7 March 2018, House of Commons, London, United Kingdom
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who made a cracking speech. I agree with most of what she said, so I will not go over the same points.
I want to talk a wee bit about my own perspective and experience, so forgive me if my speech appears a little self-indulgent. To me, there are two main strands to this issue: the structural side and the cultural side. Let me deal first with the structural side, which brings me back to my first tutorial at university, when we were asked why women were still unequal. I said that the problem begins with how and when our society created the structures that we still use today. There was a time when we kidded ourselves that everything was as simple as a man marrying a woman, him going to work and her staying at home to look after anything domestic. It was on that foundation that we built and viewed everything as we know it today: the economy, our legal systems, our work environments and our Governments. Everything was owned and created by men, with the false assumption that the nuclear heterosexual family was normal.
Rightly, we slowly began to realise that there is no such thing as normal—that women can be different and yet just as capable as men, and that what they do with their lives should not be assumed for them. We have begun to address some of those barriers, but, fundamentally, we are trying to find ways almost to stuff women into that structure without fully reflecting on the fact that it was created at a very misogynistic time and from a very patriarchal perspective. There has been no recognition that our economy and our work life completely fail to address or even acknowledge the existence of things such as period poverty and cripplingly painful menstrual cycles, which are more common than most people think. Until we accept and change the fact that everything comes from a patriarchal perspective, we will always struggle.
That brings me to the cultural side of this issue. It feels like we are at a turning point with things such as the “Time’s Up” movement. Frankly, the bravery of the women who have come forward to talk about their experience of abuse, sexism and misogyny, no matter how small it may seem, is incredible. I cannot say it has been positive in terms of moving us forward, but if we have learned anything from all that, it is that these are not small occurrences. The downside to all this progress is being faced with the reality that the women in my life, whom I know and love, have been raped, beaten, assaulted, called sluts and whores, and groped throughout their lives, and they have been led to believe that that is normal and is just a given—that it is just something that happens and, like the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, something that women should somehow deal with or solve themselves.
Misogyny is absolutely everywhere in our society, to the point that we often miss it because it has been so normalised by being continually unchallenged. Some folk will be uncomfortable with the graphic language that I am about to use, but I am not going to dilute the reality of such an important issue. I am used to online abuse in particular. I am regularly called a wee boy, and told that I wear my dad’s suits and stuff. Me and my pals actually laugh about it. That is how I cope with it. We find the best insults, and that is how we have a laugh, but I struggle to see any joke in systematically being called a dyke, a rug muncher, a slut, a whore and a scruffy bint. I have been told, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” and:
“Let the dirty bitch eat shit and die”.
I could soften some of this by talking about “the C-word”, but the reality is that there is no softening when I am targeted by these words: I am left reading them on my screen day in, day out. Someone said:
“She needs a kick in the cunt”.
I have been called “guttural cunt”, “ugly cunt” and “wee animal cunt”. There is no softening just how sexualised and misogynistic the abuse is. Some guy called William Hannah—I have never heard of him in my life—commented:
“I’ve pumped some ugly burds in my time but I jist wouldn’t”.
I have been assured multiple times that I do not have to worry because I am so ugly that no one would want to rape me.
All those insults were tailored to me because I am a woman. We can kid ourselves that those are comments by a few bad, anonymous people on Twitter, but they are not: this is everyday language. I am aware that everyone here was uncomfortable hearing those insults—I felt uncomfortable reading them out—yet there are people who feel comfortable flinging those words around every day. When that language goes unchallenged, it becomes normalised, and that creates an environment that allows women to be subjected to a whole spectrum of abuse. I regularly see guys on Facebook talking about “getting pussy” and using other horrible words for women, but should we really expect any better given that the man sitting in the Oval Office thinks that it is okay to grab a woman by the pussy and faces no consequences?
Even in this place we need a bit of self-reflection. We are only starting to appreciate the full extent of the abuse and danger that women face on a daily basis, yet only a few weeks ago in the voting Lobby I was physically pressed up against a Member who has been accused of sexual misconduct, because there is so little room. That is not normal, and it is fair to say we should be looking at and talking about that. I am blessed in that I have the same right and influence as any elected man in this place, but what about all the female staff here who do not? Is that really the best example we can set for society? Surely it is something that we should at least be talking about.
As another personal example, I have been open in saying that I have been very unwell recently and was unable to travel and, therefore, vote. Like most people, I have no desire to disclose to the world the private, intimate and often embarrassing details that regularly come with illness. That is the business of my doctor, my Chief Whip and me—no one else—just as it would be in any other workplace with a line manager.
A fortnight ago, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), alongside the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), suggested that I turn up for work more often, as I had a poor voting record. I responded to let them know I had been ill. I also pointed out the level of abuse and misinformation they were causing for me, but they stood by their comments. My Chief Whip wrote a letter to theirs, asking for an apology, retraction and correction, but there has been nothing, and still the abuse still comes my way daily. For two men to feel it is appropriate to chastise a female colleague publicly for a medical absence is bad enough, but knowingly to continue to misrepresent and cause abuse is frankly out of order. Judging by the House of Commons code of conduct, it qualifies as bullying, as it would in any other workplace.
Believe it or not, I have never lost sleep over the opinions of either of those hon. Gentleman, and I have no intention of starting now. However, I am in a position to say something about it. What about the woman out there who has had a hysterectomy and is getting the same rubbish at her work? Or what about the woman with post-natal depression who has extra stress added on by having to put up with this kind of nonsense in her work?
Last year, the Fawcett Society launched a sex discrimination law review. It said:
“The long-term aim is to nudge people towards a culture shift and to reframe misogynist behaviour as socially undesirable.”
Perhaps it is time we assessed the example that we set, because if we cannot get our own House in order, how can we expect anyone out there to?