A couple of weeks ago, I became a volunteer for Lincolnshire’s Traveller Initiative. The project helps the county’s traveller children, and adults, to learn new skills, improve their education, and broaden their life experience. Every week I’ll be letting you know how I’m getting on.
No real names or locations will be used, for safeguarding reasons.
From the moment I revealed to one of my oldest friends that I’d signed myself up as a volunteer, I knew my involvement with Lincolnshire’s travellers wouldn’t be an easy talking point. Chris, laid back as they come, offers little reaction in most situations, so on slipping it into conversation on the way to the pub I expected nothing more than a grunt acknowledging I’d spoken. What I got was an angry lecture, mainly centred around his disbelief that anyone would want to help the ‘pikey’s’ that steal drainpipes, start fights and shit in the streets. Stunned into silence by his response, I shrugged, mumbled something about being inspired by my visit to the traveller site earlier that day, and haven’t mentioned it since.
From that point onwards, I’ve been selective about who I’ve told. Translated, that means I’ve told my mum, my boss who recommended I keep record of what I’m doing, and my housemate. Every time someone’s mentioned gypsy’s in conversation (which is remarkably quite a lot – like when you think you’re pregnant, and all people want to talk about are babies) I have smiled serenely, made a mental note of any negativity, and tried to change the conversation.
I admit; apart from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding most people’s experience of travellers is negative. Chris isn’t far off, we do hear stories of criminality and violence and the infamous Channel 4 programme didn’t do much to challenge that. However, what BFGW did do was spark public fascination, one that was fed further by the Dale Farm Protests soon afterwards. Those scenes had their fair share of sympathy for the community being forced out of their homes, especially when the absurdity of the local authority’s handling of the case was revealed. This little media moment surrounding the UK’s gypsy’s certainly hooked me. Several months later an email dropped into my inbox about a local initiative, set up to help teach those travellers who WANT to be taught. I couldn’t help but give them a call.
So, Louise Mensch drops out of politics and heads to New York to be with her husband. Cue a barrage of ‘you see women can’t have it all’ shakes of the head and knowing smiles from her male counterparts. Hers is naturally an extreme case of ‘family issues’ – you can’t possibly juggle pack ups, white papers AND jet lag. But at the core of her resignation are several questions, how hard are our political parties trying to keep their female contingent? And more importantly, why should they?
I recently met a lady; we’ll call her Laura, who still has questions over the death of her teenage son. She’s campaigned tirelessly to instigate reviews into the police handling of his death. She recently secured a meeting with the Policing Minister; it was also attended by Louise Mensch and several other MP’s. The details of the meeting and the case are irrelevant, but the strength of feeling involved is incomparable. After the meeting, I caught up with Laura and whilst Mr Herbert didn’t get a glowing review, Louise Mensch most certainly did.
‘She was on my side’
Stepping into a room of men, whatever the circumstance is daunting. I know, I’ve had to do it (and usually talk about farming or local government - EXACTLY) so, imagine, a mother – still grieving, still hurting, so strung out she can barely sit still, walking into a room of suits in Westminster. Got it? Now imagine her doing the same thing, but the row of suits broken up by a young woman, and one who writes for Cosmopolitan at that. She might have the same agenda as the blokes around her, but at least she has a share in motherhood – the reason behind Laura’s presence in the first place. Talking to Laura, she said she felt bolstered by the presence of a woman. Mensch, by all accounts did toe the party line, but she also tempered the debate with empathy for the constituents cause.
Proportionally, women remain the minority in politics, but they are starting to pack a punch. There remains the scepticism of even the most modern MP, who can forget Nadine Dorries being verbally slapped down and humiliated by DC? But brilliantly, the female presence in a male dominated world is starting to draw attention and respect. I recently attended a question and answer session with Ed Miliband, in an old boys club in Lincoln, also on the roll call was the city’s Labour candidate, Lucy Rigby. Young, intelligent and a fabulous speaker, the might and meaning behind her speech stood up firmly and convincingly alongside her party’s leader who’s been practising in front of his mirror for years.
Both of these examples show that being a woman, much like being young, widens the political playing field and makes it more accessible to a more diverse population. So bravo to Mensch for having the balls to do what’s right for her family, but bigger congrats to her, and the growing wave of women showing you don’t need balls to have a place in Politics.