Women of Westminster by Rachel Reeves review – the MPs who changed politics

Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, with (from left) photographs of Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams.

A question has dogged every woman MP since Nancy Astor took her seat in the Commons 100 years ago, and it is one explored by Rachel Reeves in her book marking that centenary: should female parliamentarians focus on “women’s issues” or approach public policy and law-making as a male colleague would?

Reeves, the Labour MP for Leeds West, shows why it was necessary for women in Parliament to do the former – but in order to build a foundation for the latter, and eventually equality between male and female MPs. Without the pioneers throughout the decades that she celebrates – Eleanor Rathbone campaigning for family allowances, Barbara Castle fighting for equal pay for women, and Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell pushing for better childcare provision – there would have been much slower progress. Women of Westminster includes female MPs beyond the most famous, those who have been largely forgotten in a political history written by men. As Reeves says, the book is a “biography of Parliament told by the women elected to it … an alternative history of Britain in the last one hundred years, told through the stories of political women”.


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