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Unruly Sons of the Mother of Parliaments

One might think that a country whose symbolic monarch is a queen and whose prime minister is a woman would have an enlightened attitude toward women in government.

But, according to some women members of Parliament in England, many of their colleagues are “chauvinist yahoos.”

This state of affairs is reported in another of the clippings sent to me by Herb Lucas of Lompoc after his recent sojourn in London.

David Hughes, chief political correspondent for the Sunday Times, writes that rampant sexism among male MPs will be exposed in a coming book by Lesley Abdela, founder of a group that seeks a bigger role for women in British politics.

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Hughes says the book promises to describe the “gross behavior of male yahoos in the House of Commons” and will identify the “yahoo of yahoos.”

Female MPs are outnumbered 650 to 42 in the Commons, and, according to Abdela and many of the women MPs themselves, they are subjected to constant ridicule and sexual innuendo from their male colleagues.

Commons has always been an arena in which members have abused one another with eloquent invective, Winston Churchill himself not being the least able among them, but one is disappointed to find that this innocent merriment has taken a turn toward the ugly when women are the targets.

Teresa Gorman, a Tory MP, is quoted as saying that comment directed toward women members by their male colleagues often amounts to nothing less than “offensive schoolboy smut.”

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She said that male MPs repeatedly comment in stage whispers, often crudely, about the physical appearance of female colleagues. “When Clare Short made a very emotional speech about abortion and talked about the horrors of back-street abortions, there were comments like ‘you should know, you old slag.’ ”

Gorman noted that such sexist heckling invariably goes unrecorded in the official record of the Commons.

“It is schoolboy stuff,” Gorman says, “but there’s a nasty edge to it. With male MPs they attack what they say; with women MPs they attack what they look like. It can be savage.”

Abdela said that in interviewing women MPs she came across the same sort of complaint time after time. “The House can be an unfriendly and hostile place where . . . you can be made to feel like a germ invading the place. . . . There seems to be a group of Conservative MPs who pile into the chamber when women MPs are speaking on topics that relate to women just to have a go.”

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According to Joyce Quinn, a Labor front MP, late night debates are the worst. “The last time I did a late night debate a Tory MP shouted, ‘What have you been drinking?’ I should have asked him that question myself.”

Harriet Harman, a Labor MP, thinks the system makes the harassment inevitable. “It’s basically a male club where a lot of men are locked up together all week and an intense male atmosphere develops.”

Some subject matter is obviously more provocative than others. Said one male MP: “Clara Short, whom I respect greatly, never faces heckling when she discusses issues like Northern Ireland or unemployment, but when she brought forward her bill to ban Page 3 pinups, a move with which I had some sympathy, that was the kind of subject that almost invited it.”

Perhaps an attempt to ban the Page 3 pinups, which are a standard feature of most English tabloids, would inevitably arouse male resentment. However, one deplores the notion that the storied House of Commons would stoop to sexism on any pretext.

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I suppose we should not be concerned with chauvinism in the British Parliament; but it does make me wonder whether that same abuse exists to any degree in legislatures on this side of the Atlantic.

If so, evidently the women legislators grin and bear it; I don’t remember hearing any general outcry, though obviously there must be plentiful examples. Traditionally, the House and Senate have been old boys clubs, women constituting a very small minority of either house.

The fact that sexism remains rampant in Parliament suggests, however, that even if we were to elect a woman President, which inevitably we will, women might still find it tough going in the Congress.

I prefer to think that the British male, still ingrained in medieval traditions of knighthood and male supremacy, is more of a nerd than his American counterpart.

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Or am I wrong?


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