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1 September 2016

Women’s fears aren’t taken seriously – why on earth would MPs try to use them as smears?

If their real goal was to bring down Jeremy Corbyn, female MPs would pick better ammo than sexist abuse.

By Stephanie Boland

Imagine: a female politician is at home. It’s morning; pale light filters through the curtains. The sounds of a city waking up cars, a commuter talking on his mobile phone – filter up from beneath her window. She sighs. The Victoria Line will probably be as packed as ever.

The politician yawns; she stretches. She gets up and pours a black coffee. “How will I bring down a man today?”, she thinks. There are lots of men in the world, and many of them are unacceptably powerful. As a woman in politics, it is her task to change this. She inhales the bitter scent of her coffee, rifles through a mental rolodex. Ah. Yes. Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s the target.

“What should I use to smear this man?”, muses our heroine. “How can I make people hate him? What sort of thing is so important that no one, but no one, could ignore it?”

Stop scene.

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Of course, this isn’t what women do in the morning. But even if it was, would anyone really believe the tactic our coffee-swilling antiheroine would go for – the thing she’d use to make sure nobody could respect her target again – is an allegation that he doesn’t treat women well?

Last night, Corbyn gave a speech expressing his support for women MPs and pledging, among other things, to run all women shortlists. But come this morning, women journalists questioned Corbyn’s commitment given the behaviour of his supporters which has so far run worryingly unchecked. Worse, this morning Richard Burgon – a Corbyn ally – posted a tweet framing the concerns of women in Labour as, at best, suspect.

This is ludicrous for a simple reason: Women’s fears aren’t taken seriously. Who would be stupid enough to try to smear a man with them?

Corbyn is apparently Teflon-coated when it comes to many things, but if female MPs were committed to smearing him, they’d pick something other than his shoddy feminist credentials: a nice expenses scandal, maybe, or an “I love Blair” poster tacked to the fridge (dusted daily, while D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” plays).

Obviously, I’m not a politician. But I know something about abuse. And what I know is this: it’s not worth bringing it up for any other reason than a need to say “this is real. It is happening.”

Claims of abuse are a familiar focus of moral paranoia. But men who live in fear of being smeared, of their careers being ruined, ought to appreciate how infrequently this happens; and how frequently, in comparison, women lose their jobs for speaking the truth about male harassment.

It is disturbing that prominent women are left open to abuse at the hands of irrelevant men, that the distribution of power among the sexes is such that not only do these women struggle to deal with their bullies, but their testimony is not believed.

I know: we’ve been over this before. I write about this topic again and again.

This is partially self-protective. If I, as a journalist, can change a few minds about how misogynist abuse in politics if regarded, maybe it will make women like me safer, too.

But I am still sick of it; so tired of talking about sexism when I’d prefer to be talking about the situation in the Baltics, or the novels of Djuna Barnes, or the history of documentary films.

Women journalists are accused of focussing on women’s issues a lot, just as women MPs are accused of ignoring their constituents in favour of banging on about online threats. This presumes that women do not have interests outside of their own womanhood; do not have things they’d prefer to talk about. I cannot imagine what you must think about women to believe this: to think female MPs would not rather be pursuing their briefs than changing the locks. 

Because this is also about work.

Women on average already have less free time than men. The knowledge that MPs with twenty-five years of Westminster experience are having their time taken  up dealing with threats, with mourning the loss of their colleague, with asking the leader of their Party to acknowledge their situation, makes me furious.

The waste of talent is almost as outrageous as the fear.