Almost two weeks ago, Nicky Morgan, the minister for women and equalities in the UK, was confronted by photographers shouting at her and Amber Rudd, energy secretary: “Hello, girls!”
She responded: “Girls? Girls? Thank you.”
This weekend saw another outbreak of creepy sexism in the British political world.
The mid-market British tabloid The Mail on Sunday was extremely proud of its exclusive interview with Labour Party leadership contender Liz Kendall.
For sure, there was politics in the interview: Kendall disparaged her fellow leadership contenders, and she talked about what could make Labour electable again after its disastrous show in the last general election.
But after the piece was published, online comment focused on Simon Walters’s questions to Kendall about her weight.
He told readers that “Kendall maintains her lithe figure by jogging 20 miles a week.” He noted that she is wearing green suede high heels from the high-street store L.K. Bennett, a fact of such earth-shattering importance he later checks and finds that they cost £195 ($304).
We discover that the rest of her outfit was Reiss, which must have reassured prospective voters, the same brands as Kate Middleton wears, “and slinky brunette Liz, or Elizabeth Louise, to give her full Royal-sounding Christian names, looks as good in them as slinky brunette Kate,” Walters said.
“In fact she looks the same weight as the Duchess—about 8st—though when I ask she slaps me down with a raucous ‘f**k off!’, adding quickly: ‘Don’t print that.’”
Would a male politician ever be described in such absurdly sexist ways—lithe, slinky, and the rest?
Kendall herself told BBC Radio 5 Live afterwards: “I just think it’s unbelievable that in the 21st century women still get asked such very, very different questions from men.
“Can you imagine the Mail on Sunday asking the weight of the Prime Minister, George Osborne (the Chancellor), or any other leading politician? I cannot wait for a world where women are judged the same as men, and not by those kinds of questions.”
Kendall is right in spirit, but not entirely in fact. Walters has mulled a male politician’s weight before, noting in a pre-election interview, without the use of adjectives like ‘slinky’ and ‘lithe’, that George Osborne had lost two stone by going on the 5:2 diet.
It was all so much simpler when politics was known as show business for ugly people; but now the relentless media gaze means male and female politicians find themselves judged on their looks.
Her supporters say Kendall’s childlessness has been used against her during the leadership campaign, and the weight-related brouhaha took place after The New Statesman published a fascinating piece on the phenomenon of childlessness among British female politicians.
The author Helen Lewis noted that a politician was expected to have a family “as a way of signaling that they are ‘normal.’ So women face an impossible situation. If they have children, people disparage them as not dedicated enough to the job. If they don’t, people disparage them for having nothing else in their lives but the job.”
However, this illuminating piece, grounded in statistical research, was completely overshadowed by a ridiculous argument over the magazine cover illustration, which was of a group of well-known childless female politicians—Angela Merkel, UK Home Secretary Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, and Kendall—standing around a baby’s crib, containing no baby but instead a ballot box.
The cover itself was decried as sexist and reductive, almost overshadowing a piece which illustrated the sexist and reductive arguments around female politicians and children—have them, and they are seen as not as committed to their political careers; not have them and be seen as not being a “normal” woman.
As I have written before, and Lewis’s article echoes, the phrase, ‘as a mother’ is one of the most hackneyed used by politicians.
It is also one of the most empty, and insidious—being a mother or not does not automatically make you any better or worse an MP than being childless.
It would indeed show a measure of political evolution if women politicians could just be judged as being good politicians rather than how much they weigh, what they wear, and how much they have reproduced.
If this proves impossible, then—as Walters did with Osborne’s own weight loss—male politicians should be interrogated about their own reproductive records, and whether their numbers invalidate their own capability of serving as public representatives.
Men seem to know this is what is required of them, too, these days. As Osborne discovered, in our confessional culture, talk of policy goals by politicians must take place alongside marital status and weight loss.
David Cameron’s own weight, and running regime, have been commented on; during the election campaign Ed Miliband was converted into a pin-up. Male politicians, finally, are beginning to understand the sexist slings and arrows—and insulting absurdities—that women have endured for so long.
Men are not yet as relentlessly picked over for their sartorial and parenting choices (their personal confessions and focus seem benign in comparison), but the endurance test of proving your ‘normality’ is a ridiculous one both male and female politicians find themselves challenged by.
That’s not the kind of equality male or female MPs would, or should, welcome. Nor should we. As ‘slinky’ and lithe’ as they might make you look, the wisdom of wearing green suede high heels isn’t the wisdom that will lead an economy out of recession.