Tedious tropes: the sexist stereotyping of female politicians

I don’t often find myself agreeing with the Conservative politician Amber Rudd, but this weekend she expressed a sentiment I agreed with 100%. Responding to a Spectator article in which Melanie McDonagh attacked the ‘relentless head-of-school self-righteousness’ of Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader who lost her seat in last week’s General Election, Rudd tweeted:

Can we stop criticising every senior female politician for being “head of school”, “headmistressy” or “like a school teacher”?

I’ve been complaining about this very thing since 2016, when Sylvia Shaw and I analysed press coverage of the 2015 General Election for a book we were writing about gender and political speech. We were struck by the frequency with which female politicians were compared either to head girls, headmistresses and school teachers, or else to nannies, nurses and ‘Matron’. There were other variations: Nicola Sturgeon was also compared to a dominatrix and a man-eating spider. But the headmistress/teacher/head girl comparisons were the ones that recurred most frequently. No one, by contrast, compared David Cameron to a supercilious prefect or Ed Miliband to a geography teacher.

heel boysLater in 2016, after the EU referendum result led to Cameron’s resignation, the competition to succeed him brought us more of the same clichés. The two female contenders, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, were both referred to as ‘Mummy’; when she won, May was depicted in the Sun as a dominatrix in spike heels. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton, the first ever female candidate for the US presidency, was disparaged for sounding like a bossy schoolmarm.

These clichés are deeply embedded in our collective imagination. Back in the 1980s. the management theorist Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggested that women who play public roles tend to be assigned to one of four archetypal categories (Kanter called these ‘role traps’): they can be Mothers, Seductresses, Pets or Battleaxes. These archetypes reflect the roles and settings in which women have historically wielded power–either in the home, and institutions like schools and hospitals which originated as extensions of it (the Mother),  in sexual relationships with men (the Seductress) or, occasionally, in quasi-masculine roles like ‘ruler’ or ‘warrior’ (the Battleaxe). The teacher or headmistress is a variant of the Mother: she is ‘routinely described as schoolmarmy, bossy, frumpy or mumsy’. And as Amber Rudd says, this is probably the commonest role-trap for women in politics. They can also, of course, be Battleaxes (like Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’), but even the most powerful female leaders are always liable to be put in the ‘Mother’ box. (Angela Merkel’s nickname, for instance, is ‘Mutti’.)

In an era when these archetypes no longer reflect the real-world limits on what women can do or be, their persistence as ‘natural’ reference-points for female authority in general is both frustrating and depressing. Whatever position a woman speaks from–she might be a CEO, a bishop, a Chief Constable, the First Minister of Scotland or the US Secretary of State–what we hear is apparently still the voice of Mummy or Teacher, lecturing and scolding us as if we were naughty children.

8615-3006Not only do these comparisons belittle the women concerned, making their authority seem trivial and petty, they also tap into a deep vein of resentment towards ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (the fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole’s nickname for his wife). Older versions of the Mother, like Matron and the headmistress, are frequently caricatured as unnatural or monstrous, women whose need to dominate others reflects their sexual frustration and lack of feminine charm. Comparing a politician to one of these figures is thus a double put-down, implying that she is neither a proper leader nor a proper woman. It’s a way of reminding her that real power belongs to men: women who try to claim it are either ridiculous or repulsive.

Though the ‘mummy/teacher/Matron’ comparisons are wheeled out regularly by journalists of both sexes, in the sample Sylvia Shaw and I analysed it was noticeable that many of the most hostile examples were produced by right-wing female columnists. Melanie McDonagh, the author of the piece about Jo Swinson, was one of these; other repeat offenders were Sarah Vine in the Mail and Allison Pearson in the Telegraph. In Kanter’s terms, these women are ‘Pets’: they’re rewarded for acting as mouthpieces for the prejudices of the men who control the Tory press. Their editors know that if a man described Nicola Sturgeon as a power-crazed Lady Macbeth with a haircut like a Tunnock’s Teacake (I take this childish insult directly from a 2015 column by Allison Pearson), he’d just come across as a crude chauvinist bully. So the task of trashing women gets delegated to the ladies, producing a steady stream of female-authored ‘why I can’t stand [insert name of female politician]’ pieces.

But the journalists who occupy this niche may soon face a new challenge. In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he plans to step down, the Labour Party is gearing up for a leadership contest in which it looks likely that most of the contenders will be female. So far, those who have been identified as potential successors to Corbyn include Yvette Cooper, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry—so far, along with one man, Keir Starmer. It will surely be difficult for the usual suspects in the media to write their usual ‘why I can’t stand X’ pieces about five different candidates without making it obvious that what they really mean is ‘I can’t stand women’. Which raises the question: in a contest as female-dominated as this one looks set to be, will sex–and therefore sexism–cease to be an issue?

Over in the US, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has prompted feminists to ask the same question. Whereas in 2016 the field included only one woman, Hillary Clinton, the 2020 campaign started with half a dozen. As Rebecca Traister wrote recently, this initially looked like a game-changer:

If there were six different women running for the country’s highest office, it would be far harder to caricature them in all the ways that ambitious women get caricatured: as mean, angry, crazy, elitist, lightweight, and dissembling.

