You would be forgiven for tossing your copy of the Mail on Sunday in the bin yesterday morning (24 April). The tabloid carried an article so crass that it almost beggars belief the piece made it past newspaper editors. Conservative Party sources had accused Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, of being so intimidated by the Prime Minister’s “Oxford Union debating training” that she used her body to distract him in parliament. An accompanying picture of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct gave readers the proverbial wink.
The response was unequivocal horror at such a crude debasement of a senior female politician. On social media, many women not only expressed their outrage but also shared stories of being on the receiving end of that all-too-familiar sniggering schoolboy sexism at work. Responding to the article, Rayner rose above the slime. “Women in politics face sexism and misogyny every day – and I’m no different,” she tweeted. Boris Johnson “and his cheerleaders clearly have a big problem with women in public life. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
However, the Mail on Sunday’s ugly coverage did do something constructive: it gave everyone a reason to remember that, in 2022, sexism still undermines women at every turn. To live as a woman is to navigate humiliation. As women make their way through life – even if, like Rayner, they have a seat at the decision-making table – they are often reminded that they are seen as women first and always, and as hysterical and sexual objects of ridicule.
This has material implications that weigh on women. Women know when they are being seen as less than, when their words are taken less seriously, when their ideas are seen as less clever. They notice that it is still men, not women, who get to call the shots. They sense it, sometimes, as if a rug has been pulled out from under them; that a man you are speaking to cannot get past the fact that you are a woman – to your detriment. Many women have even more to navigate than gender. They have to deal with being seen as “even less than” because of the colour of their skin, or because, like Rayner, they are from a working class background.
Even women who have reached the absolute pinnacle of their career are not immune. This was proved last year when Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, was left humiliated without anywhere to sit at a meeting with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the EU Council president Charles Michel. Not even two weeks ago there was a similar moment of collective epiphany when Kenny Shiels, the manager of Northern Ireland’s women’s football team, said the reason that female footballers concede several goals in succession is that “women are more emotional than men”. Yet again it was a man unintentionally cracking society’s façade of gender equality to reveal the same tired stereotypes that lie underneath. From sport to politics, professional women are not taken seriously.
It is increasingly clear that we live in a culture in which it is often permissible to harass and intimidate women. On the same day as the Mail on Sunday article, there was a story that three Conservative cabinet members, out of a total of 56 MPs, have been reported to a parliamentary watchdog for sexual misconduct. And on Monday morning (26 April), the BBC reported that recent cases of sexual offences are taking the longest time on record to make it through the courts.
I recently turned 40, making me two years younger than Rayner. If anyone had told a younger me that women would still have to think about these things in 2022, I would have been thoroughly depressed. I don’t know how much things will change for women by the time Rayner and I are in our eighties, but every time we get another glimpse of the attitudes that continue to lie beneath, it is another crack in the edifice, and we will hopefully be one step closer to the collapse of misogyny.