Flashback to 100 years ago in Britain. A select group of women had only just obtained the right to vote. Politics was seen as ‘The Old Boys Club’. Men were given power to shape all political affairs while women were expected to focus on domestic issues. Privately educated men, with prestigious Oxbridge degrees, were the only individuals in positions to join the exclusive political sphere.
Fast forward to 2018, this outdated reality can only be seen on the screens of Mad Men. With Britain having been governed under the premiership of two female prime ministers, and having seen a huge rise in women taking on influential positions in politics, the question of sexism in politics is often dismissed as an issue already solved.
However, with the rise of feminist movements highlighting everyday discrimination, #MeToo, and feminism’s ability to integrate into mainstream politics, underlying sexism in politics is being called out more. Sexist language and disproportionate cabinets are no longer tolerated. Women are more outspoken; the public are active in their outrage and men are including themselves in the conversation.
Reflections from the 2016 US Presidential election, which saw Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton lose against Republican candidate Donald Trump, highlight the mass amount of sexism still present in politics. From comments of Clinton’s appearance and outrage when she chose not to wear make-up, to Trump’s comments regarding women, sexism should not be a forgotten issue. Critics have noted that had the roles been reserved, Trump’s comments would not have been tolerated.
Sexist language and disproportionate cabinets are no longer tolerated
Trump was outright in his sexist tweets, such as: “Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man.” And: “The only card [Hillary Clinton] has is the woman’s card. She’s got nothing else to offer and frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get five percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card, and the beautiful thing is, women don’t like her.” However, the tweets did little to impact his presidential campaign, highlighting a complacency within the American population bearing his sexist behaviour.
The 2017 Women’s March, which saw a larger turnout than the presidential inauguration, displayed a clear objection to Trump’s comments and made a statement that his behaviour will not be tolerated. The momentum of the marches was a sign that citizens are not happy with the political system, but change can only occur when behaviour, such as that of the incumbent president, is publicly shamed as unacceptable. However, a year down the line, his comments are still as prevalent as they were prior to his election.
Different political systems are complicit to sexism in their own way. In Britain, despite Theresa May holding the highest position of power among the Great Offices of State, she is still subjected to the same sexist criticisms as other women. GQ recently reported that Theresa May receives three times the media coverage for her appearance than Jeremy Corbyn. During International Women’s Day, she was asked how she planned to “let her hair down” – a question not asked of any of her male counterparts.
GQ recently reported that Theresa May receives three times the media coverage for her appearance than Jeremy Corbyn
Recent examples of sexism in British politics also include the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, being referred to as Lady Nugee, her marital name. Despite being completely aware of her choice to be referred to by her maiden name, it seemed fair that Speaker John Bercow chose to reprimand foreign secretary Boris Johnston for his use of language. He commented that: “It is inappropriate and frankly sexist to speak in those terms, and I am not having it in this Chamber.” Johnson preceded to apologise for his “inadvertent sexism”. However, without Bercow’s intervention, there may have not been such a recognition that his comments were an issue. Bercow’s decision to brand the comments as unacceptable show a shift in politics, with a greater emphasis being placed on the use of language.
In Italian politics, gendered insults are “treated as normal”, according to a recent report by Aljazeera, with sexism seen as a normal aspect of mainstream Italian politics. A woman’s sexuality is used as an insult against her. In a highly religious culture, it is clear that an outdated view on gender still finds a way to weave into politics.
Arguably, sexism in politics can be seen as an extension of the society’s perception and understanding of gender. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau vowed and succeeded to implement Canada’s first equally balanced cabinet. With an equal distribution of 15 male ministers and 15 female ministers, Trudeau aimed to create a cabinet that “presents to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada”.
Arguably, sexism in politics can be seen as an extension of the society’s perception and understanding of gender
Modern sexism is more than representation. While physical representation in politics may be higher than ever, more needs to be done regarding media coverage. Like politics, journalism is still considered to be a male dominated sphere. Language has the ability to isolate individuals. With more importance placed on what a female politician wears, rather than what she says, this sends a message to aspiring female politicians. After criticisms regarding celebrating the centenary mark of women gaining the right to vote, May commented that she wants “to see young women actually able to see this House as a place that they actively want to come to”.
Sexism is not the only issue pertaining to politics. Class, race and sexuality all add to the hurdles of working in politics. While it may be difficult to separate the factors, each obstacle needs to be treated as an isolated problem. Conversations cannot stop happening just because a woman is current Prime Minister. Until a government accurately represents a country’s population, politics has a fundamental problem that needs solving.