Written by Ruby Hinchliffe
Illustrated by Beth Nicol
Until the rape jokes made about her hit headlines this month you probably hadn’t heard of Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips.
Phillips is a mum of two, a Brummie and is the latest female MP acknowledged for recieving rape threats since joining parliament.
Carl Benjamin, now UKIP MEP candidate for South West England, tweeted back in 2016 about Jess: “I wouldn’t even rape you”.
He then added in a YouTube video this month: “I’ve been in a lot of trouble for my hardline stance of not even raping her. I suppose with enough pressure I might cave. But let’s be honest, nobody’s got that much beer.”
Benjamin defended the comment as a joke pulled out of context and fellow UKIP MEP for London, Gerard Batten, came to his aid insisting it was merely ‘satire’.
Phillips is made of sturdy stuff, but the coverage his ‘jokes’ got and and the debate it created shook her to her core.
Speaking out about the rape rhetoric surrounding her, she said: “When a man who says whether he would or wouldn’t rape me becomes part of a legitimate debate in our country, where it is now a legitimate debate to say whether that was ok, we have lost the argument.”
But it doesn’t just stop at rape threats for women in government. Diane Abbott, the first ever black female MP, recieves overwhelmingly racist threats too. She told a conference in London: “The police came to my office to collect some of the letters we receive on a daily basis threatening rape, threatening violence. Hate-filled letters.”
Abbott received nearly half of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 general election.
It’s shocking when you consider what these women have achieved. Abbott founded London Schools and the Black Child initiative 10 years ago, which celebrates and promotes the academic achievements of black students in London. Phillips has campaigned for 15 years to improve the lives of female refugees and rape victims through organisations such as Women’s Aid.
And yet, both women and many more throughout politics are victims of threatening sexualisation and, in Abbott’s case, the basest forms of racism.
Who is Jess Phillips?
Phillips, 37, is a Labour MP who grew up in, and now represents the people of, Birmingham Yardley.
She’s been accused by politicians of playing the ‘working-class card’. Her father wrote a letter to these politicians. He said: “Jess knows, and lives for, hundreds of working class people. They are her people as they are my people – we Brummies are very close.”
“We Brummies are very close.”
Phillips worked in a women’s refuge and rape crisis centre in the Black Country, before spending five years working for Women’s Aid.
Talking about her work for women’s rights, she says in her book Everywoman: “If only I had a pound for every time someone had said to me: ‘Be careful you don’t get pigeonholed with the whole feminism thing.’ As if the fact I fight for women not to be murdered and raped means that I don’t also have opinions on road safety, the economy and foreign policy.”
Since she was elected to parliament, Phillips hoped to bring to the forefront the fact that in 2016 a woman died every three days in the UK, or that one in four seven-year-olds have tried to lose weight according to State of Girl’s Rights in the UK. Instead, she receives countless emails on fox hunting, bees and dog fighting.
From where she’s standing, it seems the lives of animals often trump the lives of women.
Somewhat disillusioned by the idea parliament should represent society in miniature, Phillips likened the house to a cruise ship: “It has bars and restaurants, a hairdresser and the level of diversity I’d expect to see on a Spirit of the Seas voyage around the Azores.”
- LGBTQ+ education
Yesterday Phillips was filmed debating with a Birmingham Muslim constituent, one of 300 parents protesting against LGBTQ+ education in schools.
In response to arguments she should be supporting these parents, her constituents, she replied: “I don’t agree that you get to pick and choose which equality you can and can’t have. I’m afraid our equality laws protect us all.”
Phillips has now called for an exclusion zone around Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham to protect the new, inclusive syllabus and allow its 700 students to continue their studies in peace.
- School cuts
In March Phillips launched a crowdfunding campaign to transport thousands of children to Westminster so they can visit parliament to protest against funding cuts which are forcing schools to close early or all-together on Fridays.
23 schools in Birmingham are now closing early on Fridays.
- Domestic abuse refuge
Phillips received breakthrough news last weekend when she got a call from the minister for housing and homelessness, who called to say the government were bringing forward plans to legislate domestic abuse refuge accommodation in local authorities. She campaigned this for nearly 10 years, telling the New Statesman “It is essentially my life’s work.”
It means victims of domestic abuse now have a far more accessible safe harbour, taking pressure off charities who, until now, have solely provided this.
Phillips is emotional. She speaks about it openly. In Everywoman, she talks about sobbing in the House of Commons after a racial hatred debate, and in the tampon tax debate she described having to wipe down the seats of Westminster.
In 2017 Jess marked International Women’s Day by reading out the names of 120 women killed by men.
The same year she fought to increase the percentage of women in chairman positions in government which stood at just 23% in 2017.
Jess isn’t one to shy away from calling out her colleagues in debate either. She’s called out the PM for her “utter lack of bravery” on Brexit as “employment is falling and hunger is rising” in her constituency.
When a male colleague shushed her in parliament, she retorted: “You’re not my dad. Don’t you dare shush me while the men round here don’t get any such treatment.”
But the ultimate line from the Birmingham born and bred parliamentarian had to be this: “I thought I’d met posh people before I came here [parliament] but I’d actually just met people who eat olives.”