Since the National Assembly for Wales was created in 1999, it’s fair to say that as many more women have been elected at a National level, mostly due to positive action measures within some Welsh parties, this has often given the false impression that gender equality within Welsh politics is no longer an issue. I recall going on radio shows of various European countries to talk about the rise in profile of Welsh women in public life as a result of at one stage there being almost 50% representation of women at the National Assembly for Wales. This clearly impressed other countries aspiring to encourage more women in to politics. But have we really been the success story that we have built ourselves up to be in this regard? Well, Labour and Plaid Cymru have since watered down their positive action policies, impacting directly on the number of women now elected to our National Institution, and there are many issues still rumbling under the surface.
So is there really more equality within politics? Do more women want to be involved in politics in Wales, or does sexism still exist here? Do women still get treated differently to men despite the progress made? These are questions that I can only answer on a personal level. I cannot reflect the views of all the women who were, and are still elected. Some are former councillors who have spent years in politics, others are businesswomen who have turned to politics later in life, and there are those who have been elected following work in the public sector- previously carrying out charity work and such like. They will all have their own stories to tell.
As a woman who was elected to the National Assembly for Wales at the age of 25 via a positive action system on Plaid Cymru’s regional list, I previously set up a new youth movement for Plaid Cymru, and was President of Aberystwyth Guild of Students. I was instantly labelled as the inexperienced student politician, and felt I had much to prove as soon as I was elected in order to show to people that I was worthy of being there, and capable of doing my job.
Sadly, I do not think that I have shrugged off many of those initial labels. This is not because I have failed in my position, but is due to the fact that people in Wales often put people in boxes in terms of how they are defined, and it is very difficult to challenge it, especially with such a weak Welsh media that only manages to superficially describe what is happening in Welsh political life.
Also, at 31 years old, I remain the youngest member of the National Assembly for Wales. Therefore I am still often described as such by others, drawing attention to my age. It is often viewed as a negative as opposed to a positive, which is clearly worrying if we are serious about getting more young people in to politics.
But I am also a young woman. People have a tendency to judge what I look like before they judge what I say. Being included in degrading polls such as the Western Mail’s ‘Wales’ Sexiest Women’ poll merely intensifies the situation. In many newspaper articles, the tag line will refer to me being ‘one of Wales’s sexiest women,’ as opposed to noting the serious political issue that I am campaigning on. Or on other occasions there are huge pictures of me, or more than one picture of me printed alongside an article, which I believe takes people’s initial focus away from the seriousness of my words. Do men in politics have to struggle with this?
I also believe that sexism is still a problem within certain areas of the Welsh media, but many turn a blind eye to this. Wales is very small, and most people know one another. People would rather say nothing than to lose out on stories in the press if they complain.
The intrusion in to my private life is frustrating, especially when, for example, I know that people have sent pictures to a newspaper of me without my consent, or when certain journalists question what I do in my private time, such as where and who I go with on holiday! I do not know of male politicians in Wales that have had to put up with this type of treatment.
For me, however, the elephant in the room is that many people not only disagree with how I was elected, or the fact that a young woman was elected, but that a woman with strong left wing views was elected. I am a campaigner. I am ready to stand up for causes that do not get the attention of other AMs.
I do not want to sit in the Assembly as a pretty bystander to events. I want to make my mark, to speak at packed public meetings, challenging decisions. I am not afraid to ask difficult questions. I do not give in lightly. I believe this may annoy many people, and therefore they seek to undermine me by saying that I rant when I make speeches, that I am naïve, that I am troubled, or that I am immature. These are personal comments thrown at me by others, as opposed to them seeking to debate the actual political issue with me in a rational way. It is deeply frustrating, especially when I know that I am respected by those whose campaigns I have helped over the years, such as justice for former Visteon workers in terms of their pensions, successfully lobbying the Welsh Government to implement the first ever eating disorders framework for Wales, working with communities against open casting mining, helping trade unions fight downgrading of their jobs and pensions, and chairing a cross party group on muscular dystrophy and peace and human rights.
Much has changed in Wales over the years in respect of women being represented at a National level, but from what I have described above it is clear that we still have a long way to go in tackling gender inequality, and for women to feel that they are respected and taken seriously within the new political structures of devolution. We need to come together and make sure that there are support structures in place for women to put their names forward to stand for election, and that they have people to speak to so that they are not isolated within the system.
I do not wish to put women off being involved in politics, but we have to realise that if we want to energise and invigorate the next generation of women to represent us, that their passion and zest is not seen as a thorn in the side of increasingly professionalised political parties or institutions. Those I represent often approach me to say that they like the fact that I am normal, that I look and sound like them. Let us not forget what we are here for, or who we represent, when pushing forward with gender equality in Wales.
Illustration by Dean Lewis