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Numer: 14342
Dział: Języki obce

The Position of British Women in Contemporary Social and Political Life

The Position of British Women in Contemporary Social and Political Life

“If you want something said, ask a man... if you want something done, ask a woman.”
Margaret Thatcher

The bold statement coming from the former Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, sounds even bolder if you think that just a hundred years ago there were no women politicians in the House of Commons, and it was not until 1928 that women were granted the right to vote. Those political changes were hastened by World War I and II, when women needed to transform from “an angel in the house” to professionally active supporters of their families, which led to an overload of responsibility and expectations, but did not reflect in the political representation of women.
Similarly, in the literary history, women were often ignored or marginalized, and it took a lot of time and effort before female presence in the artistic world was acknowledged and their output stopped being referred to and thought of as “silly novels by lady novelists” (Turner, 2011: 4). Women stopped writing only about love and home and became interested in a wider scope of topics, such as history, war, philosophy, or science fiction. A growing number of British women novelists who get published and read is evident and supported by prestigious prizes, such as the Booker Prize, awarded annually for the best novel written by a British author, or the Orange Prize, annually given to a female novelist.
In this essay I would like to explore contemporary Britain to see how the position of women in the political, social, and artistic life has been shaped, or to put it in less passive terms, how strong and influential women have shaped it.
If asked about such figures in today’s Britain, many people will, without hesitation, think of Margaret Thatcher. However, does it mean that she is the only prominent person, and before her or after her premiership there have been no female politicians entering into political debate? Of course, this is not true; Thatcher is remembered as much for her transformation of the country, moral and ethical viewpoints, as well as the adamant approach to achieving her goals . As of today, 22% of MPs in the House of Commons and 20% of members of the House of Lords are women . The increase was a slow process, obtained though protests and petitions. It is enough to recall the events of Black Friday on 18th November 1910, when protesting suffragists got brutally handled by the police, many were injured, two women died and a hundred and fifty were arrested. Back then, suffragists were viewed as fanatics, old spinsters, and crazy women.
The first woman MP to sit in the Parliament was Nancy Astor (1919). Here is an excerpt of her maiden speech in the House of Commons, “(...) remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely, not for the benefit of any section of society, but for the benefit of the whole. I want to see what the Government is going to do (...)” . The first female member of the cabinet was Margaret Bonfield (1929). She was also the first woman to hold a ministerial position in government. After passing the Life Peerages Act in 1958, women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords. Baroness Wootton of Abinger was the first female Life Peer. It was traditional that hereditary titles were passed from father to son. In 1963, after Peerage Act was passed, women were allowed to inherit these roles in the House of Lords. The first British woman to do that was Baroness Strange of Knokin (1963). In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was appointed Prime Minister. She also was the longest serving PM in the 20th century – her term lasted over eleven years .
But who are the women making their mark on British politics today? It has been questioned if the proportions of men and women on the political scene matter or are general differences in ideology between parties more substantial and therefore have more practical implications? In her paper, Gender and Contemporary British Politics, Pippa Norris approaches that question by drawing our attention to the laws of nuclear physics:

Critical mass theory, derived from nuclear physics, suggests that nuclear reaction can be a contained process. Beyond a certain point, however, when enough uranium is assembled, there will be an irreversible meltdown, or unstoppable chain reaction of nuclear fission multiplying upon itself, producing an impact far beyond the quantity of the original material. (Norris, 2011: 1)

