A very British sexism

Last week I inadvertently caught the beginning of Question Time, a long-running weekly political panel show which I have loathed and detested for many years. As luck would have it, I switched on at the very moment when its smug host David Dimbleby called on an audience member to ask the first question. Which was: ‘do we need a bloody difficult woman to negotiate Brexit?’ The studio audience applauded (they always do, and I have no idea why), while I reached, simultaneously, for the TV remote and the sickbag.

‘A bloody difficult woman’ was originally a comment made by the veteran Tory politician Kenneth Clarke about the present Prime Minister Theresa May. He came out with it (during what he wrongly assumed to be a private, off-mic conversation) during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, in which May was one of several candidates; and he clearly didn’t mean it as a positive assessment. But like Donald Trump’s rather similar description of Hillary Clinton–‘such a nasty woman’–it quickly took on a new life as an empowering feminist slogan. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter, started appearing on badges and T-shirts, and was hymned on the Telegraph’s women’s page as ‘the ultimate compliment’.

The same paper offered a handy guide to the various subtypes of ‘BDW’, personified by women like the (late) TV dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse and the (fictional) Dowager Countess of Downton. Jan Moir in the Mail added Anne Robinson and Miss Piggy to the list. Moir also argued that Clarke’s insult was really a compliment. When a man calls a woman ‘difficult’, she mused,

that’s a tacit acknowledgement of [her] power. It means: ‘I can’t control her.’ It means: ‘She won’t do what I tell her to do.’ It means: ‘To be honest, I am a little bit scared of her’.

While I don’t agree with Moir that women should be flattered by this reaction, I do think her observation points to an uncomfortable truth which many mainstream discussions of sexism gloss over. Those discussions often define the problem women face as getting people (especially men) to ‘take them seriously’. Just this week, for instance, Girlguiding UK released some research which showed that girls and young women are very aware of the sexist treatment of female politicians, and it’s putting them off engaging in politics. News reports quoted 16-year old Emma Taggart, who complained about the excessive attention paid by the media to women’s bodies and their clothes: as she said,

Focusing on a politician’s appearance instead of what she has to say sends the message that even women in the most powerful roles in the country aren’t taken seriously.

The same point was made by another women’s organisation, Fawcett, in its 2015 ‘Views not shoes’ campaign against sexist election coverage. But while it isn’t wrong as far as it goes, I find this analysis superficial. The problem isn’t that we as a culture don’t take powerful women seriously. How seriously we take them may be inferred from the lengths we are willing to go to to demonise and undermine them. The real problem is not denial, but resentment of female authority–a resentment which no woman should take as a compliment, since what is ultimately behind it is misogyny.

Trivialising women with comments on their shoes or reducing them to the status of sexual objects (as in the Mail’s now-infamous ‘Legs-it’ photo), legs-for-commentsis only one expression of this resentment, one strategy for putting women (back) in their place. Calling them ‘bloody difficult’ or ‘nasty’ is another. But these codes are relatively simple and transparent. What I want to talk about is another, more insidious code, which is also pervasive in the British media.

The reason for talking about this, of course, is that we’re currently in the middle of another General Election campaign, unexpectedly announced last month by Theresa May. This ‘snap’ election has been widely interpreted as a Brexit version of Churchill’s ‘give us the tools and we will finish the job’–it’s a post-referendum referendum on May’s leadership. But when she first announced it, surprising her party colleagues, it wasn’t Churchill she put them in mind of.  Rather, the Sunday Times reported that ‘Tory MPs…have taken to referring to their leader as “Mummy” in their text exchanges’.

Actually, they’d called her that before: ‘Mummy’ also turned up in Tory tweets during last suheel boysmmer’s battle for the party leadership. GQ helpfully suggested that May was ‘nasty mummy’ to her younger rival Andrea Leadsom’s ‘nice mummy’.  And of course, nasty mummy won; we all know those Tory boys love a bit of discipline. When May became Prime Minister, the front page of the Sun depicted her stiletto heeled foot (she actually favours kitten heels, but why ruin a good dominatrix reference?) coming down on the heads of her hapless male subordinates. The headline, inevitably, was ‘Heel, boys’.

