Harriet Harman’s book is an exhaustive account of the women’s movement in parliament since 1982, writes Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin
When Harriet Harman caused controversy by bringing her baby to a parliamentary vote soon after being elected, she received a call from the serjeant-at-arms. ‘Only members are allowed in the division lobby,’ he explained. ‘And babies are not members.’
Stories like this fill the early pages of Harman’s new book, A Woman’s Work. And while many are amusing, others – like her account of being groped on the dancefloor of a political event at which she was keynote speaker – are more sinister.
She is the longest-serving female member of parliament, and these stories serve as a reminder that however archaic and sexist the House of Commons seems today, it has advanced in leaps and bounds since 1982, when she first arrived.
In that time, no one has done more than Harman to advance the position of women in British politics, whether through encouraging the ambitions of female colleagues, pushing for more family-friendly sitting times, or convincing Labour to adopt all-woman shortlists and laying the groundwork for the election of 101 Labour women in 1997 – the single greatest advance women have made in British politics.
Her account of the period from 1982-97 is often agonising, as she describes the resistance to reform (from both sides of the chamber) and to her, as a young, outspoken MP and mother. As Harman evokes decades of being jeered by Tories and the press, and briefed against by colleagues, it is difficult to believe she stuck it out.
But one of the key messages of this book is that politics should not be about the individuals in parliament, but those around the country. While Harman campaigned for a more inclusive parliament, it was in the name of better representing women in Britain as they battled low pay, reduced pension entitlement, domestic violence, inaccessible childcare and a political system that was hopelessly ill-attuned to the realities of their lives.
Beyond exhilarating accounts of (in particular) the 1994 leadership contest, the 1997 election and the final days of Gordon Brown’s government, the book is light on political gossip. Instead, it is filled with stories about the women Harman has met in the course of her work, and the statistics and policy analysis that bear out those stories.
At times, the account is too exhaustive and a tighter edit would have better drawn out the key arguments. But it captures the reality that Harman’s political career – as opposition frontbencher, opposition backbencher, government backbencher, cabinet minister, solicitor general, deputy Labour leader and interim leader of the opposition – hinges on her membership of the women’s movement, and commitment to enhancing the living conditions of women.
And, as the book’s title suggests, Harman recognises that there is much more work to be done and that a new generation of feminists must play their part.
‘Help the women who will come after you,’ she writes on the book’s final page. ‘Breaking new ground by getting yourself into a certain position is important, but do more than that: help the women who join and strengthen the cause, and who will take things forward after you.’
On that score, she has followed her own advice.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. She tweets at @niamhsquared
A Woman’s Work by Harriet Harman MP
Allen Lane | 416pp | £20