Fergus Watson-West

Naked Politics Blogger 

It wasn’t too long ago that it was considered highly likely that as well as having a second female Prime Minister, we would have; a female Leader of the Opposition, a female President of the United States and, a female First Minister of Scotland – all at the same time. Instead, we’ve been subject to; the utter shock of Donald Trump being elected President, Theresa May dramatically losing her majority, the three female contenders to a weak Jeremy Corbyn crumbling into history, and a once mightily popular First Minister of Scotland greatly diminished in political stature. Although it goes without saying that there is a plethora of distinct reasons for each of these individual circumstances, it still makes you wonder whether society at large still has an issue with women being in high office.

Coincidentally, I recently came across an article commenting on the apparent effect of sexism in Hillary Clinton’s US presidential election defeat. The persuasive evidence that was referred to suggested that voters (especially female) had a subconscious bias against women seeking power. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that sexism in general was a firm and explicit theme throughout the US election (a quick google demonstrates just how prolific the discussion has been). However, in the UK, the specific topic of sexism was barely mentioned during our election campaign and in some ways this was refreshing. It was great to see that the fact Theresa May is a woman did not matter; we have moved on as a society. But I am dubious. I am left wondering if, because we have already had a female PM, we assume that the glass ceiling in politics is well and truly shattered, when in reality, there is still a great disadvantage in being a woman when seeking a political leadership role.

One of the main ways we see this disadvantage played out is through the consistent, callous and cowardly abuse of female MPs. Whether it was intimidation, threats, racism or sexism, MPs from across the spectrum were subject to unprecedented and intensified amounts of abuse during the recent election period: Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary, fell victim to a barrage of racist, sexist and fatist vitriol, after a number of difficult election interviews; Sheryl Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, recently relayed to parliament the abuse she’d endured (including someone urinating at her office door). Although much of the abuse described could, and has, also been directed at male MPs, it seems female MPs have borne the greatest brunt. This abuse can only serve to discourage, undermine and demean. It threatens the longevity and success of any female MP regardless of their talent; regardless of their potential.

A factor which makes this abuse particularly effective, and particularly wicked in my eyes, is the recurring use of certain gender specific words. These words, such as: ‘cow’, ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘witch’ cannot be used to describe or insult men. In fact, it is well documented that there is a greater vocabulary of pejorative terms for women compared to men. The battleground is not a level field thereby allowing a greater degree and intensity of insult to be hurled at women as opposed to men. Putting any etymological misogyny to one side, this very fact alone makes the use of these words sexist. They can be used against women but not against men. They allow a woman’s femaleness to be used against her. They make it easier to demean, insult and debilitate women compared to men.

In this vein, Theresa May has constantly and consistently been characterised as a witch. This has occurred on social media, in the press; through memes, videos, gifs and every type of content imaginable. Considering the disturbing history of this word, its use is undoubtedly sexist and misogynistic and its contemporary use in this context has a sinister resemblance to those hysterical accusations of old. This depiction of May has helped to create, promote, disseminate and later reinforce, a portrayal of her as cruel, cold and calculating.  A trait that is levelled at many female leaders, as they attempt to avoid the ‘soppy, weak and emotional female’ stereotype, by presenting themselves as “strong and stable”. The flip side to this being evident in a recent interview in which she was asked repeatedly whether she cried when she learned the election result; a question that would never be asked of a male politician! The response from her detractors being one of suspicion rather than sympathy. She’s damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t!

Thanks to the traction and amplification granted by social media, I believe the impact of this was significant in the election. It helped to reiterate the age-old narrative of the Conservatives as ‘the nasty party’, shattering May’s firm desires to evade this label and promote a sincere vision for greater equality and a genuine meritocracy.

Of course, there were many factors that caused May to defy predictions and so comprehensively lose her majority, but it would be wrong to categorically discount sexism as one of them. Hillary Clinton also suffered from the repugnant ‘witch’ epithet which makes me wonder if these kinds of labels and a subconscious bias against women are inextricably linked. What is clear, however, is that things have got to change. The use of this kind of language has got to stop along with the abuse of our politicians. Continuing to discourage talented women from entering politics and seeking the top office will only lead to us all being worse off.

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Last Update: April 24, 2018