Amélie Davidson interviews University of Glasgow alumni Mhairi Black MP.
Content Warning: This interview contains some upsetting language that has been directed towards Black.
No matter what your political leanings are, it’s undeniable that Mhairi Black is an inspiration.
MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Black rose to prominence when, at the age of 20, she defeated Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander from his seat in 2015. She was then re-elected in 2017 and again in 2019.
Black was elected to the House of Commons whilst she was still a final year undergraduate at the University of Glasgow, where she was awarded a first-class honours degree in Politics and Public Policy which she says is her “greatest personal achievement”.
“It was the most intense formative years I’ve had. I was 16 when I went to university. I was in an established, old University, surrounded by people who were older than me, with more experience. It prepared me for my job after university without even realising.”
A powerful woman who has never shied away from standing up for what she believes in, Black is well-known for rejecting gender-biased attitudes and constantly challenges systemic misogyny. When I ask Black whether she has encountered any gender-related challenges in her career as an MP, she gives a short reply: “Too many to mention.” In a passionate speech at the House of Commons last year, she revealed to her fellow politicians the vile misogynistic abuse and casual sexism she has faced online: “I struggle to see any joke in being systematically called a ‘dyke’, a ‘rug-muncher’, a ‘slut’, a ‘whore’, a ‘scruffy bint’… There is no softening just how sexualised and misogynistic the abuse is. I’ve been assured multiple times that I don’t have to worry because ‘I am so ugly that no one would want to rape me’. Now all of these insults have been tailored to me because I am a woman. When it goes unchallenged, it becomes normalised. And when it becomes normalised, it creates an environment that allows women to be abused.”
Upon being asked what she thinks are the main barriers that women face at the moment with regards to stigma and discrimination, and how women can overcome them, Black responds: “The barriers that women face can be broadly described as being held to different standards than men. It happens in daily life and in the highest corridors of power. Until this behaviour is routinely and thoroughly challenged, women will always be more likely to face unjustifiable barriers.” Black highlights the growing need to challenge stereotypes that limit women and how, to change stereotypes, we must continue to question the status quo. It is often still the case that women are judged by completely different standards to men. We need to continue advocating for women because rather than fighting to be taken seriously in their fields, women are still struggling to even have a chance to be in the room in the first place.
“The most important message I want to send out to young women is to believe in yourselves and remain resolute when challenging ‘the norm’. More often than not ‘the norm’ is a very binary and patriarchal set up which must be challenged if we wish to see true equality.”
“To be a feminist is to challenge the patriarchy whenever you see it. Whether that be unfair laws or rules in the workplace, access to services, and general attitudes. We have undoubtedly made progress in terms of gender equality, but that fight never has an endpoint. We must continue to challenge and correct sexist behaviour and undertones whenever we see it.”
Black’s determination to break down the walls of patriarchy and remove the societal constructs that oppress women is admirable. It is easy to see why men would feel threatened by her. With the progress that women have made in recent years, many view gender inequality as the way of the future and sexism as a marker of the past. International Women’s Week provides us with the opportunity to celebrate how far we have come but also reflect on how far we have to go: it wasn’t until 1991 that the House of Lords made rape in marriage a criminal offence in the UK. According to the Office of National Statistics, eight out of 10 UK companies and public sector bodies pay men more than women. In 2018, a poll by the Young Women’s Trust found that almost a quarter (23%) of women aged 16-30 have been sexually harassed but only 8% had reported it. Women have so much to add to the global conversation of feminism, and now is their time to have their voices heard. It is time to listen up. The glacial pace of change will not do. In the words of another inspiring woman Maya Angelou: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”