How I Couple Duties of M.P. and Mother
Equal work and equal pay in Parliament
People often ask me what it is like being a woman Member of Parliament, whether I find any prejudice against women in the House of Commons, and how I manage to fit in my duties as a Member with those of running a home and looking after a family.
First, let us be quite clear about one thing, the rights and duties of a Member of Parliament are precisely the same whether the person elected be a man or a woman. Each represents all of his or her constituents and the Member is the channel through which all grievances and view-points are put to the appropriate Government departments.
Of course Members specialise in their own pet subject and there seems to be a tendency on the part of some people to assume that the interest of women Members will centre naturally on the work of the welfare departments of government, for example, pensions, health, education, consumer standards, and so on.
But great as the interest is in these matters, the woman Member does not confine her studies or her speeches to them. While Miss Edith Pitt and Dr Edith Summerskill are expert on questions relating to the National Health Service, Miss Joan Vickers and Mrs Barbara Castle often take part in debates on Colonial affairs.
No distinction of salary
Parliament was one of our first institutes to make no distinction of pay between men and women doing the same job.
The proportion of women Members is still small. There are now only twenty-six of us (thirteen Conservatives and thirteen Socialists) out of a total of 630 Members. It is always difficult, even in the 1960s, for a woman to break into a profession which is popularly regarded as being a man's preserve, and though woman Members have established their place in public life, it is still difficult for a woman to be chosen to contest a Parliamentary seat, and in my view the number of women Members does not adequately reflect the part they play in our national life.
Fascination for politics
What are the characteristics required of any woman who wants to make a Parliamentary career?
First, I would say, she must have a complete fascination for the subject. This is not something that can be nurtured; either you have it, or you haven't. It is like being musical or artistic or mathematically minded—you do not know why you have these qualities but they are easily recognisable to other people.
Secondly, she must be prepared to work hard on those aspects of politics in which she specialises. One sometimes hears the comment that he or she “hasn't done enough homework” or he “didn't know his brief well enough” —meaning that the subject has not received a sufficiently thorough study. Nothing is easier to detect and Members are not exactly reticent in their criticisms! In the House of Commons, no matter what the subject under debate, there is always someone who knows it inside out, and who will pick up any half-true statement.
Thirdly, she must try to cultivate an ability to put her case. This is very difficult but I believe this faculty to be the very essence of the successful politician. It is not even enough to know your subject, you must be able to select those points which form the heart of the matter and clothe them in language which makes an impact on those who are listening.
Requisites same for men
This means rejecting a great deal of material; it means rapid thinking, and being able to change what you had intended to say, in order to respond to the mood of the House, and to avoid the repetitions that would otherwise ensue. In this ability lies the difference between the new and the experienced politician.
Fourthly, she must have courage and conviction, for without these qualities the others are hollow and useless. [end p3]
You will notice that these requisites are the same as would be needed by a man to make a name in politics, but perhaps this underlines the point I made at first. I trust that at least I have made it clear that charm is not enough!
What are the woman Member's chances of promotion? Many Members like to be backbenchers and have no wish to take on the tremendous amount of extra work and responsibility that office involves. To become an M.P. a person needs to be keen, to take office she must be dedicated.
There are some eighty-four Government posts altogether. A few of these are held by peers but at the time of writing sixty-three of the appointments are filled from the House of Commons.
Three of these are held by women; the Rt. Hon. Patricia Hornsby—Smith, P.C., is Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions, Miss Edith Pitt is Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Miss Mervyn Pike is Assistant Postmaster General.
At present no woman Member holds a serious Ministerial post. The other sixty posts are held by men Members. Three women in office out of a possible thirteen (and until November 22 there were only twelve of us) does not compare unfavourably with sixty men in office out of approximately 350. In other words one woman in four has a Government office, as compared with one in six men.
Coupling the life of a woman Member of Parliament with that of running a home and family is not easy. My Denis Thatcherhusband and I have twin children, a Mark Thatcherson and Carol Thatcherdaughter seven years of age.
Every woman who has an independent career has to work out her own particular method of fitting in everything. I frankly admit that I could not do it if our home were not within forty minutes of Westminster by car, and if I did not have residential help. If any accident should befall the children in my absence, at least I can get to them quickly.
Moreover, no matter how late the House of Commons sits I can always get home at night and be there to take the children to school each morning. The House of Commons does not commence until 2.30 p.m. (except on Fridays when it is 11 a.m.), so the mornings can be devoted to household duties and correspondence at home.
One or two afternoons a week I manage to collect the children from school and have tea with them. Fortunately the school holidays and the Parliamentary recesses coincide so that I can spend a lot of time with the family then, as well as at week-ends. My husband is out a great deal in the evenings, working late or attending meetings and sometimes he comes to dine at the House if he has been in London all day.
At half term, the children come to Westminster and their greatest joy is to climb Big Ben! I hope they will soon take more interest in the House of Commons, but at present they think the House of Lords is prettier!
It's a busy life but I woudn't change it.