08th Mar 2024

Women of Britain

Stand by, Britain! I’m about to say something controversial on International Women’s Day. I’m going to deviate from the usual narrative. I’m not going to wring my hands about how sexist this country is, or how far away we are from gender equality. That’s because there’s so much in this country that we should be proud of, and much of that progress has been down to women. I want to celebrate our track record of female leadership.
From my hometown on the south coast to Scotland, from Norfolk to Northern Ireland, Britain is famous for female leaders. It always has been.

You want a rebellion organised against the Romans?

You want to defy the Spanish Armada?

You want to win the Cold War?

Maybe you just want three of the longest-serving and most successful monarchs anywhere, in all time?

Britain is a country where female leadership is more inspirational and enduring than anywhere else on Earth.

I don’t know if it’s the water, but we just turn out some of the most splendid and “bloody difficult women” in the history of humanity.

We manufacture them here. They’re made out of everyday things. Like the miserable weather. Out of messes to be cleared up, early starts, late nights, elderly parents, sick children and attention to detail. Out of “somebody has to do it”. Cheerful in disaster, we are dependable, dedicated and determined. And we have a secret weapon admired by men and women alike – courage. You can see this right the way across business, science, arts, politics, sport and public life.

The greatest go by a single name. Diana. Maggie. Twiggy. Delia.

Others need only one of their famous phrases: “Wake up, England”, “Get out of my pub”, or “We’ll meet again”.

For others, their legacy needs explaining. How many would know what Lilian Parr is to today’s Lionesses? What Bassey was to Winehouse and Adele? Beaton to Craddock and Berry? Austen and Christie to Rowling? Nightingale and Seacole to Harries. Trumpington, Castle, Boothroyd, Dunwoody, to my generation of parliamentarians.

Most would need to rely on Wikipedia to understand how these women transformed our country. Many are not recognised, nor will they ever be as Tracey Emin’s doors on the refurbished National Portrait Gallery seek to acknowledge. Not to be confused with Diana Dors, of course.

Our nation is exceptional. You can’t say the same about all countries. There are many still yet to have a woman head of state. In some parts of Europe, women didn’t even get the vote until the 1970s. In Britain we got there so much earlier because female leadership is so much a part of our history.

This cohort of courage is a national asset. It’s what helps women from all backgrounds. It’s service, grit, humour, hard work and brutal honesty. It’s embedded in our culture.

It can be found in Rutherford’s Miss Marple, Smith’s Dowager Countess, Dench’s “M” and any part ever played by Irene Handl. It’s in Barbara Royle, Margot Leadbetter, Nora Batty and Hyacinth Bucket.

Britain is still a place where women are full-grown.

The pandemic was a tough time for everyone, and in particular ways for women. More female jobs were lost than male ones. Women picked up the slack on childcare, home education and elderly care. Many of the toughest jobs were done by the female workforce, the cleaning and care. They did them without complaining. They are still doing them as the nation recovers.

Up and down the country, I meet thousands of women who did so much to hold things together. They did it yesterday and they’re ready to do it again tomorrow. They deserve appreciation because they’re an inspiration.

I’m proud of my parliamentary peers for doing so much to deliver for our heroines. The focus on ending violence against women and girls, the women’s health strategy, and the cross-party campaigns on issues such as the menopause. Progress is being made gradually.

Are we still underestimated? Are we still judged by the way that men look at us? Yes, of course we are, but there’s a difference now.

A growing number of men are now judging each other by the way they look at us women. It matters to men, too, that their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers are able to achieve, be respected, appreciated, and treasured.

So, as we celebrate on International Women’s Day, let’s start at home with the founding members of the awkward squad, the backbone of every village, family and school, the bedrock of our communities. All the talent, brilliance and kindness of the great British woman. The example she sets, the hope that she brings and the possibilities she inspires.