Meet Anne Milton, The ‘Born-Again Feminist’ Women’s Minister

The Debrief talks to Anne Milton MP about the gender pay gap, #metoo, gender stereotypes and her friendship with Jess Phillips

Ann Milton Interview

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

This time last year social media was awash with memes about how 2016 was, like, totally the WORST year EVER. To some extent, this was a plausible line to take. Brexit, for almost half of the country was less than ideal and the election of Donald Trump was surely enough to send shivers down many a spine.

One year on, as 2017 draws to a close, it’s hard not to feel exhaustedly optimistic. Is it possible that this year we’ve witnessed things slowly turning around? How do you know when you’re witnessing progress? What does change, I mean real historical change look like? One day, we will watch this year back, speeding it up Blue Planet Style, and consider it in the context of what I hope will follow over the next few year, I have a feeling it will look like change.

Things are far from perfect; our housing market is a mess, growing numbers of people are homeless, wages are stagnant and we’ve witnessed multiple horrific terror attacks in our country for the first time in a decade. However, there is ‘hope in the dark’ to quote author Rebecca Solnit.

From the off, this year saw women all over the world taking to the streets to protest against the sexism represented by a ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’ American president. In the UK, this was followed by a general election which saw young people engage with our political system more than in recent years, leaving an over-confident Conservative government well and truly shook. Indeed, one side effect of Theresa May’s badly judged Brexit election was that it saw more woman than ever before elected to the House of Commons.

And then, in mid-Autumn rumour turned into revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and assault of multiple women sparking a global movement which saw women from all walks of life saying ‘me too…I have been harassed and I won’t stand for it anymore’. Government ministers left their jobs and it feels, for the first time in my life, that our culture really might be changing.

None of the above happened in isolation, the good and bad are all inextricably linked.

The Debrief caught up with Anne Milton, our new Minister for Women to ask her what the Government is doing to make sure grass roots change translates into real, permanent and legislative change. At 62, she is a seasoned politician but certainly not what you would call a career politician with no real-world experience. She has served in the Government’s whips office as well as a Minister for Public Health. Milton has been an MP since 2005, before that she worked as a nurse.

Rarely do I read transcripts of what is said in the House of Commons and feel inclined to punch the air but when reviewing what Milton had said during a debate about sexual harassment and violence in schools (which, coincidentally, took place in the same week that revelations of sexual harassment in Westminster went public as part of #metoo) I did just that.

In a long speech about the urgency of taking action to protect young people in our schools Milton said that that ‘individuals abusing their powerful positions in order to sexually exploit’ others ‘is happening everywhere’ from our parliament to our schools. Concluding her remarks, she then said ‘I do not consider myself to be an inbetweener – I think I am a born-again feminist’ she said ‘I do not think that the House of Commons is sexist; I think it just smells of boys a bit to be honest’. Doesn’t it just. For too long, Parliament has contained more men than women and the laws which rule our society are, as a result, skewed towards the interests of men.

Incidentally, Milton is also the Minister responsible for Skills and Apprenticeships. She told The Debrief that she ‘believes passionately’ in what she is doing both in terms of women’s issues and the interests of people who do not go to university. ‘I got OK grades at school’ she says ‘but I knew I didn’t want to go to university and so I went into nursing because at that time the options for young women were not huge: you could be a teacher, a nurse or an executive PA. A few went to university but of course not that many people went to university in 1974’. After this she worked in the NHS for 25 years before having two children and, as she puts it ‘waking up one morning and thinking “what am I going to do for the rest of my life?”.’ This was around 1992, a time when, she says ‘women were really badly represented in the House of Commons. I would see pictures on the TV or in newspapers and think “there aren’t enough women”, “there aren’t enough people like me and there certainly aren’t enough nurses” so I just decided to give it a go. There just wasn’t enough of the voice of ordinary people in politics. I didn’t know anyone in politics or anything about it, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed.

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Does Milton think it’s important for young women to have more women to look up to? ‘I think it is really important to have women in elected positions’ she says ‘and that’s not just in parliament. Everybody tends to focus on parliament but, actually, it’s about local councils, it’s about having women as elected mayors, it’s about having women who are policy and crime commissioners. It’s really important that we get the voice of everybody – diversity matters – if we want to be truly representative at every level then we need to see all sections of society represented by those that stand for elected office.’

