The Rise of the Formidable Women

It’s probably fair to say that the country is in a bit of a shambles at the moment.

As I said in my previous post about the farcical EU Referendum, people are desperate for change. We are sick of the bumbling idiocy, the arrogant posturing, the power-hungry backstabbing of our current ‘top’ MPs; one identikit stiff in a suit waving PR-trained hands around after another.

But as a result of all the current upheaval, we have reached a state of quite an interesting possibility. Would a female Prime Minister and a female Leader of the Opposition be the change we are looking for? Could a change in the ‘jobs for the boys’ status quo be the answer to our wish to just have the whole place run with a bit of common sense?

Well, possibly. But equally, possibly not.

I’ve read quite a few opinion pieces recently about the rise of female politicians and what an amazing thing it is – and it absolutely is; I’m certainly not denying that. We have the increasing likelihood of Theresa May, often compared to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, being chosen as the new Conservative Leader, immediately being bumped up to the country’s top job and the barrel of laughs that will prove to be in the coming months. Another woman, Andrea Leadsom, has now beaten Michael Gove into submission (if only) to give May a run for her money in the all-female leadership ballot. And if Labour ever sort themselves out and decide whether to stick behind JC or not, they could be voting for a female leader in the form of Angela Eagle.

Theresa May
Theresa May at 10 Downing Street | Photo credit: Will Oliver/EPA via theguardian.com

Women have been woefully under-represented in the House of Commons in the past, and even those who have fought their way into high profile jobs have been subjected to ridicule and total disrespect by the misogyny of certain fellow MPs and the out and out sexism of some (unsurprising) sections of the media. The vile abuse some female politicians have endured on social media only goes to show they are still not accepted by some as being capable of the role.

Theresa May herself made headline news when George Osborne announced his Budget back in March of this year, for the apparently noteworthy reason of wearing a slightly low-cut top. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was the second year in a row that her cleavage was deemed more important than any of the actual politics going on.

As a result of this, a horrendous bit of creepy non-journalism on the Mail Online (obvs.) took it upon itself to share about 400 photos of other female MPs flashing either a bit more décolletage or leg than they deemed respectable, captioned with leering comments about ‘ample bosoms’ and ‘acres of thigh’. According to rent-a-perv writer Andrew Pierce, “Mrs May – like many women MPs on both benches – knows moving a hemline up or a neckline down can be a powerful political tool”. *vomit*

On the other side of the coin, women forging a successful political career often seem to be referred to as ‘formidable’, ‘stubborn’ or, in one recent amusing case, ‘bloody difficult’. Mocked for having a dowdy appearance in an unflattering power suit or seeming to be too serious is somehow as grave an offence as heaving their breasts around the ballot box. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Questions of appearance aside, the family life of female MPs is also considered of great importance to their ability to do their job, in a way that you just wouldn’t see discussed for their male counterparts. In a piece full of glowing praise for Theresa May in the Telegraph, a female writer suggests that as she doesn’t have any children “she’s less likely to be distracted on the job”. A fairly sweeping statement to imply that working mothers spend the day unable to think about anything other than their kids.

In a first draft of this post, I was slightly more scathing about that quote as it irritated me. However, having seen the irate criticism hurled at the poor writer of the piece on Twitter, I can see that she meant it in entirely good faith, and that it’s perhaps more indicative of society’s general expectation that mothers should still be the primary caregiver, with half an eye on their mobile, ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice if required. Nobody seems to consider having children a distraction for male MPs.

Andrea Leadsom
Andrea Leadsom and a big microphone | Photo credit: Rob Stothard/Getty Images via theguardian.com

My concern with all of this though – the overt sexism, the obsession with shoes and dresses and haircuts, the focus on boobs and not beliefs – is that it hides who these women really are. It’s as if their political views don’t even matter. Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom have both made questionable comments on matters concerning fairly important things like human rights and maternity leave. Yes, May has a penchant for leopard print shoes, but why wouldn’t she reassure EU citizens residing legally in the UK that they could stay following Brexit negotiations? Nicola Sturgeon, herself considered a ‘formidable’ woman, lambasted May’s reluctance to confirm a ‘right to remain’ this week as “disgraceful” and “disgusting” as “human beings are not bargaining chips”.

As I write this, Andrea Leadsom has made some dubious statements about her views on gay marriage and has said that she would seek to hold a vote to reverse the ban on fox hunting. This is not to mention the doubts that apparently surround her employment experience and tax affairs.

We mustn’t lose sight of what is important in our eagerness to overthrow the old boys’ network. Just because Theresa May is a woman doesn’t mean by default that she will do a better job or ‘clear up the mess’ created by the men. Nicky Morgan is a perfect example of an incompetent female MP – her gender is irrelevant when it comes to making teachers’ lives miserable and ruining our children’s education.

Having more female MPs in parliament shouldn’t be a tick box exercise to meet a quota – we need the right people at the top to make the change this country needs, be they male or female. Sadly I think the animosity in some circles towards those ‘right people’, women trying to make a difference (like Jo Cox, as an extreme example), will be there for a long time to come.

Perhaps being formidable isn’t such a bad thing. But it would be good if women were judged on their principles and abilities instead of their outfit, otherwise there’ll be no change at all.

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