What was the Sun trying to say, though? It’s a Tory paper, it supported the side that won the referendum, and the text on the page implied approval of the party’s choice—’Maggie’ May was another Thatcher, she was going to re-unite the country and deliver Brexit to the people. But the subtext, if something so in-your-face can be called a subtext, was sending another message entirely. Give a woman the whip hand (geddit?) and she’ll treat you like dogs.

This isn’t just about Theresa May, and it isn’t just about the Tories. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed the press coverage of the 2015 General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech, we noticed a pattern in the way authoritative women were described. Here are a few examples: the first two are about Julie Etchingham, the news presenter who moderated the first TV election debate, and the rest are about Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party.

  1. Our Julie was also in a white jacket that gave her the air of an imperious dental nurse.
  2. This headmistress was not taking any nonsense from the naughty boys and girls at the back of the class.
  3. But the Aussie [Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party] backed the head girl Nicola when she took on the Prime Minister, saying: “I agree with Nicola.”
  4. She was very much like a primary school teacher, bobbing her head up and down, using her hands a lot.
  5. She ticked off Nigel Farage like a hospital matron who has found something nasty in the ward.

The women being described here had featured prominently in a debate watched by millions; one of them also had a day job running a small country. And what did the pundits compare them to? Head girls, primary school teachers, headmistresses, nurses, Matron. This is how female authority is made intelligible: through allusions to a set of archetypal roles in which women have traditionally exercised power–prototypically over children, or over adults infantilised by illness. There was no pattern of analogous references to men: their authority in the political sphere is taken for granted, and does not call for comment or explanation.

In the press reports I’ve quoted, the cultural references writers draw on in their comparisons are noticeably British (and evidently aimed at Britons of a certain age): Malory Towers, St Trinians, Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films. 8615-3006We’d only need to add Nanny, Bertie Wooster’s aunt Agatha and the Dowager Countess of Downton and we’d have the full set of Thoroughly British Battleaxes. These women’s authority is both a joke and a threat (or perhaps I should say, it’s made into a joke to defuse the threat): they’re bossy boots, petty tyrants, and in popular culture often grotesque—ageing, physically unattractive and either sexless or pathologically oversexed ‘man-eaters’.

Another common figure in this gallery of female grotesques is the man in drag, as exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet. Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppetThe running gag on Spitting Image was all about emasculation: Thatcher’s male Cabinet colleagues were portrayed not just as ‘a little bit scared of her’, but as terrified, spineless wimps. One sketch had her ordering a steak, and replying to the waitress’s query ‘what about the vegetables?’ with ‘oh, they’ll have the same as me’.

As this joke demonstrates, resentment of female authority is a weapon that can also be used against men. Whereas authority in women is unnatural and repulsive, in men it is normal and desirable: the unnatural man is the one who lacks authority, or worse, who submits to the authority of a woman. He is ‘henpecked’ or ‘pussy whipped’, allowing the  woman to ‘wear the trousers’. During the 2015 General Election campaign this unnatural role-reversal became a recurring theme in right-wing press commentary on Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon (in case anyone’s forgotten, in the latter stages the Tories leant heavily on the idea that if English people voted Labour they would end up being governed by the SNP). georgeEd and Nicola were compared to George and Mildred, the characters in a 1970s sitcom about an overbearing nagging wife (another of British popular culture’s oversexed grotesques) and her long-suffering henpecked husband.

Then there was this little fable, composed by Matthew Parris for the Times after watching the second TV debate:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coocooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket [Sturgeon] coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie [Miliband] who was being coy.

