The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media
When Nancy Astor became the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons in 1919, she had to fight past jeering male colleagues, who claimed they would “rather have had a rattlesnake among them”, just to get there.
Now, 100 years later, reports state that many female members of parliament will be standing down from their positions this general election. While male MPs are standing down as well, women are leaving at disproportionately younger ages and earlier in their careers – many of them citing the abuse they regularly receive as a decisive factor.
Sarah Wollaston (MP for Totnes) has been advised by police not to broadcast her whereabouts and can no longer hold public meetings with her constituents; Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) was the victim of a murder plot by a neo-Nazi and violent threats issued at Luciana Berger and her family have led to several prosecutions, the list goes on (and on and on). As usual, the situation has hit BAME MPs the hardest: Rushanara Ali described receiving “Punish a Muslim” letters in the mail, while Diane Abbott receives more online abuse than any other MP. While everyone in parliament receives some share of negativity, women and BAME MPs are disproportionately affected. Many female MPs describe the overwhelming volume of messages they receive as well as their specifically gendered nature, with rape threats and references to genitalia pervasive throughout.
Stories like these are easy to overlook in our chaotic news climate, but when certain members of society are not afforded the same unhindered ability to serve and represent their communities, the very nature of our democratic process is threatened.
A member of a parliament is a representative first and foremost: their role is to speak on behalf of their constituents and represent them in the places where decisions that affect us all are made. While it may seem pedantic to some to call for the shake-up of the government to better reflect the make-up of the people it serves – whether on the basis of gender, race or class , allowing people whose voices are not often heard in the halls of power to have a say does affect real change. Recent studies of US Congress found that female legislators sponsored more bills related to women’s health, domestic violence, and family leave policy – issues that have direct and noticeable ramifications in the lives of women every day.
Somehow, our debates about ‘free speech’ always seem to begin and end with the individual’s rights to spew hateful rhetoric on social media. But the speech we use has consequences, and it’s impossible to deny that certain types of speech suppress others. When individuals – online or in person – sling unending misogynistic abuse at female politicians, it affects their ability to do their jobs, as well as their mental well-being. Freedom of speech has never just been about speech, it includes the freedom to serve as an elected official, the freedom to do the job that’s important to you, the freedom to move through the public sphere without having to fear for your safety or life. Women’s voices in parliament are being silenced, and as a result, women outside of parliament are effectively silenced as well.
The message is received loud and clear by future generations of women watching this play out, ‘you are not welcome in our government’. These women’s ideas will never be heard. They will never get the chance they should have to impact policy, and we will never reap the rewards of their contributions that could have been.