Women in Politics from the West Midlands tell us why it’s no longer a man’s world …

Just a few weeks ago, we marked International Women’s Day, where women all over the world celebrated being fabulously feminine. This prompted me to talk to some of the inspirational and courageous women who are laying the foundation for the girls of the future.

The Birmingham Labour MP Jess Phillips sent the internet in to a frenzy a few weeks ago with her brutally honest interview in The Times. She talked about breaking the mould and wanting to be an MP that’s just “a normal person”. 

She has been criticised by both the hard-left and the right for her revealing Times interview. 

Criticism came from her own ranks for talking about the Labour leadership, where she described Corbyn (and Theresa May) as “bloody difficult people who can’t admit when they’ve made mistakes”. The core of her abuse, that I waded in on myself, came from right-wingers, mainly because she was dressed up in a £538 jacket for the Times photoshoot. 

It begs the question, would a male MP receive similar scrutiny for being dressed up in fancy clothes for a photoshoot? The prices of Rees-Mogg’s or Boris’ suits have never been named in the media.

Speaking in an interview with me, Jess opened up about being a woman in politics in what traditionally was a man’s world.

Jess started by talking about what life was like growing up for her: “I grew up in Birmingham with three older brothers, there was always lots of people coming in and out of my home. It was like growing up in Piccadilly Circus. My parents would take people in, people who were getting divorced and needed somewhere to stay, people who were going through domestic violence. The house was like a sanctuary for the community.”

When asked what she would tell her 20-year-old self, Jess joked that she needed to be brought down a peg or two but confessed that, although she’s known to be a fighter and feminist now, there were unrecognisable times as a teenage Jess. She said that she and her friends were very obsessed with the way that men viewed them and if she could tell her 20-year-old self anything, it would be “to go out with the man that is nice to you and actually likes you”. She said: “And then I did just that and married my husband Tom, who was kind to me”.

Jess is known for her thick skin, often giving as good as she gets on Twitter, when people tweet her telling her that she’s “fat” or “ugly” she often responds by calling them a “k**b”. Talking about the abuse that she receives, Jess admitted: “I’ve had death threats, rape threats, mutilated pictures of myself sent to me where they talk about pouring molten metal in to my lady parts.” When asked if this is the stuff that hurts her, Jess replies: “When people say I’m fat and I’m ugly, that doesn’t really hurt me. I just think they’re t***s for saying it because I just think, if you’re the type of person that looks at somebody, even if people aren’t your cup of tea or wouldn’t be somebody that you’d fancy. I don’t intrinsically put that as part of their value, so I just think that anybody who does that is a k**b. And you shouldn’t go round worrying about what k***s think about you.”

When pressed about what does hurt her, Jess humbly says: “The things I see and hear (from my constituents) hurt me, it feels like daggers in my skin and I feel so hurt by not being able to do something about it. Personally, it hurts me when people lie about me.”

She says that as a woman in politics, if you have a credible voice, the first thing that the opposition will do is try and do is make your voice uncredible. Commenting on this, Jess talks about some of her experiences of this: “So, if you talk about women, they will try and find a way to make out that you don’t really care about women. Or race, they will say you’re a racist. And, people desperately try and make things up about me to try and make it out like I don’t care about women, which is really stupid because it’s so provably untrue.”

Jess then goes on to say that this kind of behaviour is common, from both inside and outside of her own party. She said: “I had a magazine ring up my old work at Women’s Aid one time, and ask them if I was lying about the work that I used to do there. Women’s Aid were shocked. That hurts, because they care more about knocking me off my perch than they care about what my voice does to help women. They are willing to let those people (women) not have an advocate anymore for the sake of toppling me. And that is just horrendous.”

The emotion in Jess’ voice could be heard as she admitted that once a lie spreads, it is really hard to undo and that is why it hurts so much. Many of us can relate to this.

The interview concluded by Jess talking about why Parliament seems to be lagging behind other establishments where equality is concerned and why misogyny seems to be a culture in Parliament. She says: “Parliament is massively patriarchal and old fashioned, it’s got people in there that are obsessed with old traditions, they think that any progression is to lose tradition, men hold a massive balance of power in there and until recently, lots of those men weren’t very progressive.”

