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21 July 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:22am

Why I’m going to scream if one more person denies that there is sexism on the left

With Labour about to elect a male leader for the 16th time, why do so many people reject the idea that left-wing politics can be sexist?

By Stephanie Boland

Another Labour leadership election, another male leader guaranteed. It’s starting to get embarrassing, isn’t it? 2016, and no woman has ever been elected to the post. That’s not a popular thing to point out. I should know: I’ve been pointing it out for a year, now.

Let’s go back and look at the ballot a year ago. Fine, Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership because he was the socialist candidate. Presumably Andy Burnham beat Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall for perfectly legitimate reasons, too. But what about the other slates that were voted on? Why did Tom Watson beat Stella Creasy among the same electorate? Why did Diane Abbott do so badly? Why has no woman ever placed above a man in any Labour leadership election? There are probably reasons for those, as well.

Because there is always a reason, isn’t there? She was always less media-trained, or too loud, or didn’t have good enough policies (as if members of the public are in the habit of trawling through policy briefs). There was always something a bit unlikable about her. Abbott just isn’t as good a communicator as Corbyn, is she? Too loud? Too stupid? (That daughter of working-class, immigrant parents who found her way to Cambridge in the 1970s). Or maybe she just doesn’t dress right?

Dress is an important thing for women in the public eye. A couple of weeks ago, I posed a challenge to Twitter, asking its users to imagine a female Jeremy Corbyn, and what she’d have to do to be taken as seriously as the Labour leader among the members who secured him such a comprehensive victory. What she would have to wear, and how she would have to speak; what her personal life would have to look like. Imagine a woman telling her team it’s not her job to attack the Tories, or being photographed holding some giant melons.

Leaving aside the chorus of men who responded saying Corbyn isn’t taken seriously – none of them, apparently, stopping to consider the fact he’s taken seriously enough to be leader of the Labour party – plenty of left-wing women, even ardent Corbynistas, agreed.

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True, the press has made much of Corbyn’s dress sense, his eccentricities, his multiple marriages and record in politics. But he is still, crucially, heard by the membership. No elderly socialist woman, with shabby clothes and several husbands behind her, would be listened to this way.

As a society, we’re still not very good at listening to women. A research collaboration between Brigham Young University and Princeton found that men in meetings dominate conversation to the tune of 75 per cent. One study at Sheffield even suggested men and women’s voices affect the male brain differently.

Women are, literally, more seen than heard. A woman’s appearance acts as a signal in ways that a man’s appearance does not. If they have bad hair – seriously; does anyone have worse hair than male politicians? or silly shoes, it gets splashed in the press.

None of this magically goes away just because the people involved are self-identified progressives. “The Tories,” men keep pointing out to me, “treat women worse” (two Prime Ministers aside). To which I say: yes. But isn’t the whole point that we’re not them?

If I was being cynical, I’d say that the left’s misogyny problem is rather like its anti-semitism problem, in that if you think of yourself as the forward-thinking good guys, it’s easy to miss your regressive blind spots.

But that doesn’t explain why otherwise intelligent, kind, thoughtful men will tie themselves in knots to find any explanation other than sexism for obvious inequality. Maybe they themselves are, genuinely, unbiased in how they view different candidates, and upset to think that it doesn’t work how they’d like it to. They want us to be at Stage 5 of eradicating misogyny, the one where politics is a level playing field, and so they try to skip Stages 2-4 in a rush to occupy an equal world as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, their female colleagues are still living in Stage 2, getting catcalled on the way to work. That sort of gulf in worldview is a problem, but not malicious.

Or maybe there’s something darker, too. There is a lot of anger at women in politics simmering not very far beneath the surface. The Labour MP for North West Durham Pat Glass decided not to stand as an MP again after receiving death threats. The former leadership contender Angela Eagle’s office window was smashed. Jess Phillips MP submitted 96 pages’ worth of abuse to an internal party investigation. Search Twitter for the name of any prominent female politician and the word “bitch” and you see the day-to-day texture of this anger: its relentlessness, its unthinkingness, the way it can bubble up at the smallest provocation.

We need to stop pretending nothing is going on. Yes, it is possible you could flip a coin 17 times and come up with a penis for 15 of them, but it’s unlikely. At a certain point, the most reasonable explanation for women being beaten, again and again, by equally mediocre men, while getting abused for trying in the first place, is a culture of misogyny. And if I feel like I’m going mad whenever I talk about his, I can’t imagine how the women in Parliament must feel.

We already, correctly, hold the left to higher standards than we do the right. It’s time we held ourselves to this one, too.

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