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Ladies Gallery The Ladies' Gallery in the Houses of Parliament. Image from the Parliamentary Archives © The Houses of Parliament

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The Blouses of Parliament
Barbara Caswell visits Parliament and finds out about the Women's Place in Parliament exhibition, Voice & Vote, which is available to visit in Westminster Hall to October 6, 2018
Published on August 16, 2018

When I was younger, I didn’t vote because I knew everyone else was wiser than me. When I was older, I didn’t vote because I knew everything was corrupt. Now I DO vote, but only as directed by my daughter, because we now realize our children will be stuck with our mistakes…so no one needed a Parliament tour more than I did.

There’s no problem finding it: Big Ben, and The Elizabeth Tower he’s sleeping in, are all currently wrapped up like a mummy in the British Museum that Egypt wants back. The Houses of Parliament were upcycled from an extra palace that Henry the Ubiquitous didn’t need, and so many political debates were spilling onto London streets it was decided the shouting should be contained in special rooms with mediators.

We were assigned a REAL tour guide! It was like having a gossipy friend who knows all the things Young Clint Eastwood did to get movie roles. Our special friend knew what the tidal-changing glass window meant, why Churchill’s statue was posed in that odd position, and about The Day the Queen Took the Lift. Also, our guide prevented us from getting into big trouble when we were tempted to sit on the seats, which, even though they were plainly designed for sitting, were all marked ‘Do not sit on the seats’.

It turns out winning ‘a seat in Parliament’ is something you have to work for, or at least you have to ‘know someone’, like Melania when she needed a US visa.

Being in the Houses of Parliament, to an American, is a lot like being in the Dollar Store in November, except fancier. Everything to do with The Commons is green, and everything to do with the House of Lords is red, and there’s so much gold and gilt that even the ornaments have ornaments and the carvings have carvings. An American asked how many parties there are in the UK, and the list was so overwhelming it was like reading the street signs at Seven Dials.

Their current exhibit is called ‘Voice and Vote’, and illustrates the struggle women went through to achieve their place today.

Parliament, in its early days, was very much a large men’s club, but any child knows that a sign reading ‘No Girls Allowed’ is a challenge. Girls wisely plan their assault by spying on the enemy, and so it was here.

Well-connected women began sitting up in a room-sized ceiling ventilator to view Parliamentary discussions, even sticking their heads out of the holes over the debaters. Viewings became a thing, both at Parliament and in The Elephant Man’s chambers.

But men were right all along! As women observed the debaters, they began to comment about the speakers they’d heard, and characters that were revealed, and they FORMED OPINIONS.

Well. We all know where THAT led! The monarch is now a girl. Black Rod, the famed House of Lords official, is now a girl. Dr Who is now a girl. This equality stuff was indeed the thin end of a wedge!

The opening of Parliament includes a ceremonial exploration of the cellar rooms where the Gunpowder Plotters were discovered just in time. I didn’t want to say anything, as a guest, but it seemed to me that maybe they should start checking the ceilings.

Barbara Caswell is a Surrey designer from California. One of her creations is the sculpted pincushion 'PinPig©'.

Find out more:

Click Here to read more about the role of Women in the Houses of Parliament and the Voice & Vote exhibition in our discussion with Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives and curator.

Also, check out our chat with Diane Green on being an American Tour guide at the Houses of Parliament - go to www.theamerican.co.uk/pr/ft-Houses-of-Parliament-Diane-Green-QandA.php.

Tours of the Houses of Parliament are now available Monday to Saturday until September 1. Tickets can be booked online at www.parliament.uk/visit or by calling 020 7219 4114.


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