“I used to dread going into the division lobby,” recalls Harriet Harman. “I was going into an absolute hostile atmosphere.” The days when Britain’s longest continuously serving female MP had to “run the gauntlet” simply to vote in Parliament must thankfully seem a long time ago.
That was in the late 1980s, when Harman – juggling her job in the Commons with raising three children under the age of five – was facing abuse from MPs on her own side. Many of the men representing Labour, she says, felt threatened and insulted by her push for every constituency shortlist for parliamentary candidates to include at least one woman. “I was seen as the instigator and I got the backlash.”
These days, the pressure of being a woman working in Parliament with a young family has been eased somewhat by an on-site nursery, the end of late-night debates and recognition of maternity leave.
Having entered Parliament in 1982 when men made up 97 per cent of MPs – there were more members of the Commons named John than there were women – Harman acknowledges things have improved, with the female contingent up to 29 per cent at the 2015 general election. “It’s a real advantage now that there’s a critical mass of women MPs,” she says. “They’ve got each other to support each other. I was the only one having babies, and therefore I was facing all these doubts and anxieties completely on my own.”
The improvement in representation is thanks in part to her own campaigning, which the former York University student, describes in her new memoir, A Woman’s Work. But she argues there’s still have a long way to go in British politics – including within Labour’s ranks. “There’s no doubt women and men are not on equal terms in the party – not outside Parliament, not inside Parliament,” says Labour’s former deputy leader.
Not only are the leader and deputy leader both men, but she points to the male domination of Labour’s mayoral candidates in cities across the UK, and points out that only around a fifth of council leaders are women. “If you look at every bit of the power structure, including private meetings, it’s dominated by men. The difficulty is that if you’re not in the room, or you’re the only woman in the room, women’s voices are not heard on equal terms.”
Asked if Jeremy Corbyn and his “all-male leadership” is doing enough to change this, she says: “We’ve been in Parliament together for a long time and I’ve never seen him push forward women’s rights. He needs to do more than just not resist them, he needs to push forward.”
Harman has been attacked in the past as a “humourless feminist”. Perhaps her appearance on the BBC’s Graham Norton Show on Friday was aimed at fighting off the first half of that description. The second half is an intrinsic part of her character. Indeed, in her book, the 66-year-old describes how she and her three sisters were taught self-reliance by their parents.
Harman is glad to see more female Tory MPs she can identify with, even if they don’t agree on politics. But she is less impressed with the Prime Minister. “Theresa May is more the like the pre-feminist Tory women MPs than the new generation – she voted against the Equality Act,” she says. “She’s got to look like a woman who is standing up for herself and standing up for this country... That picture of Donald Trump holding her hand was really bad.”
Harman is currently fighting to ensure women’s rights are not undermined by Brexit. But what frustrates her now is that Labour are giving the Government an “easy ride”.
“You can’t be a strong Opposition unless you’ve got public support,” she say.”
A Woman’s Work is published by Allen Lane, £20