Mon, 4 December 2023

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Press releases

Where are they now? Dame Joan Ruddock

3 min read

When Joan Ruddock became Lewisham Deptford’s Labour MP in 1987, she says she was one of only 41 female members elected to Parliament.

“Can you imagine what it was like,” she asks, “that tiny number of women, all those men? Whenever a woman stood up [she was] barracked. There was rowdiness, which there has always been with the men, but it was particularly acute and difficult for women to handle. It was extreme and very overt, unpleasant sexism.”

Ruddock recounts some war stories from those days: like the time a female member entered a lift, to be told by an “old fogey” that it was for members only, or the instance when Ruddock raised the subject of strip-searching women at an army debate, and heard a male member muttering “I’d like to strip search you”.

But she says the culture improved somewhat when 101 female MPs were elected in the 1997 Labour victory. “There was a big change after that period because of the influence that women began to wield through the numbers and the solidarity that [we] exercised,” she explains.

Ruddock looks back particularly fondly on her friendship with Harriet Harman. Before Ruddock was elected, Harman sent her a note saying that Deptford was “wide open” and she should run – “it was so typical of Harriet; she wanted to promote women”, she says.

Ruddock experienced one of the toughest challenges of her parliamentary career with Harman: advocating for a Ministry for Women. “There was no preparation for there being a Ministry for Women,” Ruddock says. “It was only after the spectacular election win that Harriet went to Tony [Blair] and said, ‘Tony, we said we would have a Ministry for Women, and there are no plans, there are no ministers, nobody has been appointed,’ and he said, ‘oh, well, you can do it then’.”

It was extreme and very overt, unpleasant sexism

Harman persuaded Blair to appoint Ruddock as the junior minister, but the problems did not stop there. “We had tremendous battles because we had civil servants who had no idea what this brief was about. We had a very radical programme and we had to push it through with enormous difficulty.”

Ruddock became minister of state for energy and climate change in 2009, which, as a natural science graduate and lifelong climate campaigner, she describes as “the highlight of [her] political life”. During Ruddock’s first year in the post, she helped conclude the Climate Change Act, the world’s first ever climate change legislation. “That was an immense achievement of the Gordon Brown government,” she says.

Ruddock retired with her husband Frank Doran, the Labour MP for Aberdeen, in 2015. However, Doran passed away from a terminal illness just two years into their retirement. “We were together for 25 years until the most awful tragedy really of my life,” she says. “We had made the break and we made it for very positive reasons; we wanted to start up new.”

Ruddock describes her charitable commitments – chairing the board of both the Albany Theatre and Lewisham Music, and serving as trustee to music venue Blackheath Halls – as a “saving grace for the years of grief that followed”.

However, much to her surprise, she met a new partner four years after Doran’s death. While he is not as enthusiastic about socialism or feminism – “there has been a lot of teasing!” laughs Ruddock – the pair have bonded over their shared love of science.

Ruddock, now 79, says she looks back on her life so far with gratitude. “These have been great privileges – to be able to move out of science originally into politics, politics into the arts. You couldn’t ask for much more could you?”

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Sophie Church - Selling the City: Michael Mainelli, the new Lord Mayor of London