The Over-Masculinisation of the Working Classes and its Effect on Women’s Representation

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Of particular concern to the public in recent years is the perception that the House of Commons has become dominated by privately educated middle class men, and that this has narrowed the ability of parliament to speak to the general population, particularly the “working class.” Above all, a decline in unionisation – the traditional route of entry into politics for working class men and women – has arguably created a parliament that is unaware of the real needs of working people.

Issues of working class representation are of concern to both genders, but particularly women. Even at the height of the trade union movement, unions, like most working class institutions, were decidedly male environments. Women were largely excluded from such spheres, the stereotype being that they were tough mothers who gossiped over washing lines while their husbands went to  work. Indeed, when considering this stereotype, there are few other roles for women that springs to mind, least of all politician, a role which is dominated by the male professional classes.

Female representation in parliament remains a particularly pressing issue. In October 2012 Dr Helen Pankhurst, the granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, marched on parliament with UK Feminista to lobby politicians on female parliamentary representation. [1] Nearly a hundred years after women gained the right to vote, only 22% of MPs, 22% of the House of Lords and 33% of British MPS are women. [2] Since Margaret Bondfield was appointed Minister for Labour in 1929, there have been only 28 women cabinet ministers. Despite attempts to improving female representation in parliament, figures remain low. The Liberal Democrats have the worst representation at 12%.  The Conservatives have a modest 16%, and the Labour Party have 32%. The main reason for Labour’s lead is for its use of all-women short lists in selecting candidates, which is seen as controversial due to its accidental reliance on parachute candidates. [3]

This compels the question: Where are the rest of the women? Simply answered 64% of low paid workers were women in 2008 and in 2005 80% [4] of NHS workers were women out of a work force of 1.2million, with the majority in low-to-medium paid jobs. [5] Link these statistics to the current cost of running an election campaign, the time commitment, unequal paternity rights, the cost of childcare and loss of economic stability due to gender targeted cuts in the state and you begin to see the barriers that prevent women standing. To be a woman in politics is to be considered exceptional, well educated and “overly” ambitious: not to be a regular career and certainly not a “normal “one for a working class woman.

Historically too, the campaign for suffrage was dominated by the upper classes, and it is often forgotten that hundreds of working class women signed petitions and lobbied for suffrage. However, they declined to take part in direct action, perhaps because their families had more to lose than respect. This is a political tradition is upheld by current working class women for example in the recent Pay Gap campaigns that have equalised pay in Birmingham’s local authority. The balance between representations of all classes needs to be established to really reconnect parliament to society. [6]

Today, the case for further action is overwhelming. As a result of the recession, women are becoming sidelined, their priorities trivialised. A recent Fawcett Society report ‘The Impact of Austerity on Women’ highlighted the profound gender unfairness of how coalition cuts are being implemented. [7] This is reflected in media projections where arguments focus away from “women’s” issues toward “more pressing” economic issues, which are incorrectly portrayed in a macho way. At the same time, their lives are affected by economic decisions, job losses, rising prices, and the battle against prejudice.

The resulting disparities have arguably created a state of hostility between equality and economics. In April 2011, David Willetts suggested that two parents in work affect unemployment of men generally, coining marriages between equally educated men and women as “assortative mating.” This argument suggests that to cabinet ministers male unemployment is more important than women’s.  This view point relies on the stability of the “family unit” and perpetuates the old-fashioned view of defining women by their partner’s job, cementing the idea of work and the economy being masculine. It also suggests that this government feels that women equally educated “steal” jobs “meant” for men. Additionally, it also implies that any ‘new’ economy wants to be based on unequal opportunity. [8]

This is essentially a false premise. Unemployment is unemployment and classing it into gender defeats the object of tackling the problem. Job creation, not pressure for women to step aside is all that can truly be done to help employment figures, especially when you take into account that 90% of single parent families are run by women: many of them in the working class. When an MP makes such claims it shows how recession might prolong low representation and the distance between politicians and the public. This alone is adequate to call for change at the top.

There are attempts being made to at least draw attention to this issue. Several unions have begun a process of “de-masculinisation,” with women appointed to positions of authority. The TUC has recently announced, Frances O’Grady will be its next general secretary. There is much more that can be done however, and particularly in the House of Commons. Only a more robust and targeted selection process of women across parties will lead to more women MPs and is the only way to balance the equation, both in terms of sex and socio-economic background. More work should be done to ensure that local women can be found to populate short lists.

Considering all these issues and many more, tackling working class representation, if executed correctly could decrease the time it takes to reach gender equality in politics, but only if we de-masculinise the term “working class.” After almost 100 years, what would he first women elected to the House of Commons would make of today’s politics and its unchallenged patriarchy. As the ‘Sex and Power’ report of 2008 by the EHRC puts it ‘A snail could crawl the entire length of the Great Wall of China in 212 years, just slightly longer than the 200 years it will take for women to be equally represented in Parliament.

Article by Frances Parsons. Edited by Chris Olewicz and Nathan Tanswell.



[2] Women in Parliament and Government Social & General Statistics Section SN/SG/1250 Feargal McGuinness, 5 October 2012