Women in Parliament since 1945: have they changed the debate?

Luke Blaxill , Kaspar Beelen |

http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/women-in-parliament-since-1945-have-they-changed-the-debate

Executive Summary

  • What difference does gender make in the House of Commons? Do male and female MPs approach their roles as representatives differently? Do they prioritise different issues, or use different language? Disagreements on these questions continue to dominate public debate over the on-going under-representation of women in Parliament. In this policy paper, we use an exciting new research methodology – computerised text mining – to bring a fresh perspective to this vexed issue. Our conclusions are:
  • That women MPs since 1945 have, compared to male colleagues, spoken a different language of politics. Over this period, they consistently employed different vocabulary and prioritised different topics in Parliament. They are much more likely to speak about women, and to make representative claims dependent on their gender. Importantly, there are also strong linguistic markers of women’s political language that are not explicitly based on gender, which could be said to represent a wider female ‘social perspective’. In this regard, the central feminist argument on gender difference gains strong prima facie corroboration.
  • That contrary to received wisdom on the subject, this ‘gender effect’ has been reduced, not increased, by the steep increase of women MPs since the 1997 election. We suggest that 1997 was significant because it helped normalise a large female presence at Westminster which absolved women MPs of the obligation to act as ‘token women’ and thus as spokeswomen for their sex.
  • That the frequently made argument that Labour MPs – since 1979 – have been the more diligent representatives of women is questionable. While the party consistently returned more female MPs, we find little difference between the speeches of Labour and Conservative women.