Where are the women?

Women have played a bigger role in this election than any contest since 1987 - but we still have a long way to go.

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At election time, some things never change. Polling continues to cause alternate days of irrational hope and fear across party lines; The Sun maintains its immaculately tasteful political endorsements; while Nick Clegg clings on to a weakening sense of moral superiority.

But politics during this election has been radically rehabilitated, and it’s not the phenomenon of ever-more embarrassing political selfies we have to thank for this democratic shake up. Instead, the revitalising presence of prominent, authoritative women means 2015 is the first election (probably since 1987) in which women have truly been taken seriously.

Back in 1997, Labour was justly proud of the election of 101 female Labour MPs (of a parliamentary total of 120), partly thanks to its use of all-women shortlists. However, ‘Blair’s Babes’ not only suffered a rather patronising title: they were also visually absent from the leadership of the election campaign, reflected by the fact that only five of them made it into Blair’s 23-strong cabinet (a veritable mark of progress compared to the one woman in Hague’s first shadow cabinet). These women subsequently faced crippling disillusionment and sexism in Parliament, and later suffered considerable and unfair criticism.

Eighteen years on, and the prospect of women in public office seems far more optimistic. Not only would Labour and SNP successes mean a 25 per cent increase in female Parliamentary representation, but parties of all stripes are beginning to see women as serious political contenders. And while national media still favours coverage of the leaders’ wives over elected female representatives, the real visual presence of female politicians in this election has seen the likes of Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett becoming recognisable household names.

Meanwhile, many other women are helping to change the image of politics, through their very presence, including Kezia Dugdale as Deputy Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Caroline Lucas as the Green Party’s sole MP, and Ruth Davidson as Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Rachel Reeves’s pregnancy, while serving as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, has highlighted the criticism that mothers-to-be face, and the very real practical obstacles for working parents. Meanwhile, the overwhelming winners of the leaders’ debates were the female leaders, all of whom seemed to represent a different sort of politics, while demonstrating women are just as tough and as competent as their male counterparts. And, finally, while LBC’s all-women radio debate was predictably criticised by some, it’s a start in redressing the decades of all-male political debating.

In short, women’s increasing prominence in public life over the last few months has  shaken politics out of its grey-suited monotony, reminding us that real political change does not just sound different: it looks strikingly different too. And just as importantly, many of these women buck the political trend, in coming from ‘unconventional’ backgrounds (i.e. not elite schools, universities and professional political careers). Judge for yourselves the correlation between many of these female leaders and their popularity, often capturing that quality all politicians pine for: (seeming) normality.

Aside from changing the image of UK politics, making public service an attractive option for a new generation of women and men, the redressing of the UK’s abysmal record on female representation matters for reasons which are often taken for granted. Firstly, it’s an important aim in and of itself: a representative democracy which represents 50 per cent of its population with a Commons chamber where 77 per cent of MPs are male is hardly reflective of reality. Secondly, we know that while the phrase ‘women’s issues’ is just as fallible and patronising as ‘men’s issues’, women in politics are far more likely to care about important issues more likely to affect them, like reproductive rights, affordable childcare, the gendered allocation of capital, discriminatory taxation, and flexible working, all of which are currently underrepresented in Parliament. And finally, gendered stereotypes aside, political science research demonstrates that women often have a different style of governing, which often favours cooperation and consensus-building over aggression, offering real hope for reforming the UK’s outdated, confrontational political system, exemplified by the sexism prevalent in the chamber.

Unfortunately, despite these obvious benefits for all, this election’s strong female presence has been tempered by the implicit (and explicit) discrimination that women of the highest calibre continue to face in 2015. While Labour’s ‘pink bus’ received a barrage of criticism for its gendered colouring, tmedia medmedia reports seemed to be laughing less at its colour, and more at the idea of taking issues like sexual and domestic violence and affordable childcare seriously, and placing them on the political map alongside economic issues.

Meanwhile, right-wing media coverage attempts to patronise and diminish the very real threat of an intelligent, assertive woman in public life. Indeed, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s undoubted popularity, she has been patronised, demonised and sexualised in media reports. While Leanne Wood apparently had viewers ‘swooning’ during the election debates, the media has referred to Sturgeon as everything from ‘Lady Macbeth’ to a ‘Little Miss’, obsessing over her ‘makeover’ and ‘stilettos’, and even fantasising about her cleavage. This evidence suggests that alongside Britain’s disappointing position of 65th in the international league table of women’s representation, British society has a long way to go before it shows female political representatives the respect they deserve.

 

Any conclusion on this subject must acknowledge the UK’s similarly poor political record on representation across ethnicity, sexuality, disability and class. Indeed getting more women’s representation, and ensuring those women are scrutinised on the basis of politics and not appearance, marital status, or any other politically unimportant attribute, is one of many hurdles ahead.

On May 7, hitherto disappointing progress in women’s representation in the House of Commons (where the number of female MPs has increased by only four per cent since 2000), could be reinvigorated with the election of talented young women like Rowenna Davis, Tulip Siddiq and Sarah Sackman. And let’s hope that after next week, UK politics will continue to be increasingly associated with strong, assertive women, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of image, in order to become the truly representative platform it should be. 

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