Mo Mowlam and the tradition of sidelined females through history

Mo Mowlam (for Kelly)

I’ll admit I know less about Mo Mowlam than I should. So, I suspect, do you.

A classic example of an influential woman, whose wide-reaching and astounding achievements were overshadowed by the personalities of bullish men in positions of power.

Mo, who in her younger years worked for Tony Benn, became the MP for Redcar in 1987 and appointed to the Shadow Cabinet in 1992 under then Labour Leader John Smith. Following Smith’s death, she became the principal organiser of Tony Blair’s leadership campaign, and after his successful election to PM in 1997, was given the role of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the time, this was a huge task to undertake, the Troubles were still ongoing and the devastating Omagh bombing in August ’98 illustrates just how inflammable the situation still was. Mo approached the challenge head-on and unafraid, credited by contemporaries as “the catalyst that allowed politics to move forward which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. She cut through conventions and made difficult decisions that gave momentum to political progress.” (Peter Hain 2005)

There’s no doubt that Mo’s work in Ireland during this time was key to the peace process which followed; she ensured Sinn Fein were included in the dialogue leading up to the agreement, helped to restore an IRA ceasefire and visited the notorious Maze prison to talk with loyalist prisoners (many convicted murderers) in an attempt to connect with the ordinary people whose lives her work would be affecting. By all accounts, her ability to empathise and to forge a relationship with the ordinary people involved in the situation, particularly the women, opened up an avenue of dialogue to her which remained closed to others. It was instrumental to her role of negotiator, and is why many people are convinced that the peace process would not have happened without her.

Her part in the development of the agreement began to be deliberately overshadowed by Blair as the links with Unionist parties began to sour. Around this time she remarked to then-US President Bill Clinton: “Didn’t you know? I’m the new tea lady around here”, a clear indication of how she felt to be sidelined, as the men took the glory. In 1999 she was replaced in her role by Peter Mandelson and demoted to Cabinet Office Minster, not exactly deserved recognition for a woman of such astounding achievements.

It is notable how during this process the male position gave with one hand and took away with the other, depending on how it served them best. At the time of her death, Blair rightly said “It is no exaggeration to say she transformed the politics not just of Northern Ireland itself but crucially of relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and it was this transformation that created the culture in which peace-making could flourish … suddenly nationalist, republican and Catholic Ireland had every preconception of the English up-ended and rendered out of date. She didn’t have to talk about equality. She exuded it, naturally and with an absence of affectation that was marvellous to behold … she bowled everyone over.” However in April this year, on the anniversary of the agreement, her name was noticeable in its  absence. Not a single mention for the woman who unlocked the door for the future of peace in Ireland?

Mo’s stepdaughter Henrietta Norton, a filmaker, wrote in an article earlier this year of how she has been trying to get a story about Mo commissioned as a film piece to “celebrate and explore her legacy for contemporary women”. Responses ranged from “no one would be interested” to, we “couldn’t see who would watch it”. Erm…yes they would, I would, and so would most other women I know. It highlights the level to which her role in history has been degraded and overshadowed by the actions of men who did less. A common theme throughout history, and one which we must continually try to combat.

My friend Kelly asked me to produce a portrait of Mo for an exhibition in Dartford celebrating the 100 year anniversary of votes for women. In wondering how to portray her, I instinctively wanted to avoid any obvious signs of the illness for which she is sadly so well remembered, but which must not define her. A number of people said they didn’t recognise her without her thinning hair. My point exactly; I wouldn’t have either. But I will now. I hope people can look closely at her face without the signs of her illness and see in her eyes the determination and bravery of a truly remarkable woman in history.

Produced for Stephen Oliver’s Votes for Women exhibition at his gallery in Dartford. Pencil on paper.

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