This week I’ve been thinking about two women politicians who have featured prominently in recent news stories. One is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-Right Rassemblement National, who faced Emmanuel Macron—and lost to him—in the second round of the Presidential election last Sunday. The other is Angela Rayner, the Deputy leader of Britain’s Labour Party, who became the subject of a story alleging that she was in the habit of deliberately crossing and uncrossing her legs (like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) to put Boris Johnson off his stride during their occasional encounters at the weekly Parliamentary ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions.
These were obviously different kinds of stories—one about a real and serious political event, the other a piece of media-confected froth—about two politicians who have little in common beyond their sex. But both tell us something about the situation of women in politics. Regardless of who she is and what she stands for, a female politician’s sex is (still) an issue in ways a man’s is not. She may be able to use this to her own advantage, or it may be used against her by her political opponents, but either way it will be an element of the discourse that she is in some way obliged to negotiate.
I don’t think Le Pen’s failure to become France’s first female President had much, if anything, to do with her femaleness. But I do think her campaign—the most successful of her career so far—showed her awareness of what it takes for a woman leader to be electable. It also underlined a paradox that has often been commented on–that this may actually be easier for women on the Right of the political spectrum. Though conservatives (with a small as well as a large C) have a general problem with female authority, centuries of patriarchy have produced a set of cultural archetypes through which it can be made acceptable—most notably the ‘Iron Lady’ and the fiercely protective Mother, personae which are more appealing to right-wing authoritarians than they are to feminists and other progressive types.
Le Pen seems to have made a conscious effort to exploit that appeal. Her campaign posters drew attention to her sex by calling her ‘Femme d’état’ (‘stateswoman’), and shortly before the final vote she declared to the voters of Saint-Rémy-sur-Avre (and more importantly, the French media) that she would ‘lead France like the mother of a family, with common sense [and] consistency’. In line with this pledge, her campaign had emphasised cost of living issues and their effect on ordinary families (something that also worked well for Margaret Thatcher, who was fond of comparing the UK economy to a household budget). Of course, Le Pen isn’t really an ordinary housewife and mother; the point is rather that as a woman of a certain age and social type she can plausibly adopt that persona when it suits her. Whereas ‘femme d’état’ invites direct comparison with Macron, ‘mère de famille’ lays claim to qualities he would never be suspected of possessing.
Superficial or cynical as all this may sound, opinion polls suggested it made some difference: many people found the 2022 Le Pen less aggressive and more ‘relatable’ than the 2017 version. Le Pen still didn’t win, but she showed how a female candidate can control the narrative around her femaleness by choosing her own gendered persona from the limited selection on offer and then performing it consistently. This is something women on the Left are often more reluctant to do, both because they believe their sex shouldn’t be an issue and because they’re uncomfortable with the traditional archetypes. But refusing to play the woman card carries the risk that your opponents and/or the media will do it for you, and that you won’t be able to control the results.
That’s essentially what happened to Angela Rayner when the Mail On Sunday (with the assistance and encouragement of Conservative politicians) chose to identify her with another familiar archetype of female power: the Seductress who uses her sexual allure to manipulate men and bend them to her will. Investigations have since suggested that Rayner herself may have been the original source for the Basic Instinct comparison: several witnesses claim she joked about flashing Boris Johnson in an informal exchange among smokers on the terrace of the House of Commons. But she presumably didn’t intend the joke to become a national news story. Once that happened she was forced onto the defensive, describing it as a ‘perverted, desperate smear’.
It did smack of desperation, not least because it wasn’t clear how Boris Johnson benefited from a story which implied that a woman crossing her legs in his vicinity rendered him instantly incapable of thinking about anything else. Didn’t that just reinforce the already widespread perception of him as both easily distracted and an incorrigible lecher? And did it not risk making Rayner look like the better politician, skilfully exploiting her opponent’s known weaknesses? Well, maybe, but then again no. When a woman is accused of using her sex for political, professional or financial advantage it is always a putdown—a re-statement of the ancient patriarchal principle that women are only good for one thing, and that they use that thing as a weapon because it’s the only kind of firepower they can muster. As one Tory MP told the Mail On Sunday:
She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks.
This snide comment targets Rayner’s class origins as well as her sex: it’s a thinly-veiled way of saying that girls who went to northern comprehensives (and in Rayner’s case left school at 16) can’t cope with the rhetorical demands of a high-profile role in the House of Commons, so they compensate by acting like the slags they are. A similar tactic was used by the right-wing press during the 2015 General Election campaign in an effort to undermine another female politician with working-class roots—the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In her case it would have been hard to argue that she couldn’t match the boys’ debating skills, since it was her impressive performance in the TV election debates that had got the Tories rattled; but their media pals still devoted considerable energy to portraying her, verbally and visually, as the archetypal Seductress, or her low-rent sister the Slag.
