On female political heroes and why they matter

I wrote this piece before the Referendum. It got slightly overtaken by events,but I still think the things I wrote need saying.

We heard too little about Jo Cox in her lifetime, but her approach to politics will inspire generations of future female politicians for years to come.

This is not coincidental. Outstanding female politicians are generally unheralded in their own life times.Not only are there fewer of them (just 29% of our Parliament), but our political culture is institutionally sexist in the way it excludes women and fails to recognise or report their success.

When it comes to celebrating and commemorating female achievement in politics women are routinely overlooked. On its release last year Suffragette was the first film to be made of the movement. As Allegra Stratton has pointed out there are currently no statues of women in Parliament square.

But it’s not just the way women are written out of political history: our political discourse, driven by our national media, focuses on the ‘who’s up, who’s down’ tribal minutiae of politics not the substance. Loud voices, posing as confidence, as has been seen in the EU referendum debate has been prioritised over competence meaning female politicians have been almost invisible.

Women in politics are often judged not on their effectiveness but their appearance, something Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged.

It is therefore shameful that it seems to taken the death of Jo Cox to not only rehabilitate the role of the backbench MP as something to be admired but to elevate the status of female politicians.

Women were recently elected mayors of Rome, Madrid and Barcelona.Female political leaders are on the increase everywhere but in England .   

We often have to look further afield to Germany, America and Angela Merkel, Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton for inspiration precisely because we hear so little about our own homegrown talent.

A study by MIT economist Esther Duflo found the existence of female political role models to be critical in closing the gender divide in politics.

She wrote ‘seeing women in charge persuaded parents and teens that women can run things, and increased their ambitions. Changing perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on reality,”  

When I think back to the reasons I got involved I remember the female candidate I campaigned for and  the MPs (Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson in particular) I looked up to.

Aside from her trailblazing campaigns, Jo Cox’s approach to politics will inspire thousands of women who have perhaps never been a member of a party or contemplated a career in politics.

Reading the tributes it’s clear that it’s not just what Jo Cox achieved as an MP but the way she did it will be as influential.

The fact Jo Cox pursued her passion and remained true to herself throughout her time as an MP will be as much as an inspiration for young women, refusing to conform to stereotypes of what politicians are supposed to be like.

The fact that Jo’s reputation in Parliament was built on her track record and her knowledge in relation to humanitarian and development causes not her appearance or her political allegiances will encourage other women to pursue a career in politics.

But her personal style of politics will also be hugely influential to people who are put off by the confrontational, adversarial politics we are presented with in the media.

Historian John Bew wrote ‘She was not a contrarian or a troublemaker and much preferred getting on with people.

Jo’s own style of politics was above all collaborative and practical as Kirsty Mcneill wrote:

‘the revelation of Jo’s life was not just what she did, but the how she did it. Jo believed in the power of common action, never just asking, “What do you think?”, but “How should we do it?” In her mind there was no question that could not be answered in working together.

Crucially, as Nick Clegg commented Jo’s approach was not tribal, calling her: ‘unusually free of the tribal pettiness of politics – always friendly, cheerful and kind to friend and foe alike’.

Jo’s own doubts about herself, as hard as they are to believe, were both real and relatable.

As Jo’s friend Jess Phillips MP wrote ‘don’t think she wasn’t terrified every time she took to her feet in the Commons. She was, but she did it anyway. You see she was human.’

Allegra Stratton wrote that despite her obvious talent her friend felt ‘lack of confidence set her back a decade’

Another friend and colleague Rachel Reeves MP said: ‘Jo’s main hesitation about a parliamentary career was her young family. She worried, as many of us do, about whether she could be a great MP and a great mum at the same time’

Jo’s doubts, both her acknowledgement of them and the way she overcame them will inspire other women who wrestle daily with the same fears and anxieties.

Taken as a whole Jo Cox’s approach to politics was mould-breaking and defining.

Her inspiring words will be remembered long after her death but her approach too will appeal to many people, not just women, who have previously thought politics was not for them.

‘Very simply, she was passionate about helping people, and doing good. That’s why she went into parliament.’ wrote historian Jon Bew


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