What the author suggests is that the character of interactions in a group is dependent on its size. When a group constitutes a minority in a larger society, the members will make effort to adapt and conform to the rules of the majority. However, when the group reaches a certain size and begins to assert itself, the nature of the interaction changes, and its impact on the norm becomes more substantial. This observation can be applied to gender relations in public office. When there are few female politicians, it is hard to expect transformation overnight. Even if their number increases, as it has, the changes will still require time to be implemented. However, it is beyond doubt that female politicians have made their mark on British politics. Norris draws the following conclusion, “(...) there are modest differences on the classic economic cleavages that have always divided Westminster parties, [however] the gender of politicians matters most substantively on gender-related issues” (2011: 8). When the parliament debates issues such as, childcare provision, nursery schools, domestic violence, or equal work opportunities, then potentially the approach of women will be more visible and the outcome of those debates may differ.
However, I also believe that apart from the gender-related issues, there are differences involving styles of politics. Diana Maddock, a British Liberal Democrat, commented in one of her interviews on those differences, “I think we are less confrontational than men and we like to get some kind of consensus and bring people round to going forward with agreement and enthusiasm. And men seem to enjoy the combative method rather better” (Freedman, 2010: 5). That statement is closely connected to the opening quotation by Thatcher – women are used to juggling many responsibilities – bringing up children, housework, and professional life. Female politicians may be more focused on resolving matters the easiest and shortest way, as they realize there are other matters to be resolved.
The longest continuously-serving female politician in Parliament, Baroness Masham of Ilton, has been a member of the House of Lords since her appointment in 1970. As she suffered a horse-riding accident, she has represented the interests of the disabled and she is particularly interested in health-related debates. Harriet Harman is the longest-serving female MP – she has been in office for twenty-nine years.
Baroness Berridge is the youngest female member of the House of the Lords. She was admitted at the age of 38 and currently also devotes her time to charity work. She has inspired young people to become interested in the civic law. On her agenda we can find projects relating to prisons, foreign affairs, and multi-culturalism. The public is encouraged on her website to visit the building of Parliament and even book a meeting with their MP.
Pamela Nash, aged 25, is the youngest MP in the House of Commons, also called “Baby of the House”. She studied politics at the University of Glasgow, specializing in human rights and international development. She was elected from the controversial all –women shortlist as the Labor Party candidate. She is also a chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group on HIV & Aids.
It is impossible to predict exactly how these, often young women, will alter the political scene. What matters, though, is that both female politicians and the public opinion believe that women have a valuable contribution to make, and changes that bring more equal representation are encouraged.

Women writers and artists for a long time did not have opportunity to make their output known to the wider audience. They were discouraged from any such activity, mocked for their attempts and kept busy with mundane life of chores, taking care of babies and tending to their working husbands’ needs. Virigina Woolf, an English author and feminist, famously commented in her Room of One’s Own (1929) on conditions necessary for women writers to be able to create, “All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved” (Chapter 1). Female writers went a long way since Woolf’s proclamation, and today Britain can boast of numerous recipients of important awards, creating quality fiction: Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, Jeanette Winterson, and J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, or Helen Fielding, the author of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
I would like to focus on a different female writer, though, whose novels encapsulate political and social questions, as well as morality and philosophy. She is Iris Murdoch (1919–1999), an Irish-born author and philosopher. Her first book, Under the Net (1954), is acknowledged to be one of the most important debuts of the 1950s. It is a story of a young writer, or a picaresque hero, Jake Donaghue. Later on, Murdoch seemed embarrassed by her early work, but the critics still praised the value of it, as it could be read both as a story of a crazy artist and as a reflection on the absurdity of life . Murdoch herself felt as an outsider and out of place; many reviewers comment on her as being an author preceding her era. She was interested in the philosophy of Plato, Schopenhauer, and Kant.
Thus, despite her denying that, philosophy and literature do overlap in her output, and probably because of that interweaving, she has been of interest to academics, theorists, and critics. She seemed reluctant to engage in feminism per se – for instance, she never wrote a novel with the first-person, female narrator. Instead of “female studies”, she preferred to just have “studies”, rejecting artificially formulated constraints. Her novels unveiling philosophical discourse influenced a new generation of novelists: Zadie Smith or Ian McEwan. The Guardian sums up the significance of Murdoch’s output: “[she] brought philosophical rigor, ethical commitment and a huge intellect to fiction; on being asked how long she took off between books, she is said to have replied "about half an hour". Her many novels all feature mythic/symbolic elements and close, complex relationships”. Unfortunately, though prolific until her 70s, in 1995 she started to suffer the effects of Alzheimer disease. At first the difficulties in writing were thought to be just a writer’s block but they only deepened.
Though Murdoch may not be as popular as J.K. Rowling, she was undoubtedly a very influential British novelist and philosopher. Which is not to say that Rowling’s or Fielding’s books have no similar value. Each female author has contributed to the literary world in a different way. And to realize that the most widely read author of fantasy books in the world is a British, female author, is, beyond question, an important achievement and gratification on its own.
The last prominent woman figure of contemporary Britain I would like to discuss in this essay is Princess Diana. Lady Diana was hunted by paparazzi while struggling with unhappy marriage and fulfilling royal duties. She was keenly aware that her every move, gesture and apparel was commented on, but the never ceasing attention of the press was especially difficult for her. Even Queen Elizabeth needed to intervene, asking the reporters to leave Diana alone. Though her marriage to Prince Charles slowly disintegrated, she made sure not to disappoint the British public – as a member of the royal family, Diana made hundreds of appearances at various ceremonies, and charitable and government organizations. The nation observed a transformation of Diana from a shy girl to a self-assured, sophisticated woman, which gave hope to ordinary, grassroots citizens, particularly working class women and mothers. Instead of giving birth in the Palace, as tradition had it, she insisted on going to the hospital. Later on she made a point to take care of her babie herself, rather than employing a nanny who would take over all the responsibilities.
Diana used her popularity to draw the world’s attention to pressing matters of the less fortunate, especially children. Frequently referred to as Queen of Hearts, Diana in 1987 opened the first hospital ward dedicated to AIDS patients. Due to many misconceptions about contracting AIDS, people were afraid of having any contact with the infected. When Diana visited the ward, her adviser asked her to wear rubber gloves but Princess refused. The photo of her leaning over an AIDS patient, shaking hands with him, was published all over the world, which helped transform the public’s perception of the disease. The head of the wards said the photo “made a tremendous impact, just a member of the royal family touching someone. It was a colossal impact” (Mattern, 2006: 60).
It seemed that meeting the ones in need meant more to her than meeting celebrities, with which Diana won the British people’s hearts. She also started giving more serious speeches. Her famous quotation about the condition of modern society is, “I think the biggest disease this day and age is that of people feeling unloved.” Never before had any member of the royal family made themselves so available to the public, despite the detrimental effect the public eye had on them. Joanne Mattern in her Princess Diana – A photographic story of a life sums up the princess’s life by calling her “a powerful figure and humanitarian” (2006: 122). Diana transformed the idea of royalty in Britain, in spite of scandals, personal troubles, and living under a constant scrutiny of media.

