Councillor Victoria MacDonald (Norwich) gives her perspective on how women can juggle the demands of life and still succeed in the world of politics.
Pretty much every morning I am asked these questions by at least one of my two sons; question one, have I got any clean pants? And question two; have you got any meetings tonight?
I work part-time three days a week in adult education; I am ward councillor for Lakenham and cabinet member for housing and I am also a school governor at a local primary school. Being an organised woman (a married one with children) has to be all about planning.
I have a list on the inside of my cupboard door listing the tasks I need to do before I sit down of an evening; laundry, on-line grocery shop, dinner money, letters to write – you get the picture. However, there is always that one extra meeting to squeeze in, the late night phone call or the home visit to be done.
Don’t get me wrong I have a fabulous husband who is a great cook and irons his own shirts but when he has done four bedtimes in a week and I am telling him I’ll be home late again – the guilt kicks in.
I was once told that the average councillor was male, pale and stale (white and over 60) but this doesn’t apply in Norwich. We are very lucky at the city council where 5 out of 7 cabinet members including the leader are women, and therefore one feels more at ease talking about family and school commitments. There is a strong desire for collaborative working amongst my female peers – both within the group and across the council where we are a minority administration.
Having said that, last week I attended a meeting with my counterparts at the other district councils and the county council and it was quite clear that I was the only woman and the only councillor under 55 in the room (never mind that I was the only Labour one). That’s when the “little lady” comments start and the implications that “I’ll get the hang of it soon”. When the last item on the agenda – date of next meeting – arises, I have to be clear so I don’t clash with workdays or school pick-up times whilst trying not to look “difficult” in the eyes of my retired counterparts who seem to have no commitments at all?!
Women are very good at feeling guilty and it is tough trying to shake that feeling. I’m not the type to wallow in it but when it’s a choice between a council meeting and a nativity play, duty – and the code of conduct – dictates that it’s a council meeting.
You can increase this tenfold when it comes to seeking selection as a PPC; whilst others are out there every Saturday morning marching the streets, I’m juggling the logistics of getting my offspring to various clubs or birthday parties and being able to deliver 300 leaflets – balancing a family with a desire for a Parliamentary seat is a challenge. Furthermore, when it comes to political analysis, I don’t have time to scour The Guardian from cover to cover and write lengthy pieces on my blog about the state of the economy; nor do I always have the time to watch Question time and Newsnight back to back and tweet my comments on it.
Despite this I shouldn’t feel down, as being in this position isn’t a disadvantage; “park it and move on” was the mantra we learned through the LWN training. It is an advantageous skills set that I have over my counterparts and one to be proud of. What I do know is how to plan ahead and be efficient with my time whilst rooted firmly in reality. I empathise with the single mum who wonders how she can pay for childcare whilst she tries to get back to work; the family who worry how the cuts will affect their children’s future and the elderly couple who fear how they will pay their heating bill this winter.
Knowing you can support and be a voice for people and learning to embrace the skills set I have as a mum outweighs that guilt. Yes, I have the little twinge when I kiss my sons goodbye before dashing out, after seeing them for less than half an hour, but if you ask my youngest where I’m going – he’ll tell you, “Mummy is off to save the world”.
Follow Victoria on Twitter @CllrVickyMD