Women Find Commons Too Common Flood Of New Female Members Faces Sexism In Parliament

MONDAY, DEC. 22, 1997

No one ever claimed that the British House of Commons was a hotbed of maturity.

It is there, for instance, that Labor legislators regularly call, “Taxi! Taxi!” when Patrick Nicholls, a Tory once stripped of his driver’s license because of drunken driving, rises to speak. It is where they greet Douglas Hogg with cries of “Moo!” in recognition of his service as agriculture minister during the worst of the so-called mad cow crisis.

Even so, Jane Griffiths, a newly elected Labor member of Parliament, was taken aback when she was addressing the House of Commons recently and several Tory legislators began cupping their hands in front of their chests, she said, as if “they were weighing melons.”

The honorable gentlemen, as they are called in Parliament, were clearly using the universal gesture for breasts, Griffiths said, and she found it absolutely mystifying.

“I don’t even think they’re consciously being sexist,” she said in an interview. “I think they behave like schoolboys because nobody’s ever told them not to.”

In fact, many men in Parliament seem to have a real problem with women’s body parts. Clare Short, the secretary for international development, recently told a television program about women in Parliament that some of her male opponents begin giggling when, for instance, the subject of cervical cancer programs comes up.

They’re “very public schoolboy, primitive,” Short said. “Breasts, of course, just finish them off completely.”

So, apparently, does any reference to birds, which, in British slang, means what “chicks” means in American slang. “The speaker had to intervene the other day when a woman stood up during an agriculture debate on wild birds,” said Candy Atherton, a Labor legislator. “It was appalling. I suddenly became aware that there was a load of noise and the Tory benches were falling about. Quite clearly, they thought it was hilarious that a woman was asking about birds. They were like juvenile schoolboys on a day out.”

Parliament has always been Britain’s ultimate old boy’s club, and in the past, its members could get away with behaving like escapees from an all-male boarding school, which most of them were. But in last May’s grand Labor sweep, an unparalleled 120 women - 101 from the Labor Party - were elected to the House of Commons.

Trained in local politics and labor unions, where modern rules of interaction between the sexes apply, they pronounced themselves astonished by the weird time-warp inside Parliament.

“It’s not something I can’t cope with, but it’s inappropriate and childish,” Griffiths said. “The MPs who have been schoolteachers say they use techniques they used in classrooms, like the withering stare to the naughty boy at the back of the classroom. But what makes me cross is that it’s the wrong battle to have to fight.”

There are signs that women are slowly changing things inside Westminster. Men’s bathrooms now say more than just “Members,” on the outside, to prevent women from barging in by mistake. The House of Commons’ traditional barber has been replaced by a new “salon,” offering perms and elaborate hair-styling.

And a Labor parliamentary committee is examining ways of modernizing Parliament, including streamlining some of the cumbersome debating rules and possibly replacing the shooting gallery, where legislators play with their guns, with a day-care center where they can look after their children.

But, despite a growing propensity for American-style sensitivity in the rest of Britain, many men in Parliament appear to be clinging happily to their old ways.

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