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Part memoir, part call to arms: Anne Alexander reviews 'A Purposeful Life'

Trafalgar Square, 2018: Dawn Butler speaks at a #March4Women rally | Image by: Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Dawn Butler’s autobiography is lively, accessible and engaging – and settles a few scores along the way

Dawn Butler has a folder of emails where she saves positive messages her office receives. It’s not just for her and her staff to congratulate themselves on the work they do. It’s partly to balance out another folder labelled “Abuse”. Some of the messages in that folder are so vile they end up being passed on to the police.

Such is the life of an MP, and more specifically the life of a Black female MP, especially one who describes herself in her new book A Purposeful Life as a “disrupter”.

Part memoir, part call to arms, Butler’s book traces her life and influences, from helping in the family bakery in east London to arriving in Westminster as the third ever Black female MP, later becoming the first elected Black female minister. 

The book recounts how Butler’s politics have been informed by her personal experiences, as she strives for action to tackle sexism, racism and class and health inequality.

At school, when an eight-year-old Butler described seeing a winged cockroach whilst on holiday in Jamaica, her teacher suggested she was a liar.

The battles go beyond the struggle to be taken for her word 

Her father stood up for her then, confronting the teacher on her behalf, but the rest of her story is Butler fighting her own battles. For example, when she was mistaken for a cleaner while using a Members-only lift in Parliament, it was suggested she had made it up. She also faced questions about her honesty when she recounted being stopped in her car by the police in 2020.

So, when in 2021 Butler stood up in the House Commons Chamber and called Boris Johnson a liar, using language she knew would get her thrown out, it reads like her finally getting to have her say as someone who has been repeatedly disbelieved.

Her battles go beyond the struggle to be taken for her word. She details the sexual harassment she has experienced and explains how she calls out racism – both blatant and unconscious bias – despite knowing that each time she does, that office file of negative messages will grow larger.

In the book, she predictably directs a lot of criticism at the Conservatives, accusing them of institutional failings, but her own Labour Party is not spared her ire. She attacks some colleagues on her own side who she says at times have distanced themselves from her – and even conspired against her. Butler records her pain at being ousted from the chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party in what she says was an “ambush” by Jess Phillips and Harriet Harman.

A Purposeful LifePerhaps the most moving part of the book is when she talks about her breast cancer diagnosis in 2021 and how it forced her to rethink her work-life balance. Both her mother and sister have had the same cancer. She used her own experience to raise awareness around screening, acknowledging the importance of a routine mammogram that caught her cancer early, and to highlight health inequalities experienced by Black women.

Butler’s story is told in a lively and engaging way. The Desert Island Discs-style song list at the end, for example, is not what you expect from a traditional political book. Her passion and determination to build strong and fair communities is obvious as she identifies the gaps that need to be filled, even if the answers to solving the issues she identifies are not always clear. 

Anne Alexander is head of politics at Good Morning Britain

A Purposeful Life: What I’ve Learned About Breaking Barriers and Inspiring Change
By: Dawn Butler
Publisher: Torva

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