“Equality and feminism matter to all of us”: two female MPs denounce the vilification of women in politics

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

It's no secret that female politicians are scrutinised by the press and public in a way that male politicians rarely are.

Here, in the wake of Theresa May's appointment as Prime Minister and the all-female leadership race preceding, MPs Flick Drummond and Jess Phillips, co-chairs of the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), argue that sexism in politics has an impact on society as a whole.

"What happens to female politicians does have an impact on wider society" – Flick Drummond MP

Women are still under-represented at all levels in politics, and there is definitely a sexist atmosphere surrounding us as far as the media are concerned. It may be true that the final two candidates for the next Conservative leader were women, but rather than demonstrate how far women have come in British politics over the last 100 years, it merely highlighted the negative stereotypes that still exist. Of course the press are rude about male MPs too, but there is a different tone towards women. It is more personal, more image-based, and relies on the same old stereotypes. A man can get up in the morning and put on a suit, and he’s dressed for work. Things are more complicated for women.

Take the front page of The Sun the day after Theresa May was confirmed as our new Prime Minister – it was a big photo of her shoes, leopard skin-print kitten heels, with the caption “Maggie May in at Number 10”. The tabloids have turned her shoes into her trademark, like they did with Margaret Thatcher and her handbag.

The papers have been full of Iron Lady comparisons, but it is just silly to compare every Conservative woman in politics to her. Mrs Thatcher had some great qualities, but we are in a different era now.

This is 2016, not 1979; I know Theresa, who is one of the first “modernisers” in the Conservative Party and said it had to move with the times and reach out to people, to be more human. She is going to be a very good leader, and I hope she will be bringing more women into government – there are some really good women MPs coming through, and I enjoy working with them. 

We need to hear that message about humanity again after the referendum campaign, which was so full of abuse and misleading statements. We have had the senseless killing of Jo Cox. The political climate is ugly, for male politicians as well as female. Conspiracy theories and cynicism are widespread among the public. But the abuse aimed at women has a darker tone than just catty comments about our appearance or doubts about competence, and it has got to stop. It is too easy for people to hide behind their keyboards on social media.

I don’t think that we in politics should be a privileged class, but we do have a right to live our lives free from fears of violent attack or personal abuse. Our staff are affected by this too, and they are often the front line when people call our offices. What happens to us does have an impact on wider society. If we tolerate the sort of threats we see now, they will spread. We have fought so hard over decades to get to where we are now, and we must not allow our rights or our place in society to be pushed backwards.

Just as in the Women and Work APPG, which I co-chair, in Parliament there are women from all the parties working together to defend women’s rights in a variety of ways. Equality and feminism are not political issues – they matter to all of us.

"We are now living through a time when the vilification of our women MPs has moved on from irritation to violence" – Jess Phillips MP

I’m no fan of Theresa May, and I was even less of a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but calling either of them witches is nothing more than sexist, weak opposition which frankly shows a lack of argument. Alas it has become so very de rigueur.

The front of The Sun newspaper announced this week that the UK had a new Prime Minister with a picture of her shoes. At least it was her feet not her womb that was up for comment. Just imagine for a second that when David Cameron stepped in to number 10 someone had said, “Wow, look at his great black shoes, and I don’t know if you’ve heard but he has a low sperm count”. Women in politics, and pretty much everywhere, appear to be nothing more than clothes horses and baby machines. 

I’m known for being a fiery sort. It is a fair assessment. However, when I recently had cross words with Jeremy Corbyn’s head of press it was reported that I “screamed”. I didn’t scream, and I didn’t shriek, I just told him firmly what I thought. I can’t help but think that had I been a male politician, the word “scream” would never have been used.

So often we vilify or mollify our female politicians and I’m just not sure why it’s still going on. The Women and Work APPG has introduced me to some amazingly powerful women, including heads of unions, leaders of tech firms and big businesses. I have been the main breadwinner in my home for over five years and so was my mother for pretty much all of my life. It is not a revelation that we have lives beyond our wombs. In the words of Justin Trudeau, “It’s 2016!”

I do not expect special treatment and I do not expect Theresa May to get an easy ride, certainly no more so than David Cameron got. However, I am preparing myself for years of irritating comments on her being too shrill, too thin, too brittle, not warm enough: after all, she is a woman. I really hope that when she takes to the stage at her party conference she does not use her husband as a prop as so many wives have been used in the past.

While the vilification of Teresa May will be an irritation, in my party, Angela Eagle – a woman who has stepped up to lead – had a brick thrown through her office window. I note that Owen Smith, another possible candidate, has suffered no such action.

This is more than an irritation. I'm afraid we are now living through a time when the vilification of our women MPs has moved on from irritation to violence, which we seem to have forgotten was so recently fatal.

Images: Rex and Getty