Mother of Parliaments as 'Sexist Club'

With many more women in Britain's Parliament, men are told to end rude antics.

The many women who entered the House of Commons last year are expecting a rough time from their male colleagues when they return to the Palace of Westminster on Jan. 12.

Most of the 101 female Labour members of Parliament (MPs) - dubbed, to their chagrin, in London's tabloid press as "Blair's Babes" - got an early taste of male chauvinism, Commons-style, when they took their seats after last year's May 1 general election.

They discovered that the so-called "mother of parliaments" can be a sexist bear pit.

Jane Griffiths is one of several female Labour members who in December complained about the behavior of male colleagues. "When I made my maiden speech in June I was interrupted by mocking laughter and rude gestures from the Conservative Party benches," she recalls.

Other women complain that remarks they have made during House debates on serious topics such as breast cancer have been greeted with guffaws.

Part of the problem is that for centuries the House of Commons was an exclusive male preserve. Today, at a record 121 members, women make up nearly one-fifth of the House.

The seating plan in the House of Commons doesn't help. Unlike members of the horseshoe-shaped chambers of the US Congress, British MPs of the two main parties face each other in eye-to-eye confrontation, and have a tradition of heckling each other that dates to well before the arrival of female legislators.

Not only Labour women deplore the chauvinist taunts that often erupt in the House. Emma Nicholson, a former Conservative MP who now sits in the well-mannered House of Lords as Baroness Nicholson, recalls hearing "crude and repulsive suggestions" when women got up to speak.

The complaining ladies, however, have critics among their own gender. Ann Widdicombe, a Conservative MP and former prisons minister, thinks the Labour women are imagining things. "This is the [whining] feminism of the 1990s instead of the go-getting feminism of the 1970s," she says. "I have never noticed sexism on either side of the House."

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for sexual equality in Britain, disagrees. It says the results of a survey just released reveal widespread discrimination against female politicians.

Fawcett Society director Sheila Diplock says two-thirds of female MPs reported it was harder to be a woman than a man in the House of Commons. Ms. Diplock says they complain of "male public-school attitudes," "old-fashioned behavior," and "silly rules and secret conventions managed by men, for men."

As it happens, the Speaker of the House of Commons is a woman - the first to hold the post. Though barely five feet tall, Betty Boothroyd has an imperious manner and the voice of a drill sergeant.

She has used it to protect a few of Labour's more nervous female members from male jeering. "I feel for them very much," she says. "But there is only a certain amount I can do to help." They may need all the help Speaker Boothroyd can offer.

Political commentator Quentin Letts, who writes for the conservative Daily Telegraph, has no patience with the women he calls "Blair's Crybabes," saying, "They have misread the humor of the House and have been intimidated by the customary bombast of the chamber."

Edwina Currie, a feisty Conservative backbencher who lost her seat in the May election, offers this counsel for dealing with male chauvinism at Westminster: "You have to hit them below the belt." But, she adds, "What you don't do is burst into tears, or complain to the Speaker."

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