I can relate to this, at 27, I’m the youngest female councillor in Wolverhampton and the thinly-disguised misogyny that is part of local politics is something that I’m faced with regularly. Whether it be the sniggering and heckling from male opposition politicians in the chamber or the fact I now have to carry around a rape alarm if I’m out on council duties, the misogyny isn’t always so disguised. My own experiences don’t stop there, speaking on a recent job opportunity that I was successful in, a male colleague spread a rumour about me, telling people that a male senior had parachuted me in to the role …. because of course a woman couldn’t have been successful in getting this role off her own merit.

Jess highlighted some of the challenges that us women in politics face, but what about some of the other women “breaking the mould” in politics?

I spoke to Councillor Sharon Thompson, she is an extremely strong voice for women in local politics in the West Midlands. Growing up in some of the most disadvantaged areas in Birmingham, as a single mother and as a homeless teen, there is no-one better to hold the homes and neighbourhoods portfolio for the city. She is definitely an expert by experience.   

Talking on some of the challenges that she faces as a black, female politician, Sharon says: “The culture we have in politics is not female-friendly. I find that, even now, some men will approach other men even when it concerns issues to do with my portfolio or area. They don’t value your opinion, unless what you’ve suggested has come from a male.”

Sharon went on to discuss the need to build a “sisterhood” in local politics, commenting: “It’s going to take (a long) time for us to move further than where we are. We need more women in politics, but once they get there, we need to support women to build a sisterhood so that we can work as a collective to have our voices heard, so our voices are not just used in a tokenistic manner.”

Half of Birmingham Council’s cabinet is made up of females.

Sharon says that women’s inequalities in politics are nothing new, adding: “The battles that the likes of Harriet Harman was fighting for women’s rights in 1982 are still the same battles we see women fighting today in politics. Some issues that concern women are seen as fluffy, they’re not treated with the same urgency or respect as they should be.”

The North Edgbaston councillor concluded by saying that if she could tell her 16-year old self anything it would be to never stop believing in what you stand for or feel that what you have to say is invalid.

My quest for courageous women who are paving the way for females of the future concluded with Wolverhampton’s first female Muslim councillor, Obaida Ahmed. 

She is a mother, wife, pharmacist and now a politician in the city of the Premier League.

Obaida told me that growing up as a Pakistani, British, Muslim girl wasn’t easy. She never thought she would be in such a privileged position as a local politician and was surprised that she was head-hunted to be interviewed as she doesn”t see herself as a particularly strong woman. She went on to say: “I had the most amazing parents growing up, but I was brought up to believe that you are a good girl if you sit quietly and don’t speak up. And that’s what I did. I wish I had spoken up more back then, but I never pushed myself to, not because I wasn’t allowed to but I just got by without a voice.”

Since entering the world of politics, Obaida spoke about the fear of being judged but having the courage to fight such battles. She commented: “I am a Muslim and I live as a Muslim. I dress modestly and cover my hair but one of the decisions I had to make once I was elected was whether I was going to shake hands with men.”

I sympathised with her, quite often, some men go in for the hug when greeting me and are met with a face-palm to stop them in their tracks. But, Obadia wasn’t talking about this, she continued: “Islam teaches that normally we (women) would not have any physical contact with men, so I had to decide whether I was going to shake hands when greeting men in my new found profession. It did play on my mind that I am going to be in the public eye and people will be watching everything I do. I made the decision to shake hands with men (and women) as I think it’s professional to do so.”

I felt that she was worried as to whether she would be judged on whether she did or didn’t shake hands with men. A stress that our male counter parts wouldn’t have to come up against.

Speaking about the expectations of her now, as the only female Muslim councillor in her city, she said that men have a role to play in fighting for feminism, she added: “They (men) can’t expect every job to be mine. So, if they think that there aren’t enough women at political meetings, that’s not just my job to go out there and engage women in politics. It’s their job as men to make it easier for the women in their lives to get involved.”

What all these women have in common is that at some point in their lives, they were told that their voices would never be as strong as their male counterparts. In everything that they do, they are fighting battles locally and nationally to make our country a safe, equal world for women of the future.

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