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My inspirational women

Monday, December 12, 2011

Invited to give a speech at the recent ‘Aspire International Women’s Conference Life, Work, World’ Meg chose to talk about women who inspired her.


One of the most memorable weeks in my 10 years as a Member of Parliament was when Tony Blair stood down as Prime Minister; one of the best moments was to be in the Chamber of the House of Commons for his last appearance.


He said, “Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall.” He went on to say, “If it is, on occasions, the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”


That’s what I believe.


Today I’m going to share with you some of the women who have inspired me in my political life not all of them politicians. Some I have met, some like you I have watched from afar, and a couple of them you probably won’t have heard of. All of them share characteristics of tenacity and resilience qualities that everyone in politics needs, and qualities I believe are shared by all successful people.


The Leaders

Helen Clark

The first woman I want to talk about is Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008. She took over leadership of  the Labour Party at a time when it regularly changed leader and she remained leader for 15 years at first through sheer tenacity and then by her success as Prime Minister.


New Zealand is a tiny country compared to the UK, but being Prime Minister there is enormously demanding. She put New Zealand on the map by her abilities at international level. She also had the ability to relate to ordinary people. On one visit to the UK in a meeting in parliament she explained in 15 minutes the challenges for her country over the coming years in a way that anyone could understand.


When asked why she had wanted to be Prime Minister she summed it up as being in a job that could make a difference and cited her admiration of other leaders who she saw as being task focused.


Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma is a great inspiration. Although I have never met her I have followed her situation closely. Not least while I was the Foreign Office Minister responsible for relations with South East Asia at time of nationwide demonstrations by monks during 2007.


She led her party to victory in nationwide elections but was then prevented by the military from becoming the government. Held in detention for long periods she has kept clear-headed about what needs to be done to bring democracy to her country. She has given a huge amount for her beliefs, and her family have suffered a great deal. When her British husband was dying she had to make the choice whether to leave the country to visit him, and be prevented from returning, or to continue her long period under house arrest. She chose to stay.


Incredibly things at last seem to be changing in Burma. It’s her determination to do the right thing for her country that gives me confidence that she believes there is real change possible.


Michelle Bachelet

Another woman politician who has suffered for her beliefs is Michelle Bachelet. I have seen her speak at conferences and have been particularly struck by her dedication to improving the lives of ordinary people.


She was President of Chile from 2006 to 2010, the first female president all the more remarkable as she is a divorced woman in a Catholic country. Hers was not an easy journey.  She saw her father tortured and then die under the Pinochet regime. She and her mother were also tortured and interrogated before they went into exile.


Returning some years later to Chile her dedication and abilities marked her and she was prevailed upon to run for President. Her period of office was not plain sailing, but she achieved a great deal for ordinary people. In Chile it is not possible to run for two consecutive terms as President. She now is head of the new UN women’s organisation working alongside Helen Clark, who is the head of the UN Development Programme.


Outside parliament

Kelly Holmes

Not all my inspirational women are politicians. If you are ever feeling down, or overwhelmed by the tasks or aims that you have set yourself, get hold of a copy of Kelly Holmes’s autobiography. What she put herself through to become a champion is amazing. Not just the long hours of training and the physical problems that top athletes experience, but the emotional side.  She battled against depression and suicidal thoughts.


But she didn’t give up. If she had stopped her athletic career after the 2000 Olympics we might remember her as a talented athlete who struggled to fulfil her potential. But she didn’t stop; she kept pursuing her goals knowing that success is often built on previous failures. She decided 5 days before the 800m final to compete in the two distances 800m and 1500m. By winning both she became one of our most successful female athletes ever.


Women in parliament

Marion Roe MP

When I arrived in parliament I noticed that each week during Prime Minister’s questions one of the Conservative women MPs would always sit behind her leader. A small woman in her sixties she looked to my mind a typical Conservative.


Two years later we were both chosen to attend a session at the United Nations and I came to know Marion Roe. I found out that children were one of the causes she cared deeply about. She had not been long in parliament when she was successful in the ballot for presenting a Private Members Bill and she chose the unusual issue of Female Genital Mutilation.


She told me about her experience of promoting this Bill in parliament of opposition from her own colleagues and the many opposing letters she received from the public. As one of only a few women MPs it was difficult to get issues related to women recognised and accepted as important. But she didn’t give up and in 1985 Female Genital Mutilation became illegal.


Jean Mann MP

I suspect that most of you have never heard of Jean Mann. Elected as a Labour MP in 1945 her obituary said “If not a figure of real political standing, she was a familiar personality in the House of Commons of her day.” Jean Mann stood down from politics in 1959 the year I was born, and died before I had reached my 5th birthday, but she left a record of her time in parliament in a book called “Woman in Parliament.”


When she was elected she was one of only 26 female MPs out of over 600 MPs. Her book tells how at one debate there were three Labour women MPs who wanted to speak.  The whip came over and asked them to decide amongst themselves who should speak, as the Speaker was not going to call more than one in a debate. In the end they couldn’t agree and so all three of them continued to try and speak with two of them successful.


A mother of 5 from Scotland who lost one child in a fire at home, she was known as a persistent harrier of Ministers without regard to party. The price of food and clothing, health, housing and the whole range of issues, known then as ‘housewives’ topics, were the issues on which her voice was most frequently heard. She talked of the appalling apathy of politicians towards vice and crime, and of neglected widows, orphans and foster children.


In parliament over the last 15 years we have transformed child care, have passed the first law on domestic violence for 30 years and discussions about human trafficking are now common place. Women politicians today do come together to raise issues that might not otherwise be discussed.



When I look back over 10 years in full time politics, but in reality a lifetime engaged in political issues, what did I bring? Firstly it’s about belief. The issues that I have championed over the years are ones where I belief that change is needed.


When I first entered parliament new adoption legislation was due to be introduced.  Having spent 20 years in social work I suddenly had the opportunity to influence the law governing adoption, something which generally changes about every 25 years. For me the biggest issue was not always looking for the so-called ‘ideal family’ to adopt children, but those adults who were ready to offer love to needy children.


There are still too many children awaiting adoption, children who need adults capable of loving them regardless of whether those adults are single, in a couple, married or not, two men or two women. Along with others I argued the case for an inclusive approach and we changed the government’s mind.


I also believe that changing words changes minds. You might know that in the UK the law has always been written using masculine terminology, with the suggestion that this includes women. I object to be called “he”, so I was keen to take this up when I became Minister for Women and Equality. I argued with senior Ministers that changing to an inclusive language in legislation should be trialled in the Equality Bill I was due to take through parliament.


I commissioned some work on this issue from the civil service and was told that it would be very difficult to change and would take a lot of extra time and money.  I refused to accept this and cited other countries who had done it. The prevailing view changed and they agreed that those who actually draft legislation would adapt to a new way of inclusive wording in legislation for my Bill.  


But the key to moving this forward was political will. Jack Straw, who was then Leader of the House of Commons, came up to share my table whilst I was having a cup of tea. I took the opportunity to ask him how he felt about gender neutral drafting of legislation and he agreed it was a good idea and took the issue up. Later that year he was able to announce that all future legislation would be drafted in gender neutral language. There were a few against the idea, but apart from a small report in the paper where Ann Widdecombe said that no-one was going to refer to her as a Chair, the change passed largely without remark.


Thank you for inviting me to speak and I wish you well with the rest of the conference.


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