photo of a person with blonde hair and glasses stood outside smiling
Bethany Collins ran to be a Labour Councillor for Ottery St Mary to inspire young women. Image credit: Bethany Collins.

”My political career has been a result of anger.’’  

Bethany Collins, 25, was elected as a Labour councillor for Ottery St Mary in Devon in May 2023, having switched their ambitions from political journalism to actual politics. 

”I’m here because there are so many other women in my life that inspired me and made me feel as though I had a voice that was worth hearing. If I can make other people feel heard, then I’ve done what I signed up to do,’’ they say. 

But they are entering politics at a time when it’s never been more poisonous, some believe, especially for women and non-binary people.

Increasing abuse

Social media has meant that female politicians receive more abuse than ever before, with Labour MP Jess Philips now taking anti-anxiety medication after receiving numerous death threats.

The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 is what spurred Collins to stand for change and inspire other young women and non-binary people to get involved with politics in the 2023 job-hunting crisis. ”I can’t stand by and let misogyny and sexism win. Because then she’s died in vain. 

”Politics is too toxic for women, but it won’t always be”

In their campaign, Collins, who identifies as non-binary, experienced a backlash when straying away from a traditional leaflet design, which they put down to being young and female-presenting. ”I had this old white man turn around and say, ‘this isn’t what we do.’ But if I lose this election, I want to lose it knowing that it was a true reflection of me and what I believed in,’’ they say.  

The number of female MPs grows with each general election with 33.8% in 2019 compared to 22% in 2010, but according to UN Women, at the current rate gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

There’s a very different gendered lens thrown on women in senior political positions,’’ says 58-year-old Dr Rose Gann, head of the social and political sciences department at Nottingham Trent University who researches feminist political identity. 

”A whole raft of things around social conditioning need to happen. Over the last 20 years, there has been a big change in people’s opinions towards the concept of gender. Whilst there are some tough debates going on, broadly speaking I think younger generations are more open and relaxed about diversity of genders, with a greater recognition of diversity overall,’’ she says. 

pictures of protestors at the march for women.
Continuing the fight: women have been fighting for political equality for decades. Image credit: Unsplash.

Change may be underway, but only 20 of the 60 seats for Collins’ council in Devon are held by women.

The role seems to be perfectly designed for retired, older men without caring responsibilities or financial commitments like rent or mortgages,’’ they say as training sessions are in the day, excluding working women with caring responsibilities. 

Liz Speight, 42, is a member of the Centenary Action Group, which campaigns against the barriers which prevent women taking part in politics. She joined the movement after a “lightbulb moment”: when she was elected in 2015, her local MP pointed out that there were as many men in Parliament as there had ever been women MPs in history. 

There have been a lot of reports and recommendations about how to make Parliament work better for women but we need to have a mechanism for ensuring that those recommendations actually get implemented,’’ says Speight, who supports the recent Fawcett Society report which called for a creation of a new body to drive and monitor diversity and inclusivity reforms in the House of Commons, including flexible training. 

A wider narrative

Collins acknowledges the faults in the political system but wants young women to know that they still have a place. ”Politics is too toxic for women, but it won’t always be. And I have a lot of hope that it won’t always be because if I didn’t think that I’d give up.’’ 

Speight agrees that the abuse which politically active women face needs to be addressed, but this shouldn’t be the sole focus when discussing female politicians. ”It’s important that the narrative around women in politics doesn’t just focus on the negatives, but also celebrates the achievements of women MPs. At our event in Parliament later this month, we will be showcasing the work of women MPs.’’ 

a group of young female students walking up the stairs smiling.
Rising up: young women are looking for a brighter political future with female politicians calling for better political education. Image credit: Amrit Virdi.

What’s next?

Looking to the future, Collins feels that more needs to be done in personal, social, health and economics studies (PSHE) at school to show young girls that women can be in politics too. 

Using their new role as a platform is a priority. ”I would like to do more work to improve turnout and candidacy of young women in particular, but I hope the visibility of myself in the role provides that positive representation that encouraged me to stand,’’ they say. 

Speight believes that change can happen from councillors such as Collins, but more needs to be done internally. 

”Changes are needed to the way that Parliament itself functions. Political parties need to take action to ensure that their internal culture is inclusive for women, including effective sexual harassment complaint policies and transparent candidate selection processes,’’ says Speight. 

Gann agrees with this, saying that ”to make any more rapid change, structural changes need to be made, and that is hard to bring about.’’ 

Female role models are important, says Gann. ”Whether that’s a woman, somebody from an ethnic background, or somebody from a different class background, if they can see somebody’s succeeding in whatever profession, then that is hugely powerful.”   

And Collins wants to be this role model, inspiring young women and non-binary people to pursue politics. 

”I thought for such a long time that politics was for other people. But I think you’re only going to know if something’s for you if you try.’’