Monday, 11 April 2016

A Divided House

Pic of Lion statue at bottom of stairs in Westminster Hall

Many a time I have walked past the Houses of Parliament in Westminster and gazed up in awe. During the Easter break I seized the opportunity to see the magnificent buildings from the inside. A special guided tour was available as part of Women's History Month. It was entitled "From petitions to Prime Minister". This fascinating tour was all about women in Parliament and the suffragettes. The 2015 film Suffragette was the first production ever granted access to film inside the Houses of Parliament.

Shot taken from inside the grounds of the Houses of Parliament, showing the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and the London Eye
Inside the grounds of the Houses of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament are steeped in British history. Unfortunately, that history has not been so great for women. 

Pic of Oliver Cromwell's statue looking up at him looking down
Statue of Oliver Cromwell looking down

Spot the Woman?
There are very few portraits of women inside -  unless the women concerned were queens or consorts. I could have easily missed the small stained-glass window to the Women's Suffrage Movement if our guide hadn't pointed it out.

Pic of small window commemorating Women's suffrage
Women's Suffrage Window

An Injustice depicted as Justice
One of the most moving stories related to a painting by Irishman Daniel Maclise. He painted the face of Caroline Norton as "The Spirit of Justice" in the House of Lords. In those days, women were the property of their husbands. Caroline Norton fought a campaign over the custody of children and divorce conditions. 

Cat and Mouse
I was horrified to hear of the lengths that women had to go to win the right to vote. It went far beyond raising petitions. Quite a hefty endeavour before today's e-petitions. The suffragettes went to prison, on repeated hunger strikes and were force-fed repeatedly. Can this really have happened in my country in the last century? The circumstances surrounding The Cat and Mouse Act seem horrific.

Side view of Lord Falkland showing heel damaged by suffragettes
Heel of Lord Falkland bears Suffragette damage

Petitioning for Change
Of course today, women shouldn't need to go to such lengths today to get justice or be heard, should they? It should be a simple matter of writing to your MP. Not every just cause can raise a massive petition. Some causes aren't glamorous enough for widespread popular support. Slavery wasn't just. It took just men to overthrow it.

Modern women still struggle to improve conditions for their children after a divorce. They tend to get on with doing their best for their children, rather than staging stunts like climbing Buckingham Palace. Yes, roles in society are changing. Yet, gender-neutral decisions in a world that is not gender-neutral are not fair. They favour the father. Not the mother. And certainly not the children. The latter are forced to live a bizarre, nomadic existence between homes, used as a weapons of abuse in ways beyond their understanding.

Causes without Glamour
Just 25% of British MPs and 8% of the judiciary are women. It is very difficult to gain male MPs' attention to the unfairness of so-called gender-neutral laws, domestic abuse and coercive control. How do you win the support of wealthy male MPs on the subject of post-divorce finance for women and children? Many women and children live in poverty or near-poverty for years after divorce.

Suffering Children
Children grow up in the time the courts take to deal with matters. The slow family courts allow abusive fathers too much time to cover their financial tracks. The Government is quick to make digital connections that withdraw payments to single mothers. Yet access to the evidence that would prove a case of relentless financial abuse is blocked as "confidential".

Attitudes to Women
It's legal to use the legal system as an instrument of abuse and mental torture. The system is too formulaic. Too male. It too readily dismisses women's complaints as irrational, too emotional, too stressed, too negative... 

Misogyny and Class Division
As I stood in the Houses of Parliament, I understood why it is so hard for so many women. The very fabric of the building reeks of misogyny and class division. Protocol did not allow us to sit down inside the House of Commons or the House of Lords. I'm a British citizen. I have the right to vote. I think I deserve the respect and the right to sit down.

Digital Decision-makers?
The voting system is out of the ark. It lends itself to bullying. How can MPs take informed decisions on Britain's digital future (and the Snooper's Charter in particular), if their place of work is an historic relic? Are they going to wait until the Thames floods the Chamber?

A New Environment?
The Houses of Parliament is a fabulous museum. It should be a museum. Visitors would flood in. England and the United Kingdom deserve a new purpose-built building with the latest digital technology and security systems. Perhaps attendance would improve if there were actually enough seats for everyone? Set out in a less adversarial way? 

We deserve better representation for women and children by women. Sometimes you can't change an environment without changing the environment. 

We deserve a grown-up Parliament... I have no allegiance to any particular party. However, the Green Party have just captured how most women see British politics very well.

Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd.
 She is
an English 
copywriter and
multilingual digital