Women with an interest in politics, rejoice! The male-dominated era of Westminster is over; we have finally gained our place in the spotlight. First, there was Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who brought his wife Lucia Gao to his five-country tour of Africa last week, and described her to the Telegraph as a “great diplomatic weapon” for Britain, having made friends with the spouses of other foreign secretaries. Then there was former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who landed a big sit-down interview with The Sunday Times, and was presumably mortified as his wife Erika Rey just happened to pop her head round the door and stick around for a quick photoshoot.
This well-trodden stage of Tory succession battles was covered in the Times with the headline “Tory leadership contenders show off wives and policies”, but it wasn’t the end of it. The real win for feminism this week came from Nevena Bridgen, opera singer and wife of Conservative MP and Brexit enthusiast Andrew Bridgen, who launched the website The Wives of Westminster on Monday.
#TWOW, as it is hashtagged, is a “digital home to all fashionable, sophisticated women with brains, hearts and style”, focusing on “women empowerment, modern family, careers, wellness, purpose, kid-friendly lifestyles”.
Though technically focused on politics, the website has so far covered a wide range of topics, from the best accessories in Karl Lagerfeld’s latest collection to the importance of meditation and the need to eradicate the gender pay gap.
The blog has so far received a somewhat chilly reception in Westminster, especially from female MPs. “This looks like some people who feel as if they’re being left out of the spotlight – although why anyone would want to be in the political spotlight beats me – and it’s just, well, odd,” says Deidre Brock of the SNP.
“How someone leads ‘the global conversation about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century’ by reducing themselves to a relationship to someone else is baffling. The website is baffling – why would anyone care what politicians’ spouses think or do just because they happen to be married to an MP?
Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan agrees: “It is so bizarrely outdated – it’s 2019, wives can be MPs too!”
The Tooting MP also points out that the Wives of Westminster’s taste in shopping aren't exactly accessible to most. “With the ‘statement accessories’ and ‘luxurious bathrooms with a view’, it is not a surprise that members of the public sometimes think that MPs are not representative of wider society."
“If there was a website giving tips on how to handle last-minute holiday cancellations when no insurance company has a clause for ‘a PM that can’t get backing for her Brexit deal’, I am fairly sure I know a few MPs’ partners who would sign up.”
#TWOW has at least one fan: Felicity Cornelius-Mercer. Bridgen’s interview with the wife of Conservative MP Johnny Mercer is a goldmine of exquisitely milquetoast lines: she cannot cook and is terrible at ironing, which is why she married a military man “because they love to do it themselves”! She doesn’t get up early to wave Johnny goodbye as it’s “not entirely necessary”! Oh, and: “I am not a feminist, I do not believe that being female puts me at a disadvantage.” (Note to Cornelius-Mercer: This is not feminism.)
As SNP MP Hannah Bardell puts it: “We called for a feminist revolution, we got a blog profiling the wives of Tory men. Demystifying political life and the impact on families is important if we are to achieve equal representation, [but] far from opening doors for young women of all backgrounds to follow, Wives of Westminster seems to be a reminder that for women – as was the case a hundred years ago – our worth lies in the man we marry.”
Though it is hard not to mock #TWOW, some of its insights might be worth taking seriously. In Cornelius-Mercer’s interview, for instance, there are multiple mentions of the fact that she works for her husband’s office - still a semi-common practice in British politics - and they take most decisions together.
She happily admits that she isn’t from a political background, but having “knocked on 28,000 doors in 2015”, feels she deserved the job. She isn’t an exception – many MPs turn to their partner for advice when the going gets tough, regardless of whether they work professionally together or not.
It is impossible to know what happens in any of those conversations, but it is worth remembering that even the most personal of connections is important – especially at a time when individual MPs matter more than ever, and Commons votes often balance on a knife-edge.
Then there is the piece Bridgen wrote on why she decided to launch the blog, in which she talks about endless dinners and receptions in Westminster where she is seemingly “invisible”, spending her evening with no-one to talk to.
“My first shocking experience of the ‘be quiet’ role that the wife should have, happened when a respected senior politician that I’ve held in high regard, told me to ‘shush’ over expressing my opinion about the free movement after Brexit,” she wrote. This probably won’t be surprising for any woman who has spent time in Westminster, but highlighting its sexism for everyone else cannot be a bad thing.
Still, reading an MP’s wife’s guide on how “to look chic on the Riviera” without breaking the bank (including £520 hat and £340 earrings) is probably not the best model for female representation in politics.
Perhaps it should be seen as a wake-up call; there is a need for more female-fronted organisations around Parliament, and that space will be taken over by 1950s-flavoured throwbacks if not filled by anything else.
One soon-to-be-launched group that seems promising is Women of Westminster, created by a group of young female aides trying to help other young women from all backgrounds who want to get jobs in Parliament.
Ten years down the line, who knows? Their partners might well be the ones blogging tips on how to be the best possible spouse of someone running the country.