These few figures who have been mentioned in this essay were to serve as an example that the contemporary British women are making the most of the rights and opportunities the previous generations had hard fought for. The changes have been gradual and are still taking place – there is still some way to go; overall, on the political scene, the number of women in Parliament is less than 25%, the economic equality is still disputable, and social studies still indicate stereotypes and limitations women need to overcome daily. However, women have an approach which naturally is marked by ignoring constraints, and capabilities that go beyond obstruction of narrow minds. And more women in political and social life will make more difference.


A century of distinction: 100 women who changed the world. The Independent. www.independent.co.uk. Oct 31st 2011.
Carol, J. Oates. Sacred and Profane Iris Murdoch. The New Republic. Boston, 1978.
Freedman, Jane. Democracy and Citizenship: Theory and Practice. Kings College, London. 2010
Hollowell, Jonathan. Britain Since 1945. Cornwall, 2003.
Mattern, Joanne. Princess Diana – A photographic story of a life. NY, 2006.
Norris, Pippa. Gender and Contemporary British Politics. Cambridge, 2011.
Novel Guide: Under the Net. www.noverlguide.com. Oct 31st 2011.
Mattern, Joanne. Princess Diana – A photographic story of a life. NY, 2006.
Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 125 10 Feb 1920 to 27 Feb 1920.
The Guardian: Iris Murdoch. www.guadrian.co.uk. Oct 31st 2011.
Turner, Nick. Post-war British Novelists and the Canon. NY, 2010.
Women in British Politics: Groundbreakers. http://www.parliament.uk/education/online-
resources/parliament-explained/women-in-politics/ Oct 31st 2011.
Women in British Politics: Overview. http://www.parliament.uk/education/online-
resources/parliament-explained/women-in-politics/. Oct 31st 2011.
Women in British Politics Today: Woman in politics today.
http://www.parliament.uk/education/online- resources/parliament-explained/women-in-politics/. Oct 31st 2011.

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