FF 2016 Day 13: Women in politics

Representation
How sexualisation and stereotyping affect women in politics
Threats to women in politics

People in the UK and US (and other Western countries) are usually very willing to acknowledge the political oppression and suppression of women in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, particularly if it lets them to disparage the protests of women in their own countries. For this reason, today’s post is going to look specifically at the situation of women in politics in the UK and US.

Women’s political contributions are often sidelined, a perfect example of this being the changes proposed last year to the A-Level Politics syllabus which would have resulted in the removal of feminism and feminist history from the curriculum. As Rupa Huq MP pointed out, “This proposed syllabus implies that women do not belong in politics and that their contributions are not significant.” Thankfully, huge protests resulted in the proposal being axed.

Another example- here are some of the front pages marking the day that Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to be nominated for the US presidency by a major political party:
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Notice anything strange?

The idea that women don’t belong in politics is one which keeps many women out of politics, and is then circularly reinforced by the lack of women in politics. Lack of representation, media stereotyping, and threats and harassment, are three of the key factors which deter women from political participation.
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Representation

Women have equal political representation with men in zero countries. There is not a single country where men do not dominate in politics. The majority of countries in the report produced by the World Economic Forum are only a quarter of the way to equal representation. Only four countries-Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Nicaragua- are more than halfway to equal representation.

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#ELLEfeminism shows what happens when you take the men out of politics

Why is it important that women are equally represented in politics? For one thing: a supposedly representative democracy which continually fails to represent half its population doesn’t seem valid. For another thing: women’s experiences continue to be different from men’s experiences, and so women need political representation in order for their needs to receive equal attention. We can see from case studies across the world that the shape and substance of politics changes with increased female representation- greater attention is given to issues like child care, gendered violence, gender discrimination, women’s reproductive rights, etc.
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“In South Africa specifically, female legislators successfully introduced significant changes to the law in areas of abortion and employment equality, and female representatives were credited with passing the 1998 Domestic Violence Bill.

Rwanda, with a parliament made up of nearly 64% female, has passed laws allowing women to own land and open bank accounts, maintains a lower maternal mortality rate than other Sub-Saharan African countries, and employs 87% of women in the labour force, compared to 57% of women in the US.”

NATO Association

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We can’t rely on ‘symbolic’ women to represent the needs of all women, especially when the way in which these few women climb the political career ladder is often by sidelining women’s issues so as not to rock the boat when working in a male-dominated environment. Having a female prime minister in the UK cannot be seen as a victory for women when that same politician has a track record of failures to protect women’s rights- for example, May has refused to address the abuse of detainees at the women’s detention centre in Yarl’s Wood. We need equal representation of women, otherwise there will continue to be pressure on the few women in politics to act like members of the old boy’s club.

Another reason that representation is important is that women “can’t be what they can’t see.”  Like we saw on Day 3, part of the reason that women are under-represented in many fields (e.g. engineering, business) is that they are portrayed through stereotypes as less competent and less appropriate for those fields, and there are very few visible role models for girls thinking about careers in these fields. The section below looks at the specific ways in which stereotyping continues to make male politicians seem like the norm and to alienate female politicians.

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How sexualisation and stereotyping affect women in politics

If you search “women in politics” on YouTube, the first video in the results list is one entitled “10 Of The Sexiest Women In Politics”. Given that women in general are sexually objectified, it shouldn’t be surprising that our society sexually objectifies those women who hold political positions– this is a crucial way in which many women in politics are dismissed and made to seem less serious than their male counterparts.

Sarah Palin was reduced to a sex object and described as “masturbation material” in an interview between Kenny Smith and Tracy Morgan. In 2011 the men’s magazine Complex compiled a list of the ’50 Hottest Women In Politics’. Instead of concerning themselves with Michele Bachmann’s policies or her debating performances, the Huffington Post suggested “When her [Bachmann’s] numbers went down she should have brought down her neckline. Might have helped.” As if this kind of sexualisation wasn’t enough, though, female politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Condoleezza Rice face being degraded through pornography made using their names and images. Their faces (and the faces of their daughters) have been taken and used to make brutally objectifying porn which is used to mock, humiliate and harass them.
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“…sexualized representations of women politicians are generally thought of as funny, giving a pass to discriminatory outcomes. For example, two weeks ago a colorful illustration of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders showed up on Instagram. It showed a photograph of Clinton’s smiling face on a cartoon body. She was propped up, her face down by her hands, legs held open by a seated, similarly Photoshopped Sanders, penetrating her from behind. On the same day, a viral video on Facebook featured a scantily clad Clinton pole dancing, singing about her “Hillary Humps” and being called a “White House Ho.” […] Using graphic sexualization to comment on a woman candidate’s worthiness for office isn’t pornography, it’s political strategy.”

