The vice-president of the European Parliament has called the state of women’s rights in Britain “second-best” and said that “No woman in her right mind would want to go [to be an MP in Westminster]” in a debate at York University two weeks ago.
The first Women’s Committee event after it has been opened up to men saw two leading women’s rights activists visit York. Diana Wallis MEP was elected to the post of Vice President of the European Parliament in January 2007, and is the first British female of any political persuasion to be elected to the post. Paddy Beck, the other speaker, has recently acted as Special Rappetuer to the UN on Women’s issues, and is a regional UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) co-ordinator and is a prominent women’s rights activist.
The debate, entitled ‘Women, Development, and the UN’, was jointly hosted by Women’s Committee, UN Society and European Society, although the running of it was almost solely in the hands of Laura Payne, Women’s Officer and now frontrunner YUSU Presidential candidate. Following the event, she said “I think the debate was a huge success – it was both a pleasure and an honour for YUSU Women’s Committee to co-host such fantastic speakers. It was also great to get people talking about gender in a different context and reach out to a wider audience. Certainly we shall be looking to do more things like this in the future.”
Beck, who campaigned heavily against the apartheid as a student, talked about the work of the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) in the UN, and how she felt that “although UNIFEM is the smallest and most poorly funded of the UN Committees, it has been agreed by many that it punches well above its weight.
Wallis, who described herself as giving “the point of view of a female parliamentarian”, discoursed about women’s issues in almost every sphere imaginable. She talked about the first President of the European Parliament, chosen in 1945; “they chose a Jewish woman who had been through the Nazi concentration camps – nothing could be more symbolic.”
“In my own political life I never thought that I would be elected or would describe myself particularly as a feminist,” and she went on to describe how she had been deeply influenced by Germaine Greer’s A Female Eunuch while in sixth form.
She laments the failure of women’s power – on both ides of the Atlantic. “I’m one of those who have been cheering from Europe hoping to see the first woman president in Hillary Clinton, but it looks increasingly like I am to be cheated. If I had to vote, and I am glad I don’t, I guess I would go for McCain – as an apparently centre right republican with good environmental credentials and international experience; I’m just not convinced by Obama. I can’t help feeling that perhaps America isn’t ready for a women president.”
When elaborating about the gains made by women, she added that “there are still not enough women in political life, in a position where they are elected to represent others. I think that our Westminster parliament is one of the worst examples of the level of representation of women. There are some African parliaments that have a higher proportion of women in their parliaments than we do!” She described the situation in the chamber as “willy-jousting,” adding “it’s a very male public school club. I still have to go there for meetings, and I hate it. No woman in her right mind would want to go there.”
On the new EU posts to be filled, Wallis said that women are always forced to accept the second role, in that none of the top three posts will be filled by women, but instead the next tier of title, the High Representative to Deal with Foreign Affairs. One of the top three posts, the President of the Council, is the job that Tony Blair has his sights on, although Wallis told NOUSE afterwards that “Blair upset a lot of Europeans over his handling of Iraq also his failure to take a lead on EU issues in the UK.” On whether she would run for any of the top posts, she said “I would not be a candidate for this…but the presidency of the European Parliament might be a possibility at some point.”
In a subsequent email to NOUSE, Wallis said “I have always supported a referendum on the [EU] Treaty – whatever it was called and basically the substance remains the same [as the Constitution], they have just done away with the bits about anthems and flags etc! I believe we have to have a proper discussion at home about the EU whatever terrors that might hold for me as a pro-European.”