Christine Jardine: Feminism not the deciding factor

Pregnant Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson stood during Prime Minister's Questions last week. Picture: PA
Pregnant Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson stood during Prime Minister's Questions last week. Picture: PA
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PICTURE the scene. A colleague who is almost eight months pregnant walks into an important staff meeting and stands towards the back.

The discussion lasts about 20 minutes and at the end she goes back to work with everyone else and no-one, including the pregnant colleague, comments on the fact that she has been standing.

That woman was me. The incident was almost 18 years ago now and the fact that I didn’t have a seat didn’t cross my mind then and hasn’t since.

Until now.

The fact that Business Minister Jo Swinson stood during Prime Minister’s Questions has provoked a storm of outrage.

Was it sexist to leave her standing? Or would it have been sexist of one of her male colleagues to offer her a seat? Do we know what is, or isn’t, sexist anymore?

Who is to blame for this confusion? I have to admit I’m staggered by the reaction.

Somehow in the week when British Gas raised their prices, the Royal Mail floatation happened and a major oil terminal was facing shutdown the main talking point from Prime Minister’s Questions was whether someone should have offered Jo Swinson a seat.

Seriously.

Ministerstands-gate.

I haven’t asked the minister what she thinks. I have a fair idea of her workload and the real inequalities she is tackling so its not something I would want her to prioritise.

But I do know what I thought 18 years ago, and now for that matter. Nothing.

It never crossed my mind that my colleagues were sexist, or for that matter anything other than engrossed in what the boss had to say.

If memory serves at least one of them did indicate that I could have their seat, or I could have perched on a desk.

But I chose to stand. Not as some belligerent protest over my equal rights or to make a point or embarrass anyone.

I simply felt comfortable standing.

The reason the whole incident is so clear in my mind is that this was one of the most significant and emotionally draining days I, or most of my colleagues, had experienced.

At the end of it when the boss wanted to talk to us I was happy to stand at the back and hopefully make a quick exit.

During that day I had sat, squatted, walked, even at one point walked quickly. But at that precise moment I stood.

A few weeks later I stopped for my maternity leave and did a lot of sitting down for a while.

Throughout those months of pregnancy there were times when I did accept offers of a seat, and times when I didn’t.

In the years since I have offered my seat to mothers-to-be on the London Underground, in waiting rooms and meetings. I hope my husband does the same.

Usually the women accept, but not always.

And my motivation in offering is nothing to do with sexism, or its opposite. It’s simply that I remember there were times when my feet or my back were suffering. It’s not easy if you are carrying a lot of extra weight along with that little life and the only things you crave are a seat and a cup of tea.

How can recognising that be sexist? Of course it’s not, it’s common sense.

And by the same token, opting to stand on one of many occasions when you could sit is not some feminist principle or point-making exercise.

Ask most women when they are pregnant and they will tell you feminist arguments are – for those nine months – the furthest thing from your mind.

I know that for me all the arguments about maternity leave, equality in the workplace, my right to a career… all of it was secondary to what was best for the baby and helped me be comfortable.

Now that baby is all grown up I find myself at the centre of a different argument about seats and sexism and, some people might suggest, there is just a hint of the ageism debate beginning to creep in.

Some months ago a young man offered me his seat on the Underground.

It had been an extremely tough day and I had to rush from the office to catch the Tube to get me to London City Airport in time for my flight home.

By the time I actually got on the train with my briefcase and overnight bag after running to the station I was probably looking flustered and out of breath. I needed a seat. The offer was appreciated and accepted.

I would hate that young man now to be reading a newspaper column somewhere about seats, women and sexism and thinking he had somehow offended me.

My point is that the action, and the response, should be appropriate to the circumstances.

Yes, it’s appropriate to offer a pregnant woman a seat – if she wants it she will accept. If she feels like standing she will probably say no.

And if you see anyone who looks as if they might be out of breath, upset or unwell and would benefit from a seat, again make the offer, regardless of your gender or theirs.

There are so many issues and examples of inequality to tackle in our society. So many injustices to fight. Please let’s not get hung up on something that is really about simple courtesy.