(This post first appeared at Platform 10 on 5 April 2011.)
At the 2005 general election, seventeen women were elected as Conservative MPs. Seventeen men called David were also elected as Conservative MPs, and the Shadow Cabinet contained more Davids than women. This number of Conservative women elected was dwarfed both by Labour’s 98 women elected in the same election and by the 49 women who are currently Conservative MPs.
Conservative women are almost invisible, hidden from view. Even when they are public figures they tend to be silent. The “Conservative woman” who appears most in the press is Samantha Cameron, and yet few members of the public could pick her voice out of crowd. The media ignore high-profile politicians such as Theresa May, and instead portray the Prime Minister’s wife as being seen but not heard. Why?
Politics hides women because culture silences them. Firstly, there are not enough female role models, so the general public does not tend to associate women with power. The stereotype of an MP remains a white, middle-aged, middle-class male. Secondly, because women are not associated with power, women often don’t see themselves as capable. Like anyone told over and over again that they have a fixed gender role, many women absorb the stereotype and think that they can’t be politicians because they’re women.
It’s a vicious and subtle cycle. The lack of powerful women feeds the culture of women’s unsuitability. Where there are powerful women, they tend to be viewed as exceptions, oddities, and un-newsworthy. The French First Lady Carla Bruni is pictured in the UK papers more often than our own Home Secretary.
The answer lies in challenging cultural expectations. Society is made up of individuals, with different genders, ages and backgrounds. In order to represent the whole country, in order to understand the whole country, political parties must look within their membership for different experiences, different backgrounds and different approaches.
Women make an invaluable contribution to politics because they have often lived different lives to men. A variety of difference experiences widens the ability of politics to create effective and pragmatic policy by increasing the breadth of knowledge. The best decisions are those crafted by a group diverse in class, occupation, race and belief.
In hiding its female MPs and activists, the Conservative Party conforms to the outdated stereotype of what an MP looks like, and risks alienating future Conservative women.