Particularly in the context of the #metoo campaign, does she think the fact that there are now more women than ever in the House of Commons has changed things? ‘Yes, it absolutely does change things. I think women do things differently from men for a lot of complex reasons. I think that some women look for consensus to some extent more than men…it’s not necessarily that women are better than men it’s just that they bring different experiences and perspectives. It’s important that we aim for 50:50 representation in all elected bodies as well as the boards of companies for this reason.’

Milton sees this as part of a bigger problem, another point she made in the debate about sexual harassment in schools was the need to tackle gender stereotypes as early as possible. She tells The Debrief that we are all exposed to ‘stereotyping from the day [we] are born and this can easily be portrayed by some newspapers as us all being too politically correct but it’s not. It’s about making sure that young boys and girls feel that they’ve got options to do anything that they want to do and are not limited to going in certain directions’. She notes that the advertising industry has taken some steps in the right direction, referring to the ASA’s clampdown earlier this year, but sounds sure that there is more to be done. ‘That is not to say’ she adds ‘that girls can’t wear pink if they want to because you can absolutely be an astrophysicist and wear pink at the same time.’

Another big conversation this year was the one about the gender pay gap. When figures were released revealing a huge gender pay gap at the BBC it sparked outrage and shone a light on his persistent the problem is in workplaces all over the country. With the centenary of (some) women being allowed the vote fast approaching us in 2018 does Milton think this government will be able to take us closer to achieving actual equality? After all, the pay gap has actually started to widen for women in their 20s?

‘I think the centenary next year provides an important focal point’ Milton says ‘it’s a time to reflect on how much progress has been made and if you look at the figures on the board of combined authorities only 4% of those boards are made up of women, only 17% of council leaders in this country are women. And so, it’s an important time to take stock, think about the progress of the last 100 years, realise that somethings have moved [forward] but that change has been very slow. There is a lot more to do, we have made some good changes but it’s important to say it’s still not good enough.’

So, what is the government doing to make things better? ‘If you look at gender pay gap reporting’ Milton says ‘this is the first step. Companies have to report by April next year, and it will reveal what is happening in the workplace…it’s transparency first. Let’s see where we are, which sectors perform worse than others and then let’s see what Government can do to help bring change.’ Milton is also passionate about getting women back to work after they’ve had children or taken time out to care for an elderly relative which, as we all know, is a big part of the gender pay gap. She wants to see companies having more conversations about what they can do to keep women’s skills in the workplace whether that’s flexible working or something else. Having children, she says, ‘is a life changing experience’ and women ‘gain skills through having time off work’ which are valuable, companies need to recognise that ‘women bring added value back’.

‘What I would like to see as well’ Milton adds ‘is actually more men taking time out of work because, going back to gender stereotyping, it’s important that children know that fathers can look after them as well as mothers. That’s a huge statement to a family. I’m lucky, my husband reduced his working week, he went part time when I got elected so my kids have had a that experience of what men and women can do. Children know what’s possibly by their parents and we need employers to help make that possible’. As someone whose mother was the breadwinner for years while my dad looked after us at home, this speaks to me. There’s no question that it has shaped my world view from my attitude to work to my expectations of what a romantic relationship should and could be.

Milton is a much-needed political voice. At a time when politics feels particularly divided and tribal with little scope for alliance between the left and the right, she has spoken about her close friendship with Labour MP Jess Phillips and the importance of cross-party allegiance. ‘We love each other’ she says when I ask her about it ‘cross-party working is really important…this might sound like a cliché so what does it mean? It means that we might agree on 8 out of 10 of the things we’re talking about and disagree on two of them so, let’s discuss it and see where we get to. It’s about consensus. Cross-party friendships are really important. And, especially if I think about the women in the House of Commons we do have a commonality because women are a minority group which reaches across the political divide. We all want to make women feel welcome in politics and ensure that the skills they bring are valued.’

From the Women’s March to #metoo and a Minister for Women who describes herself as ‘a born-again feminist’ where she previously might not have used the term to describe herself there are signs that, under the frosty distractions of Brexit and political conflict, something else is happening and it has the potential to change more than just the politics of Westminster.

2017 In Pictures


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Mary Berry reacts to winning the Best TV Judge during the National Television Awards

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Meryl Streep accepts Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards

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Hugh Hefner poses at Playboy's 60th Anniversary special event

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People run from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival

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Announcement Of Prince Harry's Engagement To Meghan Markle

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British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump walk along The Colonnade of the West Wing at The White House

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Aftermath Of The London Bridge Terror Attacks

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Beyonce during The 59th GRAMMY Awards

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Lewis Hamilton celebrates with the fans after the Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone

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16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London

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*Illustration by *Lianne NixonLianne Nixon

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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