Sexual Politics

Following the release of new statistics regarding female representation in world governments, Emer Sugrue looks at the way female politicians are portrayed in parliament and in the media

In a recent report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the representation of women in government, it was revealed that Ireland ranks at eightieth in the world when it comes to female presence in parliament. Women make up just 14.5 per cent of the Dáil. This puts us below Iraq at 25.2 per cent, and Afghanistan at 27.7 per cent. Rwanda, the highest ranked country for female representatives, has 56.3 per cent. As a western, supposedly developed nation, this is pretty appalling. We were one of the first places in the world to have female members of parliament and cabinet ministers yet we have scarcely progressed since the 1920’s. Why is this? All the mechanisms are in place to have women in government and yet the numbers are massively skewed. Sexism in rife is politics in a way that would not be acceptable for any other minority and all sides are complicit.

One source is definitely the men in power. Female politicians find themselves harangued on all sides, excluded from the ‘boys club’ of parliament. In April the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, when faced with questioning from the shadow Treasury Secretary Angela Eagle in parliament, told her to “calm down, dear”. More recently when receiving questions from another female member he declared, “I know the honourable lady is extremely frustrated” to jeers and laughter from the backbench. The female MP then stormed out of the house. Only two years ago it was found that conservative backbenchers had a policy of shouting offensive comments every time a woman got up to speak. It’s very hard to be taken seriously when old men are shouting “boobies” and “melons” over a parliamentary question. That really happened, I wish I was joking.

Powerful women are judged on their sexual appeal in a way men never are. Political sexism is most pervasive not in the parliaments, but in the media. The way various female figures are written and spoken about gives the clearest view of the problem; women are judged more commonly on their appearance then by their proposals or actions. When Obama visited the UK, there was a borderline psychotic amount of coverage about what Michelle Obama was going to be wearing. Sky News had live twenty-four hour coverage of the visit and barely mentioned what was to be discussed in the meetings; it was all about the clothes. What colour suit would she wear? What about her hair? Here is a fitness expert who is going to spend two hours explaining Mrs. Obama’s arms. Even the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton isn’t immune, with a storm of controversy beleaguering the American media last year about the political appropriateness of Clinton wearing a hair clip to a meeting. And then there’s Sarah Palin.

Female public figures tend to be placed into a sexualised framework of one of two categories: A: the desexualised, masculine, ball breaking, power hungry bitch or B: the coquettish, family orientated ‘lady’. Category A is the more traditional stereotype and classically includes Margaret Thatcher, famous for having “bigger balls than her cabinet”. She reportedly even had voice coaching lessons to lower her pitch so she could be taken more seriously and be heard over the raucous noise in the British parliament. Hilary Clinton, hair clip aside, is also portrayed this way. Ambition and competence are seen as masculine traits, and these women must surrender all femininity to have a hope of playing with the big boys. Thatcher is still viewed as somehow not being a ‘real woman’.

Category B women play up their femininity, a tactic which is becoming increasingly common. Sarah Palin is the epitome of this role, which boils down mostly to attractiveness. Palin is an ex-beauty pageant winner, mother of innumerable strangely named children. She is a PILF and the media lapped it up. There is a new wave of women in American politics who are simultaneously an object of sexual desire and an ultra-traditional wife and mother, with Christine “not a witch” O’Donnell and Michelle Bachman following in Palin’s footsteps. It seems to be slowly creeping across the pond too and it’s no wonder; if you are going to be judged for your attractiveness anyway, why not use it to your advantage?

The effect this pigeonholing has on female representation is to reduce women from potential leaders and equals to two-dimensional characters in a poorly written drama, just like the chick flicks in which the lead is inevitably saved from herself by finding a man to take care of her. They are women first, leaders second.

Many women, I’m sure, do not conform to these roles, but they don’t get media coverage. Even from student journalism I know that you need to look for an angle, the story, the interest. And a woman quietly and competently doing her job is not a story. But maybe it should be. As backwards as it seems, newspapers do not report the people’s view, they create it. We create the framework through which women in politics are viewed. Our 14.5 per cent representation reveals that after eighty years of supposed equality, women are struggling to compete. Legislation isn’t enough; we need a complete overhaul of attitude.