The 2017 election made history with more than 200 female MPs elected to parliament, breaking several records. The average age, however, grew to 51, making this the oldest of the past 10 parliaments, and women still make up less than a third of all MPs. We spoke to three young, female MPs to see what life is like in the Commons for women under 40, whether parliament’s glass ceiling has been broken, and if they would advise others to go into politics.
Sitting under the glass domes of Portcullis House, the modern office-block atrium for MPs and their staff, Laura Pidcock tells me about her first two months as MP for North West Durham. “I am not intimidated by this place,” she says, “but it is designed to be intimidating.” At 29, Laura is one of Britain’s youngest female MPs but is already making waves; her maiden speech, which described the processes of parliament as “confusing” and “archaic”, went viral, receiving more than 200,000 views online.
An anti-racism campaigner, Laura decided to run for parliament after becoming frustrated at how little you can change without power, and at the fact that the people holding power didn’t look like her, or know as much about the lives of real people.
It hasn’t been without its challenges. Laura admits there are many who would prefer parliament to be free of working-class women, and that “if you call yourself a feminist socialist, there are going to be some haters”. Her gratitude towards her supporters is obvious, as is her acknowledgement of those who doubt her: “Whether that be a constituent who thinks you look too young to hold powerful people to account, or a man that sees you as an inferior species – there have been quite a few of them along the way.”
She has found reassurance in her colleagues – specifically, one group of Labour MPs: “We have a WhatsApp group! They’re all really supportive, answering questions about anything from procedure to women’s issues.” She wouldn’t, however, “hang out with Tory women” who she tells me are “no friends of mine” and “an enemy to lots of women”.
Laura speaks passionately about life before parliament, from her first job at McDonald’s to her time as a mental health support worker while at university, which she describes as “one of the best jobs ever, with the best people”. Of her current job, she says: “It’s intense, emotionally draining and frustrating because you want change to happen much quicker than it does. But it’s not the hardest job in the world – it’s not the daily grind and gruel.”
She sees being an MP as more of a lifestyle choice and admits that “you almost become a product – everything you say can be under scrutiny [and] your personal life completely changes”. This is obviously far from the typical life of a 29-year-old and she admits, although “it’s a bit cringe”, that she and her partner have to schedule time together in the diary. Their dates are often shared with family and friends, and sometimes have to be abandoned at the last minute for constituents in distress.
Laura isn’t the only young woman facing up to the intense demands of life in parliament. Kemi Badenoch, 37, the new MP for Saffron Walden, also has a background atypical of her political contemporaries.
A first-generation immigrant, Kemi was born in England only because her mother had a doctor here, before growing up in Nigeria “with no electricity half the time, getting water from all sorts of funny places”. She moved back to London aged 16 “and had nothing, staying at family friends with a bunk bed and nothing else”.
To support herself through A-levels, which she studied part-time, she took a full-time job at McDonald’s “earning £3.40 an hour – it was before the minimum wage”, an experience she is grateful for. “It gave me that opportunity and training: learning how to show up on time, how to speak and socialise, clean the toilets – and make a burger.” She did well in her A-levels, going on to study computer systems engineering at the University of Sussex.
People are often surprised that Kemi, an African woman, is a Conservative: “I was discouraged from joining the party, and when I did join, people said they wanted me there just for the picture. Then I became an officer of an association, and then a candidate, and people said, ‘They’ll never pick you’. Then they did pick me, and people said, ‘They’re only doing it to up their diversity numbers’. It doesn’t matter how far you go – what notions you dispel – there are always people who believe it isn’t real.” Even within parliament, a Labour whip congratulated her, assuming she was a member of his own party.
As with Laura, Kemi has had to learn on the job. “My predecessor was there for 40 years – three of which were before I was born.” Locally, this means great expectations and an even greater workload. Constituents expect her to have the same amount of knowledge as her predecessor, and she details how, in the first few weeks of being an MP, she was receiving “an email every two minutes”.
As a "quite self-effacing person”, Kemi has found the media attention strange and admits to finding it hard not being able to respond to every news item. She says it can feel like “your story is no longer written by you – other people are writing about it and telling you who you are in a way that I’ve never found before”.
