We are about to witness a defining moment in Scottish history; a woman is about to rule the people of Scotland. We are also about to witness an inevitable onslaught of sexism from the media, politicians and members of the public alike, a great deal of which will go unnoticed, let alone challenged.
There remains a common misconception that gender inequality exists only in a few socially conservative societies. Or that it is exclusive to particular religions. Or that it being worse elsewhere somehow diminishes the urgency to confront it here.
In reality, sexism exists in the realms of our everyday lives. Seldom is this more apparent than in politics. We can try to blame the right-wingers, but the painful truth of the matter is that in spite of progressive ideals, a very real strand of sexism exists in left wing politics too. It’s an ever-present, structural, global issue. And yes, it manifests in varying strands of severity, but regardless of this, it needs collectively confronted.
Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting for a second that Nicola can’t handle backlash – if people think we have a fragile leader on our hands, they’re sorely mistaken – but that shouldn’t stop us challenging everyday sexism. Seemingly insignificant, petty remarks or headlines are a tactical, strategic way of deliberately undermining women in politics by steering attention away from politics and onto appearance, or gender based stereotypes. Speaking out against seemingly trivial belittling in our political sphere is one of the many ways in which we can seek to preserve the socially just, progressive politics of the Yes movement.
There is however a fairly sizeable chunk of society who will acknowledge that this is problematic but deny that it is structural. A hard truth remains; our stale media and outmoded sectors of society aren’t ready for women in politics. They’re yet to come to terms with it. Here are just a few examples that remind us of just how far we have to go.
In 2011, the then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was subjected to a hideous attack from renowned red neck imbecile, Tony Abbott. Alongside claiming that women should stay home to iron and that men are by physiology and temperamentally more adapted than women, the opposition leader told Ms Gillard that she should “make an honest woman of herself”, labeling her a “man’s bitch”. To put the impact of this attack into perspective, Tony Abbott comfortably won the following election and is now Australian Prime Minister.
Only this year, #PatronisingBTLady happened. As much as we enjoyed laughing in the faces of those who thought this would actually appeal to women, it is genuinely scary that in this day and age women are seen as too dense to think.
Yet it is not just the archaic Eton bred dinosaurs that reduce women to gendered stereotypes. Love her or loath her, and I place myself firmly in the latter category, the problem with Maggie Thatcher was her deeply callous politics, not that her personality was not ‘Motherly’ enough. These gendered typecasts did not come from draconian Conservatives; ironically they came from those who define themselves as pro equality progressives. Speaking of Thatcher, I am extremely excited at the prospect of never hearing the words, “yeah but look what happened last time a woman was in charge” again.
If you thought for a second that this might have significantly improved in the decades to follow, think again. One recent example heard MP Austin Mitchell say that, “apart from obsessive feminism, women MPs are more amenable and leadable”. He continued, proclaiming that women are preoccupied with “family issues” and “small problems rather than big ideas.” In other words, get back to your cereal and focus on the wee things. Let the big shots handle the real politics.
Hop over the pond to America and in 2013 a Republican convention produced badges comparing Hillary Clinton to KFC that read, ‘2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts … left wing.’ They literally compared a globally influential woman to a bit of puny meat.
Here in Scotland, the Lamont versus Sturgeon televised debate aptly illustrated how backwards attitudes can be at home. Before they even spoke, comments about their hair, clothes and expressions erupted over social media. Before they even spoke, the very focus of their presence was thus on appearance, rather than their potential contribution to the debate. All of a sudden, these women were no longer authoritative, influential political figures. Nicola was bossy and irrational, and Johann was a troll with anger issues. ‘But people fixate on the appearance of men in politics too’, I hear some say. Yes, Salmond and Darling provide a good example of this, but there remained a general ability and willingness to differentiate their appearance from their politics.
Already, a particularly condescending headline referred to Nicola as “First Lady” – Apparently it’s much easier for our crusty tabloids to portray our soon-to-be First Minister as the wife of a leader, rather than the actual leader. When Nicola spoke at their conference, signaling a new direction for politics in Scotland, a headline read, ‘New Leader’s Natty Style: Nic Shoes the Way Forward.’ Don’t get me wrong; Nicola’s tartan heels were fabulous. They just weren’t quite as important as the content of her pioneering speech.
We live in a country where women lead two of our political parties and co-convene another two; a country where women, especially young women, have been actively engaging in politics throughout the celebration of democracy that was the referendum. As a society, we should embrace and encourage this.
To really do so, Scotland needs to acknowledge that petty belittling and seemingly trivial everyday comments and headlines are symptomatic of a wider, structural problem that needs tackled.
Many people say they want to challenge these kinds of attitudes, but seldom speak out when the perpetrators are on their side. Sexism transcends party boundaries; it’s bigger than any ideology, and it’s high time that we unite to challenge this embedded social problem.
Image: Corey Oakley