To celebrate International Women’s Day, I interviewed Alison McGovern. A determined woman, fighting for equality and promoting women in politics; Alison has never failed to inspire me. We commenced the interview with discussions regarding Alison’s experience as a woman in politics.
What has been your proudest achievement in your career?
Alison: I’m proud of having stood and won in 4 general elections, in a Labour-Tory swing marginal seat. Lots of people thought I wouldn’t win in 2010, so I’m proud to have won in all 4 elections. I also want to mention, I’m hopeful that the best is yet to come. Winning elections is only worth something if you get to win in campaigns for people that you represent, and whilst there has been some of that, I want a Labour government so that we can really make a difference. That, I hope, is yet to come.
What makes you proud to be a woman in politics?
Alison: I think that, particularly the women in the parliamentary Labour party now, are diverse. In my time, I have served with women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, women who are wheelchair users, women who are older and younger, and I think that we make the case that women can represent every walk of life effectively and be extremely talented in politics. And that’s the thing that makes me proud, to be a part of that group.
Is there anything that you have found challenging in your career?
Alison: I mean, the whole thing is challenging! I’m proud that women confound people’s expectations because even after all this time, even after more than 100 years, I think that expectations can often be too low. Sometimes the most frustrating thing is trying to get past that. Getting involved in politics as a woman exposed me to the underlying misogyny that somehow women shouldn’t have power, that we exist to service the needs of others, that is very frustrating.
I wanted to ask Alison what factors she believed may be hindering progress in gender equality. In addition to persistent pre-existing social and systemic barriers to women’s participation and leadership, new barriers have emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt it was important to not only discuss the challenges we face, but to identify what we can do to shape a more gender-equal future.
Do you think that gender stereotypes are the main problem that have held back progress in gender equality?
Alison: I think that we sometimes misunderstand sexism, in that there’s lots of people who would say that they now agree with women participating in every level of government and that they support women. But I think, what that often means is expecting women to talk about the health and education side of things and to “stay in their lane.” I think the next step is to break those gender stereotypes and, honestly, there are other aspects that really need unpacking. As I say, women in politics are very diverse, and that diversity brings its own stereotypes. Women in politics often face a particular set of tropes that really need to be taken apart that people still have in their minds, we have to challenge it.
What can we do to change the perspectives of body image and gender stereotypes?
Alison: Partly the action we need to take is the way that we shape public services and to make sure that healthcare is inclusive and takes account of gender stereotypes, there is a big agenda there. Obviously, body image problems affect both men and women, but I think that there is a particular way in which there’s a very narrow, acceptable size for women that is specific to our gender.
For me, sport is quite important. Sport enables you to think about women’s bodies in a different way, you think of amazing people like Emily Campbell who won her silver medal in weightlifting at the Olympics. Unfortunately, there’s lots of challenges there, I know how easy it is for women to be objectified, even when they are doing something skilled and talented with their body. Some of the women I’m most inspired by, locally in the Wirral, play for Wirral Warriors Rugby Team and I think that they’re really at the forefront of taking action against stereotypes. Public services promoting sport and physical activity at every size and across a range of body types is what we can do.
In the end, it’s not an easy battle. You just look around you, for example at fashion. The fashion industry needs to sort itself out. Clothes. The way they’re made, and the way that they’re sold, does not help people. There is a lot more we can do to make fashion a force for good, rather than extra fencing around people’s sense of their own self-expression. People should be able to choose to wear what makes them feel good about themselves, purchasing fashion should not make people feel it’s yet another way they don’t fit in. I could talk about this for another two hours!
Do you think enough is being done to promote women in politics?
Alison: It’s always a bit of a battle, there are structural reasons why women don’t naturally fall into politics, despite often having a lot of political opinions. What tends to work is women getting together in smaller groups and working together, and having confidence in one another. I’m involved in a group called OneDay, a group of women from Merseyside who care about economic issues. The group really just originated from my friend tweeting asking if anyone wanted to work with her on improving the industrial strategy for Merseyside! A bunch of us put our virtual hands up and we all met up for a day to work on an additional strategy that included an economic plan inclusive of women on Merseyside. I think the lesson I take from that is, practical projects where women feel their contribution is needed and valued, is what attracts women to get involved. Sometimes, we are not looking for opportunities to grandstand, we are just looking to contribute.
So, do you think promotion of women in politics requires our teamwork?
Alison: Yeah! Harriet Harman always said to me that “the women’s movement has never been about one person, it’s about a collective.” I used to be chair of the House of Commons Works of Art Committee, myself and the curatorial team at the HOC commissioned a work of art to commemorate women’s suffrage. What you see is that there were lots of different organisations campaigning for women to get the vote and they came from different parts of the country, and they each believed in different tactics, but they could work across all of that, and they got the job done. The big lesson for me is that if we can build that sense of team and offer something other women can contribute to, then that is when we can work as a force for good. I mean all women are different, right?
Yeah, I understand what you mean and it’s that difference that allows greater contribution!
Alison: Yes! We are all different, but we are all women. We can respect each other’s diversity but equally have that sense of togetherness and belonging as a group.
Last question! Is there anything you would like to see change for women in politics?
Alison: So much. SO MUCH! Okay, how long have we got? So, I would like to see us maintain support for the structures that have got us to 50% in the PLP. So that means use of all the formal structures, and I would love to see that spread to other parties so that we get to 50% women in parliament. I would like to see the experience of women in local and central government really improved. After lockdown, the Tories decided they didn’t want councils to meet virtually. I don’t know why, bearing in mind that local councillors are people who have other jobs, so they’re now giving up their evening! I think virtual meetings were perfect for people who have caring responsibilities, which could be a man or a woman, but may well be a woman! Virtual meetings would definitely improve accessibility. I also find it inconceivable why there would be any sort of rules that would stop people, in a considerate manner that is conducive to a meeting, being able to breastfeed if they need to, or even have a baby with them.
We have a lot to do to make sure that we don’t go backwards, we have to make sure that there are opportunities that are wide open to women of all backgrounds and ages. To quote the inspirational Harriet Harman again: “The thing that moves forward is always the next generation, the young members of society are who can make a difference and authorise real change. So, I say, ‘Blaze A Trail!’.”
Livy Mayne is a 17-year-old Labour activist from the Wirral, she is passionate about inclusivity, women empowerment and #SupportingOurCarers. She is the Chair of the Young Fabians Under 19’s Advocacy Group and Vice-Chair of the North West Young Fabians. She tweets at @LivyMayne.