At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice.
Jennifer Brough (JB): Hi Liz! Tell me about your current role.
Baroness Barker (BB): I am currently Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Charities and Social Enterprise, I am also spokesperson on LGBTI Equalities. For a number of years, I was spokesperson on health and social care. I have recently become chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Sexual and Reproductive Health and am a co-founder of the APPG on Global LGBT Rights. For years, I have also been a member of the APPG on HIV/AIDS.
JB: What drew to you to working in policy?
BB: I grew up in a family where politics and current affairs were always up for discussion, and my parents encouraged us to think critically. In 1979, having voted Liberal, I arrived at university with a strong sense of social justice and a determination to fight then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The first thing I did was speak against the Corrie Bill, one of many attempts to undermine the Abortion Act 1967. Sometime later I realised that I am a lesbian, which intensified my resolve to work for equalities and personal liberty.
JB: What is it like working in the parliament?
BB: Fascinating and immensely rewarding. The House of Lords is a place of great privilege; not robes and titles, fine though they are, but the opportunity to work with outstanding people. As the House of Lords is unelected, and therefore less at the mercy of the populist press, I believe that we have an obligation to speak out for the people who are most marginalized or unpopular in our society.
In the Lords, we can build up knowledge over many years and work with longer timescales than most politicians. We also get to work in great detail and are often able to influence issues that matter a great deal to small groups of people.
JB: Can you speak about the relationship between politics and masculinity, including from your personal experience?
BB: Well, on average, men have more money and that is an essential element of political success. Although many men do take a greater part in childcare responsibilities, there is still pressure, which arises from the gender pay gap, for women to shoulder greater personal and domestic responsibilities. I think it is fair to say that amongst people of my generation and older, men have much greater self-confidence. Men rarely doubt their own abilities; women often do. I hope that this is changing and that young women, including those from religious and cultural minorities, feel more confident and realise that they are every bit as capable as the blokes.
JB: What are some challenges you've faced during your career, particularly given that you are very open about your sexuality?
BB: I have not always been so open about my sexuality. I realized I was gay when being gay was legal, but not OK. My partner, now wife, and I spent some of our early days together protesting against Section 28. Back then it wasn’t possible to be out and be elected. LGBT people who were elected were closeted and lived in fear of the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. The rest of us found other ways to work and keep our personal lives private. It wasn’t until my mum, who was very religious, died that I was in a position to speak publicly. I then decided to make up for many years of silence by doing so in a way that would have an impact for future generations. Other people would not want to be labeled an LGBT politician, but I feel that I should speak up, especially for trans and non-binary people who are currently unrepresented in parliament.
JB: Do women of colour in this institution face additional barriers in their work?
BB: I am reluctant to speak on their behalf, but having listened to women MPs and peers from BAME backgrounds for all my years in parliament, I get the sense that in the last twenty five years BAME woman have fought hard to be treated with respect. Whilst there are some unreconstructed men in both Houses, I think that on the whole there is much less overt racism now. That said, when it comes to the public and social media, women of colour are abused twice over.
JB: What keeps you motivated?
BB: The women in Northern Ireland who need but can’t get an abortion. The lesbians treated badly by thoughtless medical staff. The young LGBT people chucked out on to the streets by their families and religious communities. The victims of the crime that is child marriage. The very young female victims of trafficking returned to Nigeria with babies. Tories who believe that they have a divine right to rule. A Labour Party led by a Brexiteer. The fact that Brexit will harm the prospects of young people for generations, to name a few things.
JB: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
BB: Yes. Although I have always had close friendships with guys – straight and gay – as well as women. I’ve never been what Victoria Wood, may her name be praised, brilliantly described as “The sort of woman who wore a badge that said ‘Feminists Against Laughing.’” I am really delighted that a new generation has refreshed feminism with initiatives such as the Everyday Sexism Project and SheDecides.
JB: How can we engage more women, especially women who are LGBTQ, in politics and political spaces both nationally and internationally, including in parliament?
BB: Number one: role models. More than that, role models who go out of their way to find young women and mentor, support, and learn with them. Number two: make clear that all the progress made over the last fifty years, all the legal equality and social acceptance, is fragile and could be taken away. Human rights can never be taken for granted – just look at the trans and women’s rights being dismantled by Dirty Donald and Medieval Mike in the US. It could happen here, if we let it.
JB: What do you think a feminist/queer foreign policy would look like?
BB: Instead of relegating what are commonly known as “marginalised populations” to overseas aid, a feminist foreign policy would put those people at the centre of economic and political relations. Therefore it would deal with issues such as corruption, poor governance, human rights, distribution of wealth and the rule of law first and foremost. Although not inevitable, for me, a feminist foreign policy would also have a strong environmental element.
JB: Tell me more about your current projects and what you are working towards.
BB: Having just taken over as Co-Chair of the APPG on Sexual and Reproductive Health, I am starting to look at how the UK’s abortion law could be updated. I am also working hard to stop Baroness O’Loan’s Conscientious Objection Bill, which would be more accurately titled the Civil Disobedience Anti-Abortion Bill. With a group of voluntary organisations and academics, I have been arguing for a change to the law that governs surrogacy. The Law Commission is currently undertaking a review and consultation, so with any luck proposals might emerge in the next two to three years. The government is also about to undertake a consultation on review of the Gender Recognition Act. As an ally, I am standing by my trans friends as they withstand a tide of abuse from transphobic feminists and Murdoch newspapers, and I hope that the law will be changed in a couple of years. I have an ongoing campaign to get the NHS to acknowledge that lesbians and bi women exist and to stop treating us inappropriately.
JB: What is your favourite book, fiction/non-fiction, by a woman author?
BB: Toughest question of all. Usually I would say Janette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Great, funny writing, wonderfully brought to TV by Biban Kidron. However, having read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale years ago, then watching it last year, I now want to help women get rid of Trump and Pence as soon as possible.
Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough