Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st-century context. As the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, attends the Labour Party conference with a bodyguard, freelance journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan argues that this is just another example of misogyny at work.
Today’s sexism news is brought to you by Laura Kuenssberg’s bodyguard, who is apparently now necessary for her to report the news. Kuenssberg became the BBC’s political editor in 2015, and since then has faced incessant abusive comments and death threats as she reports on Westminster. In the last couple of days, the press identified a man who accompanied Kuenssberg to the Labour Party conference as a BBC security guard.
As a woman journalist who sporadically occupies a public platform and often writes about politics, I find it somewhat aggravating to see this story being used as an opportunity to bash the Labour Party. In a better world, it would be a catalyst to debate the hair-raising amount of abuse levelled at all women who have the audacity to appear in public life. Indeed, Kuenssberg was actually reported to have had a bodyguard during the general election campaign earlier this year; it is only now being reported upon to imply that there is something about this conference that is uniquely threatening.
There isn’t: for women who dare to speak out, it is society that is threatening.
There is no causal link between having leftwing politics and being abusive, and it’s insulting to prominent leftwing women who suffer abuse to imply sexism only travels in one direction. Labour MP Diane Abbott was subjected to a “relentless campaign of abuse” in the run-up to the general election. Given her position as one of the most prominent socialist politicians in the country, it is highly unlikely that much of this abuse was coming from the left.
Amnesty International, who conducted the research into the abuse faced by Abbott, also noted that, “Black and Asian female MPs received 35% more abusive tweets than their white colleagues.” The problem is racism, too.
Kuenssberg’s detractors point to her supposed bias against Jeremy Corbyn as justification for their anger.
I’ve supported Corbyn since he first became Labour leader, so I have a lot of sympathy with their position. I think some of Kuenssberg’s coverage has been prejudiced, and she should be held to account for it.
But it is also true that her work is not that different from that of her predecessor, Nick Robinson, who was actually a Conservative during his time at Cambridge University. Robinson, despite being much more candid about his past biases than Kuenssberg, has never received the same level of intensely personalised vitriol as she has. There is something more going on here than just politics.
This is a kind of insidious sexism that cuts across the political spectrum. It's extremely difficult to identify because it is so understated, and will have been experienced by every woman with an opinion. In her book, Men Explain Things to Me, the writer Rebecca Solnit describes it like this: “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”
In other words, men are not only angry with women for having the ‘wrong’ opinions, but for daring to speak at all. This sexist anger is the driving force that transforms legitimate political grievances into ferocious personal vendettas.
This is a kind of insidious sexism that cuts across the political spectrum. It's extremely difficult to identify because it is so understated, and will have been experienced by every woman with an opinion. In her book Men Explain Things to Me, the writer Rebecca Solnit describes it like this: “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”
In other words, men are not angry with women for having the wrong opinions, but for daring to speak at all. This sexist anger is the driving force that transforms legitimate political grievances into ferocious personal vendettas.
I experience it myself. I am sorry to say that, in the run up to the June general election when I was vocally supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, the level of online abuse I received was so unrelenting that some Twitter users coined a term: “O’Hagan’s Law”. This decreed that whenever I would tweet, dozens of furious middle-aged men would lose their minds over it.
And because I took the view that Corbyn was someone worth voting for – an unpopular one in the media, even now – the abuse I got didn’t just come from anonymous angry people, but from established journalists. I lost count of the amount of times I was described as a “silly little girl”. It went further than simple ideological disagreements: it felt like there was something about me personally that was deeply offensive to these people.
The answer to this problem is not to a mode of debate where everyone’s opinions are seen as equally valid. The truth is that some people have dangerous beliefs, and putting them into practice can lead to oppression and violence.
But we can never use sexism as a tool to build a better world. Only the eradication of bigotry in all its forms can do that.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Times, Washington Post, Vice and others. She tweets as @MissEllieMae.
Images: Rex Features