A hundred years on from the first victory for women’s suffrage, former home secretary Jacqui Smith speaks to Henna Shah about #MeToo, imposter syndrome, and the challenges faced by women in politics.
Jacqui Smith is one of the most successful female politicians of our time. From 11 years as an economics teacher and local councillor, to one of the first three women to hold a great office of state (the others being Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and Margaret Beckett as foreign secretary), Smith has been one of very few women to ascend through the ranks of our political system and achieve influence at the very top of government.
Smith was also one the few people to earmark the outsider Theresa May as a potential Conservative leader (although whether she thought May would end up in anything like the current scenario is another question). Perhaps surprisingly, her assessment highlighted May’s support of other women, in stark contrast to Thatcher’s garish political machismo.
Does she have the same opinion of May following the rise of the #MeToo movement? Smith again surprises with her reluctance to engage in (seemingly easy) political point-scoring against the prime minister. May has been ‘caught flat-footed’ by the movement, but her sacking of Damian Green, leaving her exponentially weakened with the Brexiteer vultures circling ever closer, demonstrates an understanding of the importance of the ‘scale and nature of feeling around the issue.’
What about other parties? Smith is very open about the fact that all parties, at all levels must accept responsibility for the failure to act to protect women in political life from sexism. She, like other high profile women, has been subject to sexist media coverage, such as when her cleavage stole the show at her first statement to the Commons on the terrorist threat. And who can forget her pride of place in the 1997 cohort as one of ‘Blair’s babes’, a moniker deserving of her (and all our) hatred.
Headlines aside, though, it is easy to detect the frustration in Smith’s voice when she discusses the sexual harassment of women in politics. Her own experience in parliament may not have been marked by explicit harassment or assault – recognising that as a female member of parliament her power has saved her from some of the worst excesses. For her, the general situation is intrinsically related to an inequality of power that exists between junior female staff (in particular) and ‘those for whom they are working, on whom they are dependent for their jobs and future careers’. Where those conducting the abuse are in positions of direct power over those they are abusing, it is unsurprising that they are unable to address the problem through the structures of the organisation.
For her own part, Smith sees the #MeToo movement at Westminster as ‘the biggest shake-up’ of her life – bold words from someone whose career has spanned such great terrain – and she does not believe we have the seen the last of it. Where we ‘continue to have an imbalance of power between more powerful men and less powerful women’ we will ‘continue to see that type of activity happen’. Where it will finally, end, therefore, remains to be seen. Smith herself recognises that, no matter what your explicit power, sometimes for women ‘there isn’t a natural assumption of your right to be powerful’ and that as a woman, imposter syndrome can be a permanent fixture – even when you are incredibly well-qualified, as Smith was when she became home secretary.
Smith’s involvement in politics started at an early age; both her parents were heavily involved in the Labour party. In fact, she is confident that if her mum had ‘been born 25-30 years later, she would have been an MP.’ Things have certainly changed for women in politics since then, with all women shortlists ensuring action, rather than just words, when it comes to female representation. Nevertheless, it is clear we have a long way to go. The Labour party has never had a female chancellor (shadow or otherwise), let alone a leader. It is notable that this lack of leadership extends across local, as well as national, government. Once again, although we have made strides in representation, women still find themselves in far fewer of the top jobs – something that makes Claire Kober’s resignation all the more saddening.
Pessimism may be the order of the day among progressives, and Smith is adamant that Labour must be the party of power, not the party of protest. She does, however, remain quietly optimistic. For her, the very fact that Labour is the party of equality, that women lose out when we are not in government that drives her zeal for recruiting more women into the party.
Her advice? ‘Do it.’ By getting involved now, young women will be able to make change in the future, and ‘have the power to actually make a proper difference to people’s lives.’
Happily for us, Smith’s dedication to the sisterhood is unwavering. Her role at the Labour Women’s Network allows her to provide young women with training and support, to encourage us to voice our diverse opinions, and remind the world that ‘women are not some sort of blob’ (a line I may make my life’s motto). ‘Well done,’ she says at the end of our call, grasping the opportunity to help me just a little higher up that ladder.
Henna Shah is editorial assistant at Progress. She tweets at @hennalikespie
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