Kemi disagrees with Laura that parliament is intimidating. “If you’re focusing on the traditional aspects of it – saying ‘Mr Speaker’ and stuff like that – you’ve completely missed the point. The House of Commons is the place where power has been taken from the establishment – it is intimidating because of the responsibility that we have, and because people have changed the world sat on those benches. If parliament can give me the voice that I have, it’s strange to attack it.”
For her, being a woman in parliament hasn’t been hard, “maybe because I’m an engineer, and this is nothing compared to being the only woman in the room” but it has certainly had an effect on her as a parent. The mother of a 9-month-old, Kemi has had to depend on parliament’s emergency nursery when childcare plans have fallen through. She knew this would be the case, however, and her husband is hugely supportive – they have, she tells me, a “60-40 household: he does more childcare than I do, and he enables it”.
Nor does she agree that Conservative MPs are an enemy to women. “I would call myself a feminist. I have a son and a daughter – I want to make sure they have the same opportunities in life. [The Conservatives] have had two female prime ministers. We haven’t had as many female MPs (the Conservative party currently has 67 female MPs while Labour has 119) but we have had a different way of doing things. For us, a woman in power is more important than lots of women taking orders from men.”
Kemi has friends from across parties, and is saddened but not surprised to hear that some Labour MPs wouldn’t consider it: “They genuinely believe that we are vermin.” She goes on: “I have family members who vote Labour. If you’re in a position where all the people you know think and look like you, you have a problem.” She’s friendly with Florence Eshalomi, a Labour AM with whom she worked at the London Assembly. “We disagree on politics, but we have a laugh about things. She also has kids, and it was just nice having someone to share that with.” In parliament, she’s still making friends in her own party, let alone in other parties, but she’s keen to work with Labour’s Chi Onwurah – another female engineer – since they have a couple of things in common.
Another young, female MP who didn’t come into parliament via the traditional route and has friends across parties is Angela Rayner, also 37. A Labour Party rising star, in an “exciting, exhilarating and sometimes exhausting” two years, she has become the shadow secretary of state for education.
Angela left school at 16 with no qualifications, pregnant with her first son. She is the “first ever MP to have worked as a home carer” but is determined not to be the last. Having worked on zero-hour contracts and struggled to make ends meet, she says she felt “a real responsibility for the millions of other people across the UK who are quietly getting by but feeling things get harder and harder”. She worries about “what would happen to 16-year-old Angela Rayner in 2017”.
Like Kemi, Angela is the first female MP to represent her constituency of Ashton-under-Lyne. She believes that parliament is still rife with “deliberate, conscious sexism”, noting the “frankly childish men trying to block very worthwhile bills on ending violence against women and girls”.
Angela also thinks women have a harder time entering politics than men. “Although we have made progress, it is still very difficult for women to enter elected politics... Running an election campaign isn’t cheap and finance can be a real barrier [and] women are more likely to have caring responsibilities. Confidence is another big issue.”
All three women consider online abuse to be a serious test of confidence for female MPs. While a recent study suggested male MPs receive more abuse than their female colleagues, Kemi concurs that the abuse women receive is “more targeted and sexist than their male colleagues”.
Angela tells me that she feels the abuse that MPs and all high-profile public figures receive has got worse. She gets a lot of online abuse, particularly for her accent (“People question my intelligence and ability as an MP because I’m a northerner”), class and gender. “While you have to have a thick skin in this job, I’m still human and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hurtful.”
She thinks there should be cross-party action to tackle the problem, while Laura argues that “we’ve got to see the abuse as part of a system of violence against women in society” as a whole.
They would all, however, encourage other young women to run for parliament, although they caution that you have to be doing it for the right reasons. “Find what you believe in first – which party you belong to – and then do it”, says Kemi.
Laura ends with a rallying call for younger women who want to shake things up. “I just want women to stop thinking they’re not good enough. [We need to] physically take up space, vocally take up space – you are good enough. We are good enough. And if one element of that is parliament, great, but there are a thousand other ways to do it.”