But in practice it has turned out (as anyone familiar with Kanter’s role-traps might have predicted) that you can caricature six women almost as easily as one: all you have to do is put different women into different boxes. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is a battleaxe, elitist and angry (but not crazy or a lightweight); Marianne Williamson was lightweight/crazy but not angry. So although the criticisms are specific to each candidate, they all end up dealing with the same general problem: the perception that, in the words of a poll Traister cites, ‘most of the women who run for president just aren’t that likable’.

This statement, which a large number of respondents agreed with, suggests that women’s ‘unlikability’ has very little to do with their qualities as individuals. If the judgment were being made on a single woman you might well think it reflected her own shortcomings, but as the number of women increases that begins to seem less and less plausible. What are the chances that you’d have six women in the same race who all just happened to be inherently unlikable?

What the judgment really reflects, we might suspect, is the phenomenon which psychologists call the ‘likability–competence dilemma’. A number of experimental studies have found that if a woman is judged to be highly competent, she will also be judged less likable than either similarly competent men or less competent women. (For men there is no such trade-off.)  So, the very fact that a woman is running for the presidency (which implies a strong claim to competence, as well as overt ambition) will make her, in many people’s eyes, unlikable. The more qualified and confident she appears, the less likable people will judge her.

This prejudice is a particular problem for women in politics, because in modern times, as the historian Claire Potter explains, likability has become closely linked to electability.  Even some progressive Democrats who are keen to support Elizabeth Warren in 2020 have wondered whether, in a campaign where the absolute priority is defeating Trump, it would make more sense, strategically, to get behind Joe Biden. He may be less appealing in other ways, but at least his sex won’t stop people voting for him.

But the unwillingness of the average citizen to vote for a woman may have been overstated. Last month the political scientists Mary McGrath and Sara Saltzer wrote a piece for the LA Times about an experiment they had conducted. They recruited two groups of subjects—one constructed to be demographically representative of the US, the other constructed to have a 50:50 balance between men and women and between registered Democrats and Republicans—and presented them with a series of choices between two political candidates. The candidates differed in age, education, gender and political views: the subjects were not told that gender was the variable being investigated. And when the votes were counted, it turned out that the female candidates had done better than the male ones. This preference was seen among subjects in all subgroups: men as well as women, and Republicans as well as Democrats. But it wasn’t the result of a direct pro-female bias: the most important factor influencing subjects’ decisions was how well a candidate’s policies matched their own political beliefs. Noting that other recent studies have produced similar results, McGrath and Saltzer comment:

a growing body of evidence shows voter preferences are not a major reason for the persistently low rates of women in elected office.

But in that case, what does explain the continuing over-representation of men? McGrath and Saltzer think the answer may be what some researchers have dubbed ‘sexism by proxy’, a tendency they illustrate using the findings of a poll conducted last summer. Respondents were asked first whether they personally would feel comfortable with a woman as president, and then whether they thought their neighbours would feel comfortable with a woman as president. Three quarters of the respondents answered yes to the first question, but only a third answered yes to the second. The conclusion McGrath and Saltzer draw is that

The biggest obstacle to putting women in office may not be that voters are afraid of female candidates, but that people have convinced themselves others are afraid.

The US presidency is something of a special case: in Britain I don’t think you’d find a quarter of the respondents in a poll expressing discomfort with the idea of a female prime minister. We’ve had two of them, and while one (Theresa May) did not impress, the other (Margaret Thatcher) is still widely regarded as a great leader: even people who found her loathsome (myself included) would be hard-pressed to make the case that she wasn’t up to the job.

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But although we no longer question women’s basic eligibility for the highest political office, our continuing ambivalence about female authority remains visible in the language that is routinely used, especially in the media, about the women we have elected to positions of power. It’s there in the belittling comparisons with nannies and schoolmarms, in the covertly gendered code-words (‘shrill’, ‘strident‘, ‘self-righteous’), in the popularity of innuendo-laden headlines and cartoons like the one shown above.

Since these tired old tropes are, to use a phrase beloved of Boris Johnson, ‘oven-ready’–a journalist on a deadline can just reach for them on autopilot–we may well see them being trotted out again once the Labour leadership contest gets going. Perhaps Emily Thornberry will be described as ‘headmistressy’ and Yvette Cooper will be the eager ‘head girl’; Jess Phillips might fill the ‘angry battleaxe’ slot while Rebecca Long-Bailey, said to be Corbyn’s preferred candidate, will be the ‘pet’. These descriptions don’t have to be accurate, or even especially apt, to stick. They just have to be repeated often enough.

The constant repetition of sexist stereotypes may not be up there with rape and death-threats as a deterrent to women’s participation in politics, but it undoubtedly constrains their freedom to participate on equal terms with men. In addition to actually doing their jobs, women must try to pre-empt the predictable criticism and mockery by engaging in continuous self-surveillance (‘is this outfit too mumsy? Do I sound like a bossy schoolmarm?’) We shouldn’t underestimate the energy-sapping effect of this–nor the emotional impact of being trashed in the media. People may say it ‘comes with the territory’–‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’–but some things only come with the territory for women.

So, for once I am happy to add my voice to Amber Rudd’s. Can we stop criticising female politicians in ways we don’t criticise male ones? Can we find ways of thinking and talking about female authority that bear some relation to the realities of the 21st century? And can we please consign the ‘why I as a woman can’t stand this other woman’ genre of political commentary to the toxic waste-dump of history?