Is this really women's place in politics?

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From Vladimir Putin’s bikini-clad fan club to Silvio Berlusconi’s beauty queens, why are male politicians still using women as pawns in the power game?

What truly sways the outcome of a general election? Parliamentary debates? Economic policy? An enlightened approach to immigration? Or an 18-year-old in a bikini? Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin is banking on the latter. Back in July, in a publicity stunt nicknamed Putin’s Sexy Carwash, his female political fan club took to the streets of Moscow to soft-soap cars while wearing swimwear. Not to be outdone, Putin’s presidential counterpart Dmitry Medvedev’s supporters offered to strip in public to aid his chances of re-election.

It’s not just their fan clubs that are packed with young, beautiful women either – in 2007, Putin recruited several young gymnasts with no political background to his party, to improve its image ahead of the parliamentary elections. Gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who was 24 at the time, had only just retired from her sporting career and had zero political experience. She has since become a celebrity, gracing the cover of Russian Vogue while remaining an MP. Seven-time Olympic medal-winning gymnast Svetlana Khorkina was also elected representative in 2007. “It’s very good to be sexy,” she said at the time. “I posed naked for Russian Playboy when I was 17 or 18. Why not if you’ve got something to show? I will work as a part of Russia’s strongest political team.”

Capitalising on female wiles to win votes is not just a tactic employed by Russian political minds. Far from it: 1,500 miles away, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been engaging in serious political sexism for years. Indeed, the Italian PM, who returned to power in 2008, is infamous for it. This is a man who, on a visit to the New York Stock Exchange in 2003, declared one reason to invest in Italy was that, “we have beautiful secretaries… superb girls,” and last year suggested that women looking to secure their financial future should, “look for a wealthy boyfriend.”

When he’s not highlighting the assets of his country’s women to win international investment, the 74 year old – who owns or controls 95% of the Italian television market – broadcasts his sexist agenda on TV. Take Striscia La Notizia, a news programme on a Berlusconi-owned station, where voluptuous, scantily clad women dance between segments. Remember: this is a news show. The channel’s own website declares, “As part of the programme’s cast, two young women dance on a table and are essential to the structure of the show, in that they serve as a reminder that this is entertainment.”


Berlusconi is also famous for his attractive female inner political circle. While it would be ridiculous to suggest that beauty should affect anyone’s political ability, it has to be said that some of his recruitment choices are suspicious. Take Mara Carfagna, a former glamour model and selfprofessed “anti-feminist”, who he appointed as his minister for equal opportunity. Carfagna, who once came sixth in a Miss Italia contest, was welcomed into his Forza Italia party in 2000 and made a minister four years later, despite a complete lack of political experience. In her ministerial post for equal opportunity, Carfagna has opposed gay marriage and said that, for women, independence is less important than discipline. She is joined by Nicole Minetti, a former dental hygienist and TV showgirl who Berlusconi met while having his teeth fixed. Within three months he had chosen Minetti to represent his party in the regional elections in Lombardy. There’s also Barbara Matera, the 30-year-old one-time soap star turned MEP who was part of Berlusconi’s initiative to recruit “young, new faces” into the European Parliament in 2009.

It’s not just Putin and Berlusconi who are at it. In Norway, glamour model and Miss Norway winner Tove-Lill Løyte is a prominent youth politician who was the elected leader of the opposition Progress Party’s youth wing. Løyte, who has spent time at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, had the vocal support of the party’s male secretary general, Geir Mo. She is a hit in Norwegian tabloids, who regularly feature her in erotic poses (in one recent shot, Løyte posed in a bikini top and tiny denim shorts, holding an industrial hose and surrounded by inflatable elephants). In Kosovo earlier this year, after the presidential election was declared invalid, the male leaders of the two main political parties agreed on a “compromise candidate”, Atifete Jahjaga, who happened to be an attractive, 35-year-old woman with no political experience. Kosovans were baffled by the appointment.

No doubt many of the examples above have left you open mouthed. In 2011, a decade when we have 21 female political leaders worldwide (thanks tothe most recent election of Helle Thorning-Schmidt as prime minister of Denmark), it’s almost implausible that such powerful, developed countries would allow their leaders to engage in such openly sexist antics. If David Cameron suddenly began encouraging swarms of bikini-wearing women to rally support we’d be up in arms.

When he’s not highlighting the assets of his country’s women to win international investment, 74 year old Berlusconi broadcasts his sexist agenda on TV.

In fact, Italian and Russian women are dissatisfied with the situation, but things are proving slow to change. In February this year, Italy’s Se Non Ora Quando? (If Not Now, When?) movement, made up of women’s groups ranging from left-wing feminists to Catholic nuns, organised demonstrations across the country. The organisation’s founder Nicoletta Dentico, says, “We represent a new wave of feminism, expressing its discontent and frustration with the way women are treated by our prime minister.” Never before, says Dentico, has such a huge movement come together to challenge the highest level of Italian politics. In Russia, where demonstrations are banned, there is a more subtle move to get more educated women into positions of power. A group called the Otlichnitsy – which means “top students” – was launched this year, with the goal of increasing women’s representation in politics from six to 50%. They also want a woman president by 2018 – surely one of the best ways to change endemic sexism.


