Should we put up and shut-up to show resilience, or does talking about personal matters always create a better working environment for women in politics? These are perhaps the questions we should be asking.
The past month or so has been a significant period for women in world politics. First came the news that New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has resigned, and unless you’ve been walking around with your eyes closed and hands over your ears you will know that Nicola Sturgeon has also resigned after eight years as Scotland’s First Minister. What was evident in both their resignation speeches was the personal element to their resignation reasoning. Arden spoke of having nothing left in the tank, while also explaining she too is human and is affected by the pressures of the job. While Sturgeon bore very similar remarks in her speech which detailed the stress she endures and the brutality of modern politics. These observations are understandable and it would seem that most people would agree that running a country is a stressful job.
Nevertheless gender became a focus. Sturgeon this week stated that women in today’s politics face a more harsh and hostile environment, this comes off the back of two men recently being found guilty of sending her death threats. While Ardern points to the fact that as a mother and a partner she would like to spend more time with her family, and although these admissions could affect a man, it’s less likely a man would admit to this . What followed was multiple headlines and news articles such as, the top ten times Ardern has stood up to a sexist question. The most viral one being the journalist asking if Ardern and the Finnish prime minister were only meeting up because of “their age”, it was easy to read between the lines and figure out that age was really gender. Overall, a substantial amount of the press that surrounded the resignations of both Sturgeon and Ardern was concerning the fact that they’re both women.
Both of these leaders have in some way referred to the fact they’re women and the impact this has on their job. Some are questioning whether this tactic does indeed help the plight of women trying to find equality in the workplace, leadership roles and just society in general.
If we were to rewind the clock back to Thatcher’s days this would be unheard of. Although the list of Thatcher’s policy idiocies are miles long, she was one of the most effective British Prime Ministers (effective in the sense she enacted most of the policies she wanted, and had her “vegetables” in line, for the most part). The fact she was a women in power for some puts her as a feminist icon, the pinnacle of a women in leadership who never mentioned that she was a women. For her she was a politician who just happened to be a woman and wanted to be treated as such.
How do we judge a successful female leader in a feminist sense, should it be through their ability to act as a man and have no need to mention their gender? In that case Thatcher was highly successful and did indeed further the cause. Although I find it hard to say one positive thing about her, she never complained about her position as a women or how hard the job at hand was. Perhaps she was necessary for the time to really prove that a women could enter a leadership role without being “emotional” or “irrational”.
However, that’s one way of looking at it. Is symbolism enough to make her the pinnacle of what women in leadership should strive to be?
If Thatcher broke the glass ceiling in her field, she sure as hell wasn’t giving any other women a hammer to break theirs. In her time at government she only ever promoted one other woman to cabinet, as she felt there were no other women around her capable of doing the job. Thatcher didn’t look at any issues effecting women such as equal pay or childcare, she felt that she owed nothing to women’s liberation. At no point did she ever want to make reference to her gender or give opportunity for her gender to define her.
So taking all of this into account, can she really be a role-model for women in leadership? Can we expect our other female politicians to live up to this? is it fair that we expect them to care about women’s issues just because they are women, or are we asking them to care because they may know some of the struggles. More so do women believe that speaking about their problems helps other women who still have to operate in male dominated fields, perhaps there is a balance to be found.
Many would argue that there is no way Thatcher could ever be considered a feminist as she didn’t care one ounce about other women, only one thing. The Conservative party.
So much has changed since then. We encourage workplaces to loose the stiff-upper lip attitude, we care about mental health now and publicly strive for people to be able to talk openly about their problems. It seems that almost every month or so there’s a new headline about women’s negative experiences of working in an industry and a commitment by someone to change it.
We also have a situation where politicians quite often want us to think of them as one of their pals. It seems to have got to the point where politicians feel the need to go on reality TV shows so we can “get to know them”, as apparently that is a must now. Sometimes I find the messages very conflicting. Sturgeon wanted to remind us in her resignation speech that she’s human and is affected by the same things as all of us, fair enough. This is similar to so many politicians, as they battle with abuse, they want you to know words hurt. Yet quite a lot of them want you to get to know them, open themselves up in different medias, yet still want to be judged only on their policies. Sturgeon had to fend off judgements from her Vogue spread, in which many didn’t agree with her outfit choices, she found this unreasonable. Well I find it reasonable that many would go to a magazine about judging clothes to do just that. If you’ve decided that we need to get to know you and you want to open your life up to the public, don’t expect people just to talk about your policies.
One of the glaringly obvious challenges to a female politician that the likes of Thatcher never had to contend with is social media. Honestly does anyone ever write about how social media solves problems? This effects all politicians and men also face the abuse, but often the most vile strains are reserved for women. Social media is being a used as a vehicle for many to torment female politicians. A study found that 95% of female politicians who received online abuse deemed this to have a negative impact on them, while the figure was 76% for men. Almost every female MP and MSP has a story of the horrific abuse they’ve received since they’ve been in parliament. Many have thankfully prosecuted some convictions. Diane Abbot has stopped using public transport in a bid to make herself more safe after receiving death threats via social media. Another has started to wear a stab vest to constituency surgeries, many have turned off the comments section in their social media. Quite often there are criticisms of policies but the derogatory and misogynistic language attached to them reveal that at the crux of it the main issue, they’re a women.
So does this justify women in politics drawing attention to the fact they have it harder, more importantly is it helpful? Apart from the psychopaths that carry out this behaviour, the majority of people will agree it’s wrong. Would it be better if the stiff upper lip was deployed?
It does seem that we have turned a page culturally and we are all encouraged to talk about our personal experiences and feelings a lot more. A push to “get to know the real politician”, may have opened up the flood gates to more abuse and opinions that can overshadow their important work in government. However, it could be argued that perhaps choosing to repeatedly make comment on the fact you’re a women in politics may be counter-productive. That helping to label yourself a women in politics instead of a politician who happens to be a women doesn’t aid us in finding an equal playing field in leadership roles.