Women & Politics: Breaking Into the Boys' Club

It has been more than 40 years since Margaret Thatcher, our first female Prime Minister, came to power. Yet, women are still woefully outnumbered in the political realm. According to the House of Commons Library, only 31% of parliamentarians are women. There are 226 female Members of the Commons and 237 female Members of the House of Lords. Affirmative Action style campaigns in the 1990s contributed to a rise in the number of female parliamentarians. Labour’s policy of female-only seats, more broadly known as AWS, gave half of the nation’s ‘winnable seats’ to all women shortlists. But this is not meaningful or real representation – it is a performative action, taken by a group who wish to hide underlying systemic issues. Women should not be made to rely on quotas for opportunity. Such provisions are harmful and perpetuate an outdated idea that women cannot succeed on their own. These measures are not the answer, and they are not equality. 

Women are painfully aware of their power imbalance. We see it in the figures who lead our communities, the sexist jibes men make at political events, and the commentary we receive online. We constantly have to fight against our gender. We make every effort to fit in with the men who control our political livelihoods, yet we will never gain entry into their illusive boys’ club. Worse, many women famously tear other women down in pursuit of their own success. The message is clear: women who succeed do so despite their sex. 

This problem is magnified by social media. Many of the comments women receive online are sexist, objectifying, and downright degrading. While men are targeted for their privilege or political views, women are often attacked for their looks or sexual activity. Women online become objects, available solely for the entertainment of misogynistic digital crowds. Twitter, our modern public square, is a major source of such commentary. It is deeply worrying that the British public feels so comfortable expressing these views online. Ruth Davidson spoke to Amnesty International in 2018 about this very issue. Her comments linked online activity with actions taken in the real world.

Just because you’re saying something on a keyboard and not to someone’s face, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. There needs to be an understanding of the seriousness of what this is – rather than the kind of frivolous ‘Oh they only said it on Twitter, so it doesn’t matter’. Actually, it does.

- Ruth Davidson

 In the last year alone, such vitriol has been directed at two leading Conservative women, and many private activists. When Liz Truss became Prime Minister, the public began to focus on the circle necklace she was frequently seen wearing. Media outlets fed into their frenzy, reporting that the necklace was a gift from her husband. Gawker conducted a lengthy ‘investigation’, the Daily Mail interrogated its emotional value, and the Tab discussed several theories surrounding it. Even the Telegraph wrote a lengthy article about the now infamous necklace! Digital crowds went wild with outlandish and degrading theories over the meaning of her jewellery. Was it indicative of a dom/sub style BDSM relationship? Was our third female Prime Minister secretly kinky? These were all popular questions last Autumn. They were also completely unacceptable. Ms Truss was unpopular so the public and media ridiculed her in every way possible. She is owed a long overdue apology. 

More recently, Susan Hall was announced as the Conservative candidate for Mayor of the City of London. The Evening Standard responded by publishing a cartoonish picture of Ms Hall. This was no accident. While Sadiq Khan (the current Mayor and presumptive Labour candidate) was presented as serious, Hall received a caricature and insulting tagline. Nickie Aiken, the Conservative Deputy Party Chairman, said that there was a “whiff of misogyny” about their cover. I am inclined to agree, although I would suggest it was more than a whiff. 

I have also been subject to sexism, both face-to-face and online. At an event in England, an Association Chair made comments asking who had “brought me” and told me something along the lines of ‘you can’t take care of yourself’. Another man (an MP who shall remain nameless) wanted me to cover my ears while he discussed ‘real talk’ with my male counterparts. This was a particular letdown as I had previously looked up to this man. At the time, I was serving as Chair for the oldest Conservative University Society in the world -  incapable, I was not. And yet, my gender has consistently been used as a tool to denigrate and exclude me.

It appears that the anonymity provided to people online encourages their hidden misogyny to come out even more than in person. Sexism on social media is an everyday occurrence and something you learn to ignore. Men comment on my looks, my sexual activity, and my relationship. I even get called a Westminster Whore, which honestly just seems like the name for a forgotten 80s punk band (imagine it: they released one EP, recorded a session for John Peel, and broke up after an unfortunate disagreement over participation in the Red Wedge tour).  

A November 2022 research briefing for the House of Commons reported that more men than women voted in the 2019 election. It later discussed barriers to women entering politics, the most damning of which was a “masculine culture” which “discourage(s) women from seeking election”. Our media sets the tone for this culture. It is clear that, for more women to get involved in politics, something needs to change. Equality begins and ends with basic respect. News outlets must abandon the sexist attitudes which lead them to misogynistically castigate women like Ms Truss and Ms Hall. The stories shared today are not unique. Sexism impacts everyone and inhibits the functioning of our democracy. 

-- Calista Toner

25th July, 2023