Stuart Bathgate talks to Lesley Abdela, author ofa new book about women politicians.
When. in 1980. Lesley Abdela founded the 300 Group. an organisation devoted to increasing the number ofwomen in positions of public prominence.there were nineteen women Members of Parliament. Now. a decade later. there are 42 - more than double. but still apathetic proportion. Abdela‘s new book. Women With X Appeal. attempts not only to examine the reasons for this gross under-representation. but also. by detailing the experiences ofcurrent female politicians. to inspire more women to take an active part in political life.
It was her own experience as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in 1979 that led Abdela to found the Group: ‘50 many women on the doorsteps when l was out canvassing would make remarks about how novel it was for a woman to be standing for election. They‘d ask me how I had time to fit my political activities in with looking after the family and doing the shopping. things like that.‘
Abdela worked full-time. but unpaid. for the Group for the first five or six years. making a living the way she still does. through freelance journalism. ‘I still do some work for the group. but I think it‘s a good idea to keep changing the personnel. so the organisation doesn't become identified with any one person.‘
Still a member of the Liberal Democrats. Abdela is very firmly a liberal with a small L as well. She dedicates her new book to ‘all the women candidates who‘ve ever stood for election. to local councils. Westminster. and the European Parliament — for those who were elected. and those who weren‘t.’
Does that include women who have represented the National Front. Lesley‘.’
‘Mm. that's an interesting question. I hadn't really thought of
that. I suppose I would modify it and say I meant women who had stood for democratic parties. and the National Front‘s not a democratic party.‘
Quite. But that's obviously an extreme example. Surely there are less clear-cut cases of women who. because oftheir politics. both in general and specifically as they apply to women's rights. no feminist would want to see elected to the House of Commons? The glaring example is Thatch: she‘s a woman. and the first one both to be party leader and
Prime Minister. but her administrations have passed dozens of pieces of legislation which are directly opposed to the interests of all but the most privileged members of her sex.
In other words. doesn't there come a point when one‘s genitalia are less germane than one‘s practical politics? As Edwina Currie said. ‘I’m not a woman. I‘m a Conservative.‘
‘Well. even Thatcher did some good. in the sense that she was one of the first to prove that women MPs could handle more than the
traditional roles ofedueation and welfare. You‘ve got to look at it in context. There have been three stages. really. ofwomen MP5. The first. 7() years ago. were the pioneers. Thatcher fits into the second stage. before the advent ofan organised women‘s movement. The third stage. today‘s generation of women. are more assured. They know they can be as strong, as tough. as men. but they don't have to prove themselves quite so much. I think: if they want to involve themselves in education and welfare they don‘t have to feel assertive about it.‘
The book is composed mainly of around 30 interviews and. to be fair to its author. some Tory women whose political philosophies I find abhorrent. such as Teresa Gorman. MP for Billericay. do come across as having a very progressive outlook on women‘s rights. On the other hand. socialist men such as Dennis Skinner are revealed as perfectly willing to indulge in sexist abuse ofa political opponent
Besides, Women With X Appeal is concerned less with ideological purity. and far more with getting its message across to as many people as possible. ‘I carefully chose the different types ofwomen interviewed in the book‘. says Abdela, ‘so there would be someone for as many female readers as possible to identify with.‘ The corollary. however. is that there must be large chunks of the book with which many women cannot identify.
Anyone reading the book who is thinking ofentering mainstream politics themselves would be ill-advised to read it in large chunks: far from finding inspiration in its pages. one is more likely to feel defeated before one began by the catalogue ofvitriol. disbelief and patronising sarcasm which must be overcome by any woman seeking selection as a council or parliamentary candidate. Abdela herself. however. appears indomitable. fueled as she is by a knowledge that the under-representation ofwomen is a historical aberration which will. eventually. be overcome. As she says. ‘Apart from anything else. to make so little use of52 per cent of the population is such an absurd waste of human potential.‘
Women With X Appeal, Lesley A bdela (MacDonald Optima £6. 99).
The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon: Siberian Folk Tales Trans. James Riordan (Canongate £10.95) Most of us. I suppose. ifprcssed, would conclude that there must have
been at least some people living in Siberia before Stalin began sending them there. James Riordan‘s intriguing collection of folk tales is a reminder that this vast and inhospitable region has supported a great variety of peoples for many thousands ofyears.
Perhaps ‘supported‘ is not quite the right word — these tribes fell away from the great migration that drifted
up through Asia. across the Behring Straits and down to pOpulate the Americas; and I don’t suppose many Siberians would wholeheartedly have thanked their ancestors for stopping off where they did. Until fairly recently, starvation was a constant threat — perhaps one child in ﬁve survived to adulthood. and those that did were lucky to live past thirty-five.
In the face ofsuch hardship, these stories. with their spirits. their miracles, their tricksters and talking animals, represent not only attempts by the tellers to interpret their enormously demanding circumstances to themselves and to each other. but, more poignantly, a kind ofconsoling version of reality. If the results, as translated, do at times rather resemble decorative
72 The List 10— 23 November 1989