Did I Just Meet Leslie Knope? Sandra’s Day in Parliament
What sticks out first when you walk out of Westminster Underground Station is the iconic ticking of Big Ben looming far over your head. You’re frozen in disbelief that a clock tower could be so golden and beautiful and in your admiration you walk into a business man. The street is swarmed by tourists with fancy cameras and men and women in suits carrying their take away food alongside their briefcases. Sounds are coming from everywhere and down the street you can equally see the busy River Thames filled with people crossing the bridge. All this overshadows the true center of power on the street: the Palace of Westminster, home of the Houses of Parliament.
This past week, I had the opportunity to visit Parliament with my British Politics module (the British word for a university class). What made this school trip different was that we were not doing the touristy version of a guided tour amongst other tourists and school children, but rather my module leader (the equivalent to a professor) had a connection to this historical establishment. He worked in Parliament prior to becoming a module leader for the university and has connections to many current Members of Parliament (MPs).
He was able to arrange for The Right Honourable Cheryl Gillan MP, to speak to us in one of Parliament’s committee rooms. She’s been working in Parliament for as long as I’ve been alive and was even the Secretary of State for Wales from 2010 to 2012. Although I am taking a British Politics module, my understanding of British politics is still limited. Hearing Ms. Gillan speak about her time in Parliament made me realize that unfortunately, politics is still a man’s world. Women in Parliament, just like women in Congress, are very few.
This was illustrated when she asked members of my group to raise our hands if we wanted to pursue a career as a politician. Four hands were raised, three were male and one was female. She responded with, “that’s what I expected the proportion to be”. It was actually a better proportion than the four to one ratio that exists in the real world; in Britain, women currently hold 142 of the 650 seats in Parliament (better than the 99 seats out of 535 held by women in the American Congress).
Ms. Gillan went on to speak about how she felt belittled and patronized by her male counterparts throughout her time as an MP, noting that males have become even more aggressive towards female MPs since she first began in 1992. Although it was disheartening to hear what she went through, her speech never wavered into self-pity. She faced the challenges she was given, and although her job was made harder because of prejudice, she never let that get in the way of representing her constituency.
The more I heard her speak with conviction and passion, the person who immediately came to my mind was Leslie Knope, a character on the television show Parks and Recreation. To give some background, Leslie Knope is a member of the Parks and Rec department in fictitious Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie is an energetic, intelligent, and grounded character who is a genuine hard worker and always tries her best to help benefit the citizens of Pawnee rather than herself. Her dedication to the citizens and to the overall government are the same traits I saw in Ms. Gillan. It made me smile to know there are Leslie Knopes in real life.
Although we had the opportunity to visit a committee room in session as well as enter the House of Lords and House of Commons chambers, Ms. Gillan’s speech was by far the most affecting part of the trip. Maybe it is because I am a woman and a minority, but seeing the meetings in session only reinforced what Ms. Gillan had talked about. The MPs are overwhelmingly male, but they deal with issues affecting people from all different backgrounds and needs. Visiting Parliament made me realize that gender equality is still a huge problem in the UK and the US, both of which are generally seen as progressive. I cannot even imagine the struggles women face in third world or developing countries.
This visit has only strengthened my ambition to continue pursuing an education after my undergraduate degree and set high goals for myself. Meeting Ms. Gillan reminded me that while I will face obstacles and may even bump up against the glass ceiling, there have been other incredible women before me who have succeeded and whose progress has paved the way for my own. So I thank all the Leslie Knopes of the world and hope I can be as amazing as they can be one day.