Standard Issue writers are exploring when they knew they were feminist. For Kirsty Blackman, SNP MP for Aberdeen North, it was working towards her place in the House of Commons, a “representative democracy” that’s still 71 per cent men.
I was never a feminist before.
I saw feminism as a kind of exclusive club where only those who understand the rules can join. You can’t be a feminist and shave your legs, or wear nail polish, or appreciate magazines with pictures of hot men, or have a gut dislike of positive discrimination, or dress your daughter in pink.
Real feminists don’t do any of these things. It’s easier not to be part of the club than to accidentally break the unwritten rules and mortally offend those proper feminists who’ve been doing it for years.
It just all seemed so complicated and such a difficult thing to become involved in that it was easier not to bother. In fact, at one point I was asked to meet a journalism student to do a radio interview on women in politics and feminism. I panicked. What if I said something that mortally offended her? What if I disobeyed some strict feminist edict?
I tried my best to back out of it. In the end, she was really pleasant and mainly asked me about how we could encourage other young people into politics.
At that point in my early 20s, I definitely would not have given myself a feminist label. The shift in my thinking about feminism was so gradual that it crept up on me. Almost without realising that I had performed a complete U-turn, I recently loudly and proudly described myself as a feminist. And I think I have always supported feminism, it just took me a long time to begin to understand it.
“There were more men elected to the House of Commons in 2015 than there have ever been women MPs.”
It’s not that easy to stumble across information about what feminism actually is, and I managed to spend most of my life without much of a clue. Traditional media outlets don’t often contain articles with a feminist slant. Great as social media is for finding like-minded folk, it is also particularly good at highlighting differences and extremes of opinion. Some of the most extreme feminist voices on Twitter still scare and confuse me.
Yet I’ve realised, after seeking out written pieces on feminism, meeting many intelligent, articulate women, and following some less extreme Twitter-feminists, that this is where I belong. Far from being an exclusive club, it’s actually an incredibly broad church. If you see gender inequality and think it should be reduced, you’re in.
Since I was 20 I’ve worked in politics. I’ve been an elected politician since I was 21. Traditionally, politicians were male and middle aged. Councillors tended to be even older – only finding time to devote to local government after retirement.
The balance is shifting, particularly when it comes to gender balance, but there were still more men elected to the House of Commons in 2015 than there have ever been women MPs.
My colleagues and I have faced the same challenges many women in other roles face – being ignored and having our ideas overlooked in meetings, being passed over for promotions, having people worry about whether our children will affect our ability to do our jobs. I’ve also had some seriously inappropriate comments made about my clothing, a ridiculous number of suggestive remarks, and some graphically phrased abuse online.
The House of Commons is supposed to be the pinnacle of democracy, representing the population and making decisions on their behalf. It’s not that easy to become an elected politician and it’s even more difficult to do so if you’re a woman.
“The more time I spend in politics, the more I learn about the impact of policy decisions on inequality, the more I realise how much work has to be done to increase choice for women.”
Before standing for election, you need to convince your party that you’re the right candidate for the job. Climbing the greasy pole within a political party can be hard, particularly if those in charge are older men who, frankly, don’t understand women. The incredibly competitive environment where you could be fighting for selection against people you have known for years seems to favour men. Considering women make up 51 per cent of the UK population and only 29 per cent of the House of Commons, we are definitely doing something wrong. Probably lots of things.
We need to work to fix this. By ‘we’, I mean the House of Commons, the devolved parliaments, local government and perhaps most of all, political parties. Representative democracy doesn’t work if it isn’t representative.
The more time I spend in politics, the more I learn about the impact of policy decisions on inequality, the more I realise how much work has to be done to increase choice for women. Not enough women are able to choose whether or not to work or to focus on raising children. Not enough women are paid the same as their male counterparts. Not enough women receive the promotions they deserve. Not enough women are listened to and taken seriously.
Having too few women at the top makes it even harder to effect positive change. When the civil servants and politicians making decisions are mostly men, it’s unsurprising that they don’t spend enough time considering the impact on women.
Why am I a feminist? Faced with all this inequality, it’s the only sensible option.
Read about more of our writers’ feminist lightbulb moments here.
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Kirsty is SNP MP for Aberdeen North. Aberdonian to the core. Loves coffee. Can't sing.