Role of Women in Public Life - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:37 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 8:37 pm, 5th February 2018

My Lords, like many other speakers in today’s debate, I took inspiration from a couple of women I know of. The first was my great-grandmother, who got up before dawn to make sure that she was the first woman who voted in her mining village in Scotland. The second was called Elizabeth Downie. In 1948, I understand, she proposed the resolution to the NALGO conference to get rid of the married women’s work bar. Within her family, she was known as “Red Betty”. Some years later, when I started to go out with her daughter, who is now my wife, I am not sure what alarmed her more: the fact that her daughter had taken up with a woman or the fact that I was a Liberal Democrat.

The theme I want to explore this evening is hidden history. I was inspired in part by going to a lecture at the LSE library last week. It was about Sapphic suffragettes. It is possible that they were not all straight. It is a bit more difficult to assert that some of them were lesbians, but there is a fairly reasonable case to be made that they could have been, and there is a very good case to go back and take away some of the myths that have grown up around the suffragettes, particularly about the First World War being the reason legislative change came around. There is a case to be made that these women were so well organised and so strategic in what they did that it became apparent to people such as Lloyd George that they absolutely were responsible enough to vote.

But I want to talk about these hidden giants on whose shoulders we are standing. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, was absolutely right that it did not all start in 1918: this was the culmination of something that had been going on for a long time. Noble Lords and noble Baronesses will have walked through Westminster Hall and seen that wonderful artwork “New Dawn”, which marks John Stuart Mill’s presentation of the first petition for women’s franchise. What your Lordships probably do not know is that he was heavily influenced by a wonderful woman called Harriet Taylor, whom he ultimately married. It was she who campaigned away against the prison that marriage was back in the Victorian era and against the harm that happened to women because they had to be economically dependent on men and were treated as no better than chattels.

Another person I doubt very many of your Lordships will have heard about, but who ought to be an inspiration, is Viscountess Rhondda, an amazing woman from south Wales. She inherited her father’s business and, during her lifetime, was a director of more than 33 companies. Extraordinarily, she and her father survived the sinking of the “Lusitania”. After inheriting his business, she went on to set up Time and Tide, the famous progressive women’s magazine. She campaigned tirelessly for women to inherit their titles and sit in this Chamber. She tried to argue this on the 1918 legislation, which talks about women not being barred from any public office, but she did not succeed. We heard the quote from Earl Ferrers earlier, about the admission of women in the 1950s. My other favourite quote from that same debate—the clincher that the men put forward to keep women out—was that to admit women would play havoc with the plumbing. In light of restoration and renewal, maybe they were right. Sadly, Lady Rhondda died moments before that legislation came in. But she was a brilliant woman and, what is more, a lesbian. There are all these people who have parts of their lives and inspirations to what they do that have been hidden for a very long time. We quite often miss the diversity of women’s experiences, inside and outside Parliament, in this fight.

There are so many women who have been truly inspirational. This place is one of immense privilege, but none beats being a colleague of Shirley Williams. She was an absolute inspiration to me when I was a kid and has worked tirelessly to inspire women to come forward, to get their elbows out with the men in the room and to argue for equality.

We have some considerable way to go. We are extraordinarily lucky to be women who live in this country. I know, as a woman from my community, that I am extraordinarily lucky to be who I am at this point in time, when I can be open about being a part of my community and can bring that to discussions in your Lordships’ House. We are not fully there in terms of diversity yet. I hope that before too long, somewhere in Parliament, we will have representatives of the trans community. I hope they will be elected in another place. Would that not be a slap in the face to that woman on the Times who is giving that community a real battering at the moment? They really do need some support.

I will end with a couple of points. Many have talked about statues today. I understand why your Lordships want to do that and why it is important to increase the visibility of women. But I am much more interested in our passing on a different legacy to the next generation, and that we inspire them to be involved and to follow us and tear down some of the walls in this building. I was really pleased during the last election to take part in the “register her to vote” campaign that was happening on Twitter, to get young women registered to vote. I hope the Government will support that and other initiatives. A terrifying statistic is that in 2015, 9 million women who could have voted did not. A number of noble Baronesses will, like me, have stood on doorsteps over the years listening to young women saying, “I really don’t see why I should vote”. Fortunately, it has been a long time since I heard, “I don’t know how we’re voting; my husband hasn’t told us”. It is really important that we inspire young women to vote. I hope Peers will go out and actively support the work of organisations such as the Patchwork Foundation, which seeks to demonstrate through role models to young people from disadvantaged communities that they too have a place in public life and a valuable contribution to make.

I have been inspired to go back and read history and learn the lessons from wonderful women such as Eleanor Roosevelt. She inspired me to look again at that very dry subject of human rights and to ensure that in all that comes before our Parliament—especially in everything that will come before us in the next few months—we never lose sight of women’s rights and human rights, and that we never assume that they have been won and are safe. We have to continue to work for them. We have to recruit and inspire new generations of young men and women to come and join us in the battle.