“You can’t expect the market to provide childcare for poor women in Hackney. Whether you attach childcare facilities to schools, the government have to do things like that.”