Belfast Telegraph

Promote not just women, but interests of women

By Ellen E Jones

From all the fuss, you'd think something significant had happened. Last Tuesday David Cameron appointed three female MPs to Cabinet-attending positions (for those keeping score, that makes five women in the Cabinet and 17 men).

On Wednesday the Daily Mail heralded these promotions in its own inimitable way: a double-page photo-spread assessing the physical appearance of "thigh-flashing Esther" McVey, "Eighties air hostess" Liz Truss and their colleagues.

It seemed everyone was outraged, except, surprisingly, McVey herself, who cheerfully told Sky News she thought the Mail's piece might "start a whole generation of new young girls talking about what jobs (they) can do".

On Thursday the Labour MP Helen Goodman took a different tack: "#Mail's page on Tory women was fair," she tweeted. "All are puppets who'll change nothing and their appearance really is most interesting thing about them."

Goodman later apologised for the tweet, although it seems obvious it was not intended as a criticism of women in politics – she is one, so that would be weird. Rather, it was a criticism of Tory attitudes to women in politics – and since she's a Labour politician, what's weird about that?

The usual grumble regarding efforts to promote women is that it results in meritless promotions.

This argument conveniently ignores the many meritless male MPs who owe their seats to a society-wide, centuries-old discrimination in their favour.

Well if not that, what else could explain the disproportionate 503 men to 147 women?

It certainly wasn't their dress sense, was it? Actually, this row isn't really about positive discrimination at all.

You can recognise the necessity of getting more women into power and still not feel it necessary to celebrate every female appointment as a victory.

Individual women in power do not become champions of all women by default, a truth ably demonstrated by Cameron's new appointees.

It's not so much that Nicky Morgan, the new Education Minister, voted for restricted abortion access in 2011, or that both Morgan and McVey voted against equal marriage in 2013.

It's that none of the promoted MPs have much of a record of speaking up on equality at all.

If they had, would they have risen so speedily to the top ranks of their party?

It should tell us something about the Government's priorities that Morgan will be the third Tory MP in a row to juggle the Minister for Women and Equalities role with another, higher profile position.

Perhaps it would be sisterly to celebrate the career achievements of any women in politics.

Whatever she stands for, at least she is in some snail- like progression towards the Government's pathetic target of having one-third of ministers be female.

Unfortunately, if the 35 years since Britain elected its first and so far only female Prime Minister have taught us anything, it's not to be appeased so easily.

The promotion of women means very little unless the interests of women are also promoted.

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