A woman's place is in the House

July 10, 2003 ,

CONTROVERSY has flared recently about plans by the Labour Party to impose all women shortlists in two Welsh constituencies.

In the 700year history of Parliament only seven women have represented seats from Wales.

Three of those were selected from allwomen shortlists.

Unlike the National Assembly, the House of Commons is still an overwhelmingly male establishment. That doesn't stop women rising to great prominence.

Apart from the obvious example of Mrs Thatcher, there have been many outstanding women MPs.

The first to be elected was Constance Markiewicz in 1918, but she never took her seat because she was a member of Sinn Fein.

Nancy Astor was the first to sit in the House and she soon ruffled the feathers of the men.

When she told Winston Churchill that if she were married to him shewould put poison in his tea. He replied: "Madam, if I were your husband, I would drink it."

To be a female MP means that you have to be a resilient and often remarkable individual, like Barbara Castle or Jennie Lee.

Two such women were nominated this week for the "Backbencher of the Year" award at parliament's version of the Oscars.

Sylvia Hermon, the Ulster Unionist MP, did not win, but she is regarded across the House of Commons as an extraordinarily effective MP.

Once when she accepted an invitation to speak at a meeting in the Irish Republic, the local Orange Order marched to her house and handed a letter to her husband demanding he controlled his wife's behaviour.

The winner was our own Ann Clwyd. I disagreed with Ann over Iraq but I never doubted the courage and integrity with which she has campaigned against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein for more than 20 years. Ann and Sylvia are living proof that when it comes to politics, a woman's place is in the House.