Ironically, the accusation ‘she uses her sex because it’s the only weapon she’s got’ is most often resorted to when it’s the only weapon the accuser’s got: faced with a female opponent who is as smart and as skilled as he is, he reaches for a crude sexist insult in the hope she will be humiliated (and depressingly, this tactic has a good chance of working, since there are few women for whom it doesn’t reopen old wounds or play on persistent insecurities). But it’s still remarkable that anyone can get away with deploying the ‘she doesn’t have his rhetorical skills’ argument about, of all people, Boris Johnson. Mail readers may have forgotten some of Johnson’s earlier triumphs of oratory—like the time he called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’—but how could anyone forget the much more recent occasion when he treated the UK’s business leaders to several minutes of waffle about Peppa Pig? It’s hard to imagine a less convincing advertisement for the benefits of an ‘Oxford Union debating training’, but (as so often in matters of language) prejudice apparently still trumps evidence.
The Mail on Sunday story was froth, but while we were all busy frothing about it, another story was blowing up. It had broadly the same theme—sexual (mis)behaviour in Parliament—but in this story the offenders were not women like Angela Rayner, but men like the Tory MP Neil Parish, who had been seen in the debating chamber watching porn on his phone. (He has since resigned, calling the incident ‘a moment of madness’.) The Tories, however, are not alone here. Currently, no fewer than 56 MPs (including representatives of all the main parties) are being investigated following complaints of sexual harassment. Assuming that all or nearly all of these alleged harassers are men, that’s roughly one in every eight male members. These numbers suggest a pervasive culture problem—both a specific problem with the institutional culture of Westminster and a more general problem with Britain’s political culture.
The Angela Rayner story is part of that problem. Though it wasn’t intended to distract us from the ongoing scandal of sexual harassment at Westminster (more likely it was meant to distract us from Partygate and other scandals involving Boris Johnson), what links it to the issue of harassment is the use of sexualised language and behaviour to put women (back) in their place. Whether this is done by harassing them or, as in Rayner’s case, by accusing them of distracting men, the message to women is clear: ‘don’t delude yourself that we think of you as equals: we haven’t forgotten—and won’t let you forget–that sex is what you are and what you’re for’.
It may not be a coincidence that this message has become more strident as the number of women at Westminster has increased. They now make up 35% of all MPs, which is just above the proportion some political theorists have defined as a ‘critical mass’, meaning that women are present in sufficient numbers to make a difference to the overall culture. What proponents of this theory envisaged was a positive cultural shift, but what we are seeing in this case looks more like a backlash: women are now a large enough minority to be seen by some men as a threat to their dominance. On the positive side, though, however, women are pushing back against unacceptable male behaviour. When forty of them met last week to discuss their concerns with the Chief Whip, reports described them as ‘on the brink of mutiny’. They expressed anger not only about the Rayner story and the porn-watching MP (who at the time had not yet been named), but also about the lower-level sexism they experienced on a daily basis: the gratuitous comments on their clothes and appearance, the sniggering from male colleagues when they spoke in debates, the whips who routinely referred to them as ‘girls’.
I find it interesting that Conservative women have been so vocal on this issue. Not all of them, of course: some of them are handmaids who can always be counted on to defend the indefensible, but others, including senior women like Caroline Nokes, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May, have been highly critical of the ‘laddish’ turn they feel the party has taken under Johnson. Maybe this is another situation where women of the Right have some advantages over their Leftist sisters. Conservative women don’t, on the whole, aspire to be ‘cool girls’, or to be seen as ‘one of the lads’; they feel no need to display their sex-positive credentials by being relaxed about pornography in the workplace. If a Guardian columnist calls them pearl-clutching prudes, it’s water off a duck’s back: the constituents who elected them don’t care what Owen Jones thinks.
Labour women, on the other hand—especially those who, like Angela Rayner, are seen as high-fliers and potential future leaders—do have to care, and arguably that makes it more complicated for them to address their own party’s lad culture problem. When the question of Rayner’s role in the creation of the Mail story surfaced, she explained the reports of her ‘laughing and joking’ by pointing out that women confronted with sexism often go along with it to save face, though in reality they’re mortified and disgusted. Many women (me included) will recognise this account of their behaviour–though if it’s true that Rayner joked about her ‘ginger growler’ that sounds more like actively engaging in laddish banter than just passively going along with it. But if you’re serious about challenging sexism, don’t you at some point have to say enough is enough, even if it makes you unpopular?
Women who worry about the consequences of challenging sexism are not wrong to fear the backlash, but they shouldn’t think appeasement will protect them either. No successful female politician of any party can entirely escape from sexism and misogyny, because the issue isn’t how she behaves, it’s simply that she’s a woman trespassing on what (some) men still consider their turf. Those men will always resent her, and will relieve their feelings by doing and saying things which are meant to remind her where she really belongs. That’s why cartoonists represented Theresa May as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix, and Marine Le Pen has been depicted as a streetwalker in fishnets taking money from Vladimir Putin. But at least the Le Pens of the world can cast themselves in other roles, like the matriarch or the resourceful housewife. I understand why women on the Left reject those female archetypes, but one of the lessons we could learn from this week’s events is that they urgently need to find alternatives.