The Establishment

It’s not just the sexualisation of female politicians which is used to make them seem less serious, less professional, less competent. Stereotyping and common tropes are used to bring them down and make them the subjects of criticism and mockery which would never be applied to their male peers. Just a couple of weeks ago, MSNBC interrupted Hillary Clinton’s speech on job creation and gender equality to complain about her voice. Reporter Bob Woodward criticised Clinton’s tone, saying “She shouts. There’s something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.”

(Whereas Trump is the epitome of calm in every speech he makes…?)

Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate in the presidential primary, was told she should smile more. The National Review called a congresswoman “exotic” and “beautiful” in an article on foreign policy. When Senator Wendy Davis led a fillibuster to prevent a restrictive bill being passed which would have shut down most abortion clinics in Texas, The Spokesman made sure to mention, before giving any other details, that the Senator was wearing “pink tennis shoes.” The New York Times referred to the male aides of female senators as “purse boys.” The Daily Mail critiqued the wardrobe choices of female MPs in David Cameron’s new cabinet in a double-page spread titled the ‘Downing Street catwalk.’ The Daily Star infantilised the politicians in the running for Prime Minister with the front-page headline “Here Come The Girls.” When Theresa May was announced as Prime Minister of the UK, her shoes took centre stage on the front page of The Sun.  A few years ago, David Cameron told then-shadow Treasury secretary Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear.”

Some of these things may seem more innocent and less harmful than others, but all of these things (e.g. describing female politicians’ appearance, referring to their roles as mothers or wives, or rating their attractiveness) play a part in constantly suggesting to the public that female politicians don’t fit the (male) ‘norm’. This scene from the show Scandal shows how the media use subtle (and some not-so-subtle) reminders to direct the way the public view female politicians:
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The stereotypical image of ‘The Politician’ is male, and our media constantly suggests that female politicians are different, less serious, less competent, because they are women. It detracts from coverage of their actual policies and actions by instead focusing on their wardrobe or their roles as mothers or wives. It makes them into jokes through stereotypes or sexualisation. While male politicians are viewed by the media just as politicians and so are reviewed and reported on in terms of their political differences, female politicians are seen first as women. This may explain why some people at the BBC seemed surprised that Leadsom and May had different views, despite both being women.  Can you imagine someone saying “Corbyn and Cameron may both be men, but they have quite different views”?
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Threats to women in politics

Stereotyping and sexualisation already do plenty to keep women from entering politics equally with their male counterparts. On top of this, women in politics face threats, abuse and violence for daring to speak publicly on almost any issue- particularly women’s issues.

Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, received more than 600 rape threats via Twitter in one night in May this year. Luciana Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertee, received 2,500 hate messages in just 3 days under the hashtag “filthyjewbitch” and had to contact the police after she was sent a picture of a man holding a knife with a message telling her she would “get it like Jo Cox did.”

Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist author, had to leave social media after receiving a rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. The two women who headed the campaign to class misogynistic harassment a hate crime in Nottingham have since been bombarded with online abuse, including graphic threats on their lives.

Angela Eagle has had a brick thrown through her office window as well as receiving online abuse and threats. Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd (both Australian prime ministers) have both been the subject of around the same number of Twitter conversations, but Gillard received twice as many abusive tweets as Rudd. While there’s no evidence that her killer sent her any abusive messages, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, had been receiving harassing messages and threats online over the three-month period before she was murdered.

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Maria Miller MP says that for female MPs:
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“…it’s part of the job to accept the fact that you will get vile abuse online […] I certainly think that the way women are treated in the media can make them think twice about whether they’d want to stand for election. That, coupled with real concerns about the impact of social media on their lives doesn’t help when we’re trying to increase the number of women in parliament, which is still really inadequate.”

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University of Bristol lecturer Elizabeth Evans says:
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“It will make [women] think twice about public profile and the kind of things they want to say online […] It is effectively shutting down spaces for women who are not only representing their constituencies, but women in general.”

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We can’t dismiss online abuse, harassment and threats as “just internet trolls”- they are real people, doing real harm, and causing real fear. This is a serious deterrent to women’s political participation, on top of those deterrents we’ve looked at above. We need a stronger crackdown on those people creating a climate which says to women, “Go ahead, stick your head out- but we’ll start throwing things.” Strong, loud support for those women on the receiving end of this kind of abuse is needed, to show the “trolls” that they’re in the minority and that they are unwelcome.
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Want to hear more? Here’s Devanshi Patel talking about the political environment and how we can help more young women become engaged with politics:

 

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