The Sun, as ever, was briefer and blunter:

Nicola Sturgeon may wear high heels and a skirt, but the eerie silence from noisy ex-leader Alex Salmond proves she eats her partners alive.

All women who aspire to hold positions of power have to negotiate this representation of female authority as unnatural and emasculating (if not actually homicidal). And often, they find themselves trapped in a double bind. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was damned both for not being enough of a woman and for being too much of one: while Spitting Image was portraying her as a man in drag, the Guardian was accusing her of ‘deliberately exploiting her gender as a weapon’. The writer seems not to have noticed that Thatcher’s gender was already a weapon—primarily one which others could use against her. Understanding this as a fact of life, she did not so much ‘exploit her gender’ as look for ways to turn men’s sexism to her own advantage.

According to her long-time ally Lord (Charles) Powell, one of the strategies she developed enabled her to get her own way in most arguments with her Cabinet colleagues: she would simply stand her ground until they backed down. ‘She knew’, explained Powell, that

private-school-educated British men weren’t brought up to argue with women. Only one or two of [the men in her cabinet] could stand up to that sort of treatment, or if they came from the same background as her… but most of the others got uncomfortable.

British ruling-class men of Thatcher’s generation had been formed by their experiences in an all-male world of public schools and single-sex Oxbridge colleges; as adults, their professional and political networks largely excluded women, except as helpmeets (wives and secretaries). In this milieu, the authority of women (personified by mummy, nanny and Matron) was something you had to put up with as a child, but you knew from an early age that when you grew up it would cease to be relevant. Since women were not your equals, or your rivals, you could afford to treat them with the pretend respect known to the upper classes as chivalry, or being a ‘gentleman’. This class-specific form of sexism was what Thatcher learned to manipulate. (Left-wing women confront a different set of challenges, but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Conservative women like Thatcher can also exploit the fact that authority itself is positively valued on the political right. As much as he or she may resent being bossed by a woman, your average Tory will take a strong female leader over a weak and ineffectual male one. If she passes their political virility test by being tough enough on their hot-button issues (war, national security, crime and immigration), conservatives may be willing to elevate her to the quasi-mythical status of the ‘Iron Lady’.

Despite her record as a hardliner on at least three of the issues mentioned above, Theresa May has not been given the ‘Iron Lady’ title. But it’s no accident that she and her supporters have spent the last two weeks talking incessantly about her ‘strong and stable leadership’. This is simultaneously a dig at her opponent Jeremy Corbyn (who is by implication weak and chaotic), and a message to anyone who might harbour doubts about a woman leader’s strength, determination or resilience. Like Thatcher before her, May is willing to embrace sexist stereotypes, but selectively, to suit her purpose. What she seems to be trying to project in this campaign is a combination of Mummy’s ruthless protectiveness (she’ll give no quarter when it comes to standing up for her British brood) and the stubborn persistence of the ‘bloody difficult woman’.

By now, though, you’re probably wondering what my point is: am I defending women like May and Thatcher? Am I suggesting British feminists should vote Conservative in June? The answer to that last question is no, absolutely not: I certainly won’t be voting for May’s clueless and inflexible leadership myself. To the first question, however, the answer is slightly more complicated. I’m not defending these women’s politics, but I am defending women politicians, and indeed women in general, against attacks which are rooted in misogyny.

No matter how much we despise the women being targeted, feminists shouldn’t applaud when they’re belittled and mocked using the code I’ve described in this post. We shouldn’t join in with the chorus of ‘bloody difficult woman’, ‘time for mummy’, ‘heel, boys’, and we shouldn’t pretend these jibes are really backhanded compliments. As I’ve said, what they express is resentment–and it’s not a specific resentment of right wing women, it’s a more general resentment (seen in varying forms across the political spectrum) of any woman who, as Rebecca West famously put it, ‘does or says anything that distinguishes her from a doormat’. We urgently need other ways of thinking and talking about women in authority: this one is toxic, and it damages us all.

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