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Women in Power, with Mary Beard, Rachel Reeves and Sandip Verma

Rachel Reeves MP, Mary Beard and Sandip Verma came to the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss how women negotiate political power in what remains in many ways a man’s world.

Britain has had two female heads of government and women make up a third of the total number in the House of Commons, a number that has been steadily rising with each election. Women, some say, will soon have equal political power in the UK. But many would beg to disagree. Britain sits 39th in the world rankings for the proportion of women sitting in the national legislature, and it was not until 2016 that the total number of women ever elected to the Commons surpassed the number of male MPs in a single parliament.

Women MPs have passionately fought for and won many of the gains we take for granted today – equal pay, better childcare provision and child benefit. But the fight for laws that benefit women has often been made in the face of fierce opposition from male MPs. And today, women parliamentarians face a new challenge – increasing levels of abuse and threats of violence on social media. Labour MP Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected to parliament, receives so many racist and misogynistic threats every day that her office sends them in weekly batches to the police. This revolution, many women say, is far from finished.

In September 2019 the MP Rachel Reeves joined celebrated classicist and broadcaster Mary Beard and Conservative member of the House of Lords Sandip Verma on the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss how women negotiate political power in what remains in many ways a man’s world. Reeve talked about some of the pioneers who feature in her acclaimed book Women in Westminster, including Eleanor Rathbone, Barbara Castle, Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell, who all battled for change despite the sometimes misogynistic atmosphere in the House of Commons. Nancy Astor, the first sitting woman MP, was physically obstructed by some male MPs from taking her seat on the green benches, while Shirley Williams used to have her rear routinely pinched by male colleagues in the division lobby.

Our speakers discussed the very nature of power and how even women often conceive it as male. As lifelong feminist Beard acknowledges, ‘What do even I see when I shut my eyes and try to imagine a prime minister? Answer: a white man in a suit.’ When, our speaker asked, will there be a female prime minister of colour? Or a woman chancellor of the exchequer, a job Reeves has said she aspires to? When and how will the revolution be finally won?



Helen Lewis

Journalist, author and broadcaster

Staff writer on The Atlantic and former associate editor of the New Statesman. She presents The Spark on BBC Radio 4, in which she interviews radical thinkers on their solutions to the structural problems of our age.  Her first book is Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.


Speakers are subject to change.


Rachel Reeves

MP and former Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Labour MP for Leeds West. She was a member of Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet, serving as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Before her parliamentary career, she worked as an economist. She is the author of Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon and Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics. She contributes regularly to the Guardian and other media.

Mary Beard

Classicist, bestselling author and cultural commentator

One of the world’s leading classicists and cultural commentators. A specialist in Roman history and art, she is professor of classics at the University of Cambridge and the author of bestselling and award-winning books, including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women and Power: A Manifesto. She has also written and presented many television programmes, from Civilisations and Meet the Romans to The Shock of the Nude.

Sandip Verma

Conservative member of the House of Lords

Conservative member of the House of Lords. She is Ministerial Champion for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Overseas, and chairs the UN Women's national committee. She has a strong interest in diversity, gender issues and international affairs, particularly in the South Asian Region and Africa.