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Don't tell women MPs to 'man up'. We're tough enough already

Diana Johnson MP had the article below published by the Guardian newspaper on 5 December 2013. See below or at .

Melissa Kite asks why "women still find life in the Commons so unbearable", telling us to "toughen up" (Man up, women MPs, 29 November). If that's her view, she should wise up.

Kite talks of "a growing exodus of recently elected women 'rising stars' forced out tragically early by the macho posturing in parliament". The subtext is that if we can't stand the heat, get back to the kitchen. But as a Guardian leader column helpfully pointed out, the number of women MPs standing down is not disproportionate compared with men.

Unfortunately, Kite shares the media obsession with a few among the 2010 intake of women MPs, many of them Tories. They're still new to parliament, some to politics generally. In any job it takes time to find your feet and become fully effective. "Louise Mensch gave the impression that the tragedy of her resignation was how politics had failed her, not how she might have failed politics," says Kite. While it's true that Mensch didn't seem to get the idea of a five-year contract with voters, many others are taking to the job well.

Kite refers to "shrinking violets" and says: "Among the intake complaining of sexism, none I can think of is worthy of that most auspicious term 'battleaxe'." She cites MPs such as Ann Widdecombe, Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher. But look at the women MPs who head ministerial and shadow ministerial teams, who regularly ask ministers questions, who challenge the PM at prime minister's questions, and who lead debates.

Some of our best select committee chairs are women: Margaret Hodge and Louise Ellman follow in the footsteps of the late Gwyneth Dunwoody. Natascha Engel chairs the increasingly important backbench business committee, allocating debates on issues backbenchers want to discuss. For the first time, there are two women deputy speakers – Dawn Primarolo and Eleanor Laing.

Women MPs, the majority of whom represent Labour, are diverse, talented and outspoken. Some came through Labour selection procedures designed to break the logjam of discrimination that saw female MPs stuck in low numbers for decades. Most of Labour's 86 women MPs represent gritty urban seats, requiring resilience to get selected, let alone elected.

Kite says that "today's female politicians don't seem to know how to handle" male politicians, but these MPs work diligently in their constituencies and at Westminster, often getting little recognition for their efforts – even if they achieve more than many male MPs.

The majority of new MPs in 2005 were women – such as Sharon Hodgson, Barbara Keeley, Lyn Brown, Helen Goodman and Roberta Blackman-Woods – with the hugely varied life experiences wanted by the public. They are campaigning parliamentarians who speak out for their constituents.

Focusing on women who have only been in parliament for three years provides an incomplete picture. Parliament needs major reform. Having more women at Westminster making the case for change will help it happen.

In the meantime I would ask Kite, and the media in general, to observe the work of female MPs from all intakes and parties, including those who didn't go to Oxbridge, don't live in certain north London postcodes, and who represent seats outside the south-east. We're just getting on with the job.

• Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Hull North and shadow home office minister



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