But the question is why are male politicians so obsessed with beautifulwomen, even when it is at the expense of relevant political experience? A recent study by the Helsinki Center of Economic Research discovered that they really do attract votes. Henrik Jordahl, a political economist who conducted the study, describes the ‘halo effect’ of good looks. “Attractive politicians are perceived to becompetent, trustworthy, intelligent and likeable,” he explains. The message is clear, if rather depressing – pretty people can boost the polls. “Good-looking political candidates win more votes than their less goodlooking competitors,” adds Jordahl. The findings applied to both male and female politicians, but there’s no doubt that women are judged more on their looks. Jordahl found that male voters perceived male politicians to be more intelligent and competent than femalepoliticians, and female politicians to be more beautiful, likable and trustworthy.

Not only are we more likely to put the X in the box of a better-looking candidate, a study from University of Haifa, Isreal shows beautiful people also attract more column inches once they’re in power. Political scientist Israel Waismel-Manor explains, “Physical attractiveness is one of the strongest predictors of television news coverage – stronger than parliamentary activity.” It also bolsters political fortunes. “There’s ample evidence that better-looking politicians get not just more coverage but also more votes,” he says.


Of course, not all male political leaders are cynically packing their parties with inexperienced gymnasts and drumming up the support of swimwear models. Northern Europe is actually leading the charge in terms of gender equality in parliament. Iceland topped Newsweek’s recent table of the best places in the world to be a woman – it has a female president and a government agency to keep tabs on women’s rights. Sweden, Denmark Switzerland and the Netherlands all made it into the top 10 too. Britain scraped into the top 20 of the same table, at number 19.

Because while our political leaders may not be as blatant as Berlusconi, they aren’t immune to massaging the polls with a few female faces. He may not have been holding ‘Bunga Bunga’ parties, but in a 1997 photograph, Tony Blair surrounded himself with 101 women MPs, many of whom had been elected to parliament in the election. The media were swift to christen them “Blair’s Babes”, instantly undermining a new generation of women who hadentered a traditionally male-dominated British parliament. It seems that the press simply is unable to watch a woman walk into power without making judgements based solely on her gender.

If David Cameron suddenly began employing bikini-wearing women to rally support we’d be up in arms

Around the time, Guardian commentator Polly Toynbee, wrote that “Blair’s Babes” was a “casual, misogynist tag that identifies only the lazy prejudice of its users”. These weren’t, after all, bikini-clad 25-yearolds – they were an intelligent, high-achieving group of women who had rightfully earned their place in parliament, but who also happened tobe untouched by the hand of a stylist. Headlines at the time were mocking: “Who will save the utterly dowdy class of ’97 from years of brightly coloured polyester?” asked one. Diane Abbott, the Labour MP and the only woman to run in the Labour leadership campaign last year, agrees with Toynbee, “This was part of a media narrative where all women are either plucky mums, have a go grandmas or babes”.

We now also have ‘Cameron’s Cuties’, the sexist, patronising tag given to the 48 Conservative women in parliament who include 28-year-old Chloe Smith and author Louise Mensch. According to Scarlett MccGwire, an adviser to politicians including Harriet Harman, they were recruited specifically to change the image of a party known for being male, stuffy, white and posh. “‘Cameron’s Cuties’ were a signal to Britain that the Conservative Party had changed,” she says. This is surely a positive step, but it can sometimes be hard to draw the line between promotion of women in the interests of equality, and “window dressing” – the accusation that former Europe minister Caroline Flint once levelled at then-prime minister Gordon Brown after she did not receive a promotion to the cabinet in his 2009 reshuffle.

Whatever women’s place in global politics however, it seems impossible to draw the focus away from their gender and their appearance. If female politicians don’t make an effort, they are bullied by the press for being dowdy. If they do, they’re not taken seriously. Most grudgingly accept that looking good gets you noticed. Political journalist Gaby Hinsliff, recalling her days as a lobby correspondent, says, “Beauty doesn’t necessarily guarantee promotion, but it does get you airtime, which political parties definitely exploit: they’ll push forward certain MPs for coverage and not others.” Newspaper editors inevitably prefer to use pictures of women because they capture the reader’s eye more effectively than yet another image of a man in a business suit.

As MccGwire says, there is something essentially tokenistic in both Blair and Cameron’s efforts: Cameron brought in more women and diversified the candidates for election because “that was what he thought was good for the party”. And he has since made a few blips in parliament – recently he told an opposition minister, Angela Eagle, to “Calm down, dear” and this month, to blokeish guffaws from his party, he said that Nadine Dorries must be feeling “extremely frustrated” by the lack of progress on her proposed abortion bill. As one Tory MP was reported to have said, his attitude towards women was “the worst of the Bullingdon” – the male drinking society which Cameron belonged to at Oxford.

Although we may gasp at Putin’s bikini stunts and Berlusconi’s creepy antics, the UK also has a way to go before we’re entirely blameless in the sexist politics stakes. How long will it be before talented, intelligent women worldwide are seen as deserving of their places in the corridors of power by the media and male political leaders? It seems looking north to countries like Iceland and Denmark, with female-heavy parliaments and enlightened attitudes could teach us a great deal.

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Words: Sophie Elmhirst. Picture credits: Rex Features.