The piece below is one of the 4 winning entries for a recent Labour peers’ essay writing competition for young women (aged 17-18 years) on the topic of young women and politics.

Young Women and Politics

by Lucy Midgley

I believe that one of the main problems in today’s society is that women simply do not have the confidence and self esteem to state their views. In this essay I will discuss reasons why I believe that women are afraid or unwilling to raise their voices.

Self esteem is certainly a big issue; how can women feel empowered enough to speak out for what they believe in and to make their views heard when they have no confidence in themselves? In today’s society there is far too much focus on personal image. Women in particular are targeted by society to dress a certain way. In order to feel comfortable there is a certain image that has to be maintained: it’s a pack mentality and outsiders who don’t fit in a box will be excluded. The amount of pressure on young women is so great these days to, for example, wear fake tan and expensive clothes, that these are the only things that seem to fill their minds.

In recent years narcissism has been increasing in young people with the growth of interest in Facebook and other social networking sites. A thing that only emerged as I was growing up has been something that many are growing up already fully accustomed to. This causes many young people to become extremely self conscious and obsessed. Many teens, particularly girls, spend most of their time on Facebook, checking their pages to see what other people have written about them, posting pouty photos and reading all the gushy comments about how pretty they look. This is all they essentially seem to care about. It’s hard to believe these young women really care about anything at all, so obsessed with their own very small bubble, and yet ninety years ago these would be the women campaigning for women’s right to vote. What can have happened for there to be such a fog of apathy to have descended on the female population during these last few years?

The problem, highlighted by the 2009 report ‘We Care, But Will We Vote’ lies within the women themselves: young women are simply not interested in politics or in having their views heard. Is this, you may ask, because they are completely content with their lot and have no issues to be raised? I believe the problem is not a lack of issues but a repressed voice. I believe that the narcissism I mentioned is not born out of an intrinsic vainness but rather an intrinsic insecurity; born out of a need to reach the ridiculously high bar set by women’s magazines and celebrities. This insecurity is an insidious thing that will only grow and grow with the daily deluge of photos showing image conscious young women impossible expectations.

This has recently been highlighted by the media frenzy following the release of topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge by a French magazine. The amount of media hype surrounding these photos I find to be completely ridiculous; the fact that the biggest news story of recent times about a female public figure is still to do with her image and not any of the wonderful things she has been doing.

I’m not saying I’m surprised by this, I’m simply disappointed in the amount of interest this has garnered. People still see women, even female public figures and politicians, as objects and care more about how they look and what they are wearing than about what they have to say. It feels like a step back, with the anniversary of the death of Princess Diana so close to the release of these pictures. It seems that we still care so little about what is important and the media are still much more interested in their private lives and their body image than their positive actions. The magazine Closer, which published the photos, had no qualms about showing them to its audience; no thoughts on how this would affect image conscious young women. How are we supposed to be getting women to feel empowered and interested in politics and raising their voices when these kinds of news stories are still viewed upon with such relish?

A cancerous insecurity grows within many young women preventing them from feeling brave enough to speak out or to become politically involved. Insecurity in young women is not only caused by overexposure to stick-thin models but also to a lack of any real role models. With Margaret Thatcher the only woman in British history to become Prime Minister, many young women believe it is simply not possible to achieve a stable political career. Although the Suffragettes won the vote for women there is still a long and winding road to equality. I believe there is still a glass ceiling for women, preventing them from reaching top jobs, yet unlike the Suffragettes the problem is not mainly from authority figures but lies within. Many women believe positions in society are simply not possible for them. This is hardly surprising when you look at the statistics: the 2010 survey for women in politics worldwide found the UK in the 31st position with just 18% of female parliamentarians.

This problem has not been improved upon by the recent cabinet reshuffle. In fact is has been exacerbated, with only four women in the whole of the cabinet, the highest in sixth position and two women extremely close to the bottom of the ministerial pecking order. Are women in Britain really supposed to believe that the political profession could be a possible path for them? Yet this creates a vicious cycle: women not getting into politics means future generations will still have few role models, so what can be done? Women need to feel that the political profession is open to them.

One of the main causes of this political listlessness is a general feeling that society doesn’t care about young people in general. The recent rioting that occurred was a dramatic lashing out of a frustrated youth who used the anarchy to revert to primal instincts and simply enjoy the rebellion. Young people feel wronged by a government who promised not to raise tuition fees before they got into power and then broke their promises before they’d even got their foot in the door, is it any wonder young people felt frustrated? They attacked a society they believed was punishing the people that would eventually have to sort out its problems.

The trouble is that the loudest voice is always the one that seems to be heard and the government is hardly likely to care about young people who throw a temper tantrum when they don’t get their own way, the problem is that other voices are not heard above the shouting. Young women in society today can not all feel apathetic towards political issues but many are intimidated by those with louder voices. These women should be listened to and, in order to do this, you have to engender an interest in politics for women by showing them that they can make a difference. In politics nobody cares how you dress or how loudly you speak, people only care about what you have to say.

© Lucy Midgley, 2012. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Lucy Midgley is my niece. Needless to say, I’m a proud uncle.