Women’s organisations have expressed alarm at the number of female MPs standing down at the upcoming general election who have cited the abuse they face in public office.
Figures suggest female MPs are retiring from parliament prematurely. Of the 58 politicians who have announced they will not stand again, 18 are women and 41 are men, which is roughly proportional to the current makeup of parliament.
However, since cohorts of retiring MPs usually reflect historical intakes, the expectation would be that the number of outgoing female parliamentarians would be lower.
Among Tory ranks, the female MPs stepping down are on average 10 years younger and have spent a decade less in parliament than retiring male MPs.
The cabinet minister Nicky Morgan has said she will not be standing as a candidate, with one of her reasons being the abuse she has received. The former home secretary Amber Rudd is also among the moderate Tory MPs who have said they will not fight the election on 12 December.
Heidi Allen, the former Conservative MP who defected to the Liberal Democrats via Change UK, also said she would not stand, highlighting “the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace”.
Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said it was extremely worrying that so many women were leaving parliament at the election and had cited “either the abuse they have received or the pressure it has put on their family life”.
“We have to confront the fact that our toxic politics is driving good women MPs away. In 2019 it is still a hostile environment for women,” she said, adding that the figures should particularly worry the Conservative party, where only one in five MPs are women. “I fear that we will see the number of women MPs fall after this election. We are going backwards,” said Smethers.
Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, said the abuse and intimidation female MPs were subjected to was one of “the most insidious effects of the toxic Brexit debate”.
“Politics has become a hostile environment for women – in which we are harassed, demeaned, and threatened as a matter of course,” she said. “Not only does this affect the individual women targeted, it also contributes to a culture in which women’s voices are not welcomed or respected.”
In a letter to her South Cambridgeshire constituents explaining her decision to stand down, Allen said she was exhausted by the invasion of her privacy and intimidation. “Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media, nor have to install panic alarms at home,” she said.
Sarah Wollaston, the Lib Dem MP for Totnes in Devon, who resigned from the Conservative party over its position on Brexit, said her fellow MPs were standing down because of a combination of abuse and the two main parties moving to extremes.
“Why would you put up with all that abuse, if at the same time you’re unhappy about the direction of travel?” she said. “People are thinking, ‘If I’m going to take this abuse, I want to do something I’m proud of,’ and they’re just not.”
Wollaston, who is chair of the health select committee, said: “I look around my select committee table and you’ve got [Labour MP] Rosie Cooper, who had an actual plot to murder her. You’ve got [Lib Dem MP and former Labour MP] Luciana [Berger] who has seen a total of six different people convicted for threats to her and her family.”
The MP said male politicians experienced threats and abuse too – Labour’s Luke Pollard has been the target of homophobic graffiti, and Stephen Timms was stabbed by a constituent in 2010. But, said Wollaston, the experience seemed to be universal among her female colleagues.
Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside who quit the Labour party last month over what she said was its failure to tackle growing antisemitism in its ranks, said she was not surprised that her female colleagues were deciding to stand down.
“Politics has become increasingly personalised and abusive and I’m not surprised that many women MPs have decided they don’t want to be part of it,” said Ellman, who will also not stand in the upcoming election.