“We are standing on the shoulders of giants. We all owe everything to the people who went before us, who were pioneers & who stood up to oppression.”Kate Osborne MP
By Kate Osborne MP
International Women’s Day is a real celebration and it provides an opportunity for us to reflect on how far we have come but also, how far we still need to go.
The cause of equality and women’s rights has come a long way since the first International Women’s Day was held back in 1911, at a time when women were still considered the property of men and our rights were very limited.
International Women’s Day was first organised by an international socialist women’s conference, these pioneering women dared to dream of a world beyond oppression and indignity, of a world where men and women could stand as equals!
And as we all know, it took years of struggle and sacrifice by women to win the right to vote.
They fought tirelessly, they campaigned, they marched, they petitioned, they lobbied Parliament – some even lost their lives – and yet still some men believed women should not be allowed to vote.
The Suffragettes took desperate measures.
They smashed the windows of West End shops, they burned down buildings, including an MPs home, they went on hunger strike, and they fought with police outside Parliament. All to get women the vote.
Now, when I walk through the corridors of Westminster, and enter the House of Commons chamber, I think of those women and what they did. Would we be so brave? Would we risk everything for a cause, a democratic right to vote? Could we do what the Suffragettes did? My point is that all of us are standing on the shoulders of giants. We all owe everything to the people who went before us, who were pioneers, who stood up to oppression.
I am proud that the Labour Party have more women MPs than all of the other political parties put together, and proud of our action to tackle the under-representation of women in Parliament.
But it is not just what we have won that should be celebrated; it is the contribution we have made.
Women are achieving great things in every field.
In the worlds of business and enterprise, in the world of politics, and in the world of sport and culture. There are many exceptional women who inspire us.
They demonstrate that everyone has talents, and given the chance, everyone can use those talents and fulfil their potential. I never dreamt of being where I am now.
However, we are not completely there – there are still unseen barriers that women struggle to overcome – and never has this been made more apparent than during the pandemic where women have disproportionately suffered.
Women account for just 34% of parliamentarians, there is so much more to do until Parliament accurately reflects the society it serves.
I sit on the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) Select Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs appointed to scrutinise the Government on equalities. Last month our inquiry found that the government has repeatedly ignored the specific needs of women in its policy responses to the pandemic.
The report highlighted the government’s support schemes such as the Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and how they overlooked the existing inequalities women face in the labour market. How women have taken on the majority of home-schooling and childcare, regardless of whether they are in paid employment or not.
The report also highlighted how the government’s priorities for recovery were “heavily gendered in nature”, with investment schemes to help the economy in the wake of the Covid crisis “skewing” towards industries which are heavily dominated by men.
It has long been clear that more must be done to tackle gender inequalities in representation and career progression in male-dominated sectors – so now it is even more essential that the government act on the findings of this report so that women do not lose out in the recovery.
The WEC report made several practical recommendations to enable this such as the creation of Government funded training schemes specifically aimed at women in certain sectors and the Green Economy through its Kickstart, New Training Fund and Restart programmes.
These are all recommendations that the government must take seriously when we know that women are over-represented in industries worst hit by lockdown measures such as retail, hospitality, tourism, the arts and the beauty sector. Many of the women working in these industries have been forgotten and many have or will lose their job in the months to come.
It has been the case that retail, hospitality, beauty salons and hairdressing were the first to close because of the virus and will be the last to open. These seemingly forgotten industries significantly contribute to the economy, especially in the Jarrow constituency that I represent in the North East.
There is also an obvious intersectional element to this too because if you are a black minority ethnic woman, or a disabled woman then then you are most likely to work in low paid jobs or work in the sectors that have been shut down.
Since the report was published I have heard that Government ministers are ‘looking at it in the rounds’ which suggests to me that they are really not looking at it at all – this week’s budget mentioned nothing about women – this sort of lip service to such a report is just not good enough – the government must start actively analysing the equality impact of every policy and bring women in to the top table to shape those polices.
The 20 recommendations laid out in the WEC report are an opportunity for change. Taken seriously and practically applied, they will go a long way towards tackling these long-standing problems and creating a more equal future that we as socialists want to see.
To end on a more positive note, this weekend marks my second International Women’s Day as a Member of Parliament, and I am immensely proud to be the first woman MP for the historic Jarrow Constituency since the great ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson.
To be the first woman MP for Jarrow since Ellen, fills me with enormous pride and I pay tribute to her as we celebrate International Women’s Day.
Ellen, like the people of the Jarrow Constituency, was resilient. She was proud to represent her community and demonstrate working-class solidarity.
Ellen was outraged by injustice and sought to do the right thing.
As a young trade-unionist, Ellen helped organise the Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913, where more than 50,000 women marched to a mass rally in Hyde Park.
And, as the MP of Jarrow, Ellen played a key role in organising the historic 1936 Jarrow Crusade, an iconic protest against the unemployment and poverty in Tyneside.
Ellen, along with the 200 brave marchers who made the long trek to London from Christ Church in Jarrow would recognise many of today’s Government failings around things such as low pay, job insecurity, and benefit cuts.
We have come a long way. We should never forget and never not celebrate it. The struggle and the courage of women such as the Suffragettes and Ellen Wilkinson paved the way for so many of us, and I am deeply grateful to them.
It is up to us to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We need to celebrate women’s achievements.
We can influence change and we can make it happen.
From challenge comes change, so in the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day theme: let’s all ‘choose to challenge’.
Happy International Women’s Day and solidarity!
- This is based on a speech Kate Osborne MP gave at a Unite United Left even event on March 6 2021.