‘Sit Down & Shut Up’: Why Women In Politics Are Quitting At An Alarming Rate

Designed by Poppy Thorpe.
"Not now love. We've got bigger fish to fry. We just need to get Brexit done. Okay."
That’s what we’re hearing day in, day out from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his closest allies. Nothing is more important than Brexit – not the domestic abuse bill, not waiting times for contraception and certainly not the abuse that women in politics are receiving right now or the fact that they’re dropping out of public life as a result.
Ahead of the looming 12th December election, more than 70 members of parliament have announced that they are standing down and 19 of them are women. That’s a close mirror of the gender split in parliament right now: there are currently 211 women in the House of Commons, making up 32% of MPs. 
And while many of the male politicians who have decided to stand down are nearing retirement age anyway – like David Lidington (63), Michael Fallon (67), Ken Clarke (79) and Kevin Barron (73) – the women, by stark contrast, are much, much younger and just hitting their stride in their political careers. There’s Heidi Allen (44), Nicky Morgan (47), Amber Rudd (56), and Labour’s Gloria De Piero (46). 
Sunder Katwala of independent think tank British Future analysed the numbers and confirmed that the average age of a retiring Conservative man is 64 and a retiring Labour man is 65, while a retiring Labour woman is 67 and a retiring Conservative woman is 50. 

Women are underrepresented across the board in British politics, both at local council level and in parliament.

We know that women are underrepresented across the board in British politics, both at local council level and in parliament. To be losing them at a relatively young age undoes any progress that has been made towards getting 50:50 representation in recent years. The last election saw more women MPs than ever before elected but given that women account for over half of the population, seeing just 32% of parliament made up of women didn’t quite feel like a victory. 
Clearly, there is something wrong. 
A number of the women standing down have explicitly said that the abuse they receive was a factor in their decision. 
Earlier this year, footage emerged of Remain MP Anna Soubry being heckled and called a "Nazi" and a "traitor" as she made her way to her place of work. Indeed, stand outside parliament on any given day right now and it won’t be long before you hear the word "traitor" being shouted by pro-Brexit protestors.
When she stood down, former Conservative and more recently Liberal Democrat MP Heidi Allen explicitly cited the abuse she receives as a reason. Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, she said that what had tipped her over the edge was receiving a "particularly nasty" email which denounced her for "killing a baby". 
"I thought you know what, nobody in their workplace should have to put up with this," she said. "It's become absolutely vile."
Similarly, former Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan has been subjected to death threats. Earlier this year, a 64-year-old man who had identified Morgan as "anti-Brexit" was jailed for 18 weeks after calling her to tell her that her "days were numbered". 
Morgan has since said that being an MP has had a "clear impact" on her family and that the abuse she receives has "changed enormously" in the past decade "because of how strongly people feel about the current political situation" while Brexit division dominates political discourse. 
Allen added that she would tell young people to "let this period of toxicity pass" before joining British politics. 
We know that women politicians are receiving unprecedented levels of abuse, both online and offline. Far from a detoxification of British politics since questions were raised about the rhetoric used during the EU referendum campaign following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, tensions continue to bubble near boiling point. 

Misogynistic intimidation and abuse are intended to do one thing: silence women. We see it in so many arenas. The means may differ but the message is always the same: sit down and shut up. 

How has the prime minister responded to the abuse of women who serve in his parliament, to the fact that some of them are living with daily death threats? Back in September, when Labour’s Paula Sherriff reminded Boris Johnson of Jo Cox, who was murdered by far-right extremist Thomas Mair in 2016, and asked him to stop using words like "surrender" when talking about his negotiations with the EU, he dismissed her intervention as "humbug"
Misogynistic intimidation and abuse are intended to do one thing: silence women. We see it in so many arenas. The means may differ but the message is always the same: sit down and shut up. 
But you can’t separate Brexit out from women’s issues; one is not more urgent than the other, because they are linked. As the Women’s Budget Group has pointed out, leaving the EU – particularly if we do so with no deal – will have a profound economic impact on women.
There are many reasons for this, the Women’s Budget Group says, not least because if the economy shrinks it will lead to job losses, particularly in sectors that are heavily dependent on trade with the EU. These include sectors such as clothing and textiles, which have a majority female workforce.
More than this, much of the legislation protecting equality and workplace rights, which benefits women, originated in or was strengthened through the EU. Although this is being incorporated into UK law through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, it is vulnerable to change by a future government.  
If you join the dots, far from Brexit being a single issue playing out in a silo, it is linked to everything else that is happening around us. We know from research conducted by Hope Not Hate that there are strong links between antifeminism, misogyny and the far right. This is now driving women out of British politics and, as a result, risks sidelining issues that matter to women – like abortion rights, domestic abuse and gender equality – because the people who stick their heads above the parapet to champion them can’t take it anymore. 
There are more women running in this election than ever before so let’s hope this translates into more being elected because women can’t be involved in making decisions if they don’t have a seat at the table. That isn’t just bad for women’s issues, it’s bad for our democracy as a whole which, in turn, is bad for us all. 
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