‘MANY women would rather hover on the political margins to escape the vitriol’ says Dani Garavelli
IT was refreshing and reassuring to hear Commons speaker John Bercow complain that the testosterone-fuelled atmosphere of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) was putting women off politics. Refreshing because I’ve always suspected there was more to their parliamentary under-representation than the unsocial working hours. And reassuring because he is a man; when female politicians make the same point they’re dismissed as ill-suited to the cut-and-thrust of Westminster life.
When Bercow talks of the “histrionics and cacophony” of PMQs, it takes me back to my maiden (and only) speech in the Glasgow University Union (GUU) debating chamber, the training ground for so many skilled orators. I have to say I was out of my depth, but even if I’d been more able, I don’t think I’d have tried my hand a second time. All that jeering and making your opponent feel small. It was too vicious for my tastes.
Last year, that viciousness made the national headlines; two young women claimed they had been subject to misogynistic heckling in the annual Glasgow Ancients debate. While, if true (and the claims were later rejected), such boorish behaviour was reprehensible, it didn’t seem to me to differ greatly from the experience many female politicians face week in, week out in parliament. Why would anyone be shocked by cries of “shame” and references to their physical appearance in the GUU when, in Westminster, MPs respond to their female rivals’ points by shouting “calm down, dear” or juggling imaginary breasts or mouthing “stupid woman”?
Now Bercow is pushing for change. He says many women – “seasoned MPs, not shrinking violets” – are opting out because they find the atmosphere embarrassing. Reading between the lines, they’re not objecting to the sexism but to the reductive, warring tribes set-up which militates against mature discussion. Even at Holyrood, where the proportion of women is higher than Westminster, First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) has all the camaraderie of the Colosseum.
Of course, some female politicians have no problem with rough-and-tumble politics. When Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont went head-to-head on Scotland Tonight, they demonstrated their male counterparts don’t have a monopoly on belligerence. But for many women (and, I imagine, a good number of men) the vitriol which has spilled out of Westminster and Holyrood and into the Twittersphere is so unappealing they would rather hover on the political margins than risk being on the receiving end.
At a time when everyone is asking why women have been so reluctant to engage in the indyref, and so reticent to pin their flag to one mast or the other, Bercow’s criticism of the yah-boo politics of the House of Commons has particular resonance north of the Border. Cognisant of the need to win over the large number of female undecideds, and of the failure of its childcare policy to convince, the SNP last weekend promoted two more women to Cabinet. But, to my mind, it’s not the lack of females within SNP ranks, but the aggressive, male-dominated debate which is turning women off. In FMQs, online, on TV shows and at rallies, the discussion is often little more than a bile-laden exercise in oneupmanship, which has more to do with the flaunting of egos than Scotland’s destiny. There are reasoned voices – both Yes and No, male and female – but they struggle to make themselves heard over the racket of rabble-rousers and anoraks arguing abstruse constitutional points or calling each other liars.
It doesn’t help that in this men have tended to take up their positions early on and spend the campaign defending them, while women have been more willing to listen to both sides before coming to a conclusion (with their open-mindedness and diffidence often misinterpreted as a lack of interest). Or that our principal political programmes have done so little to ensure women’s voices are an integral part of the national conversation.
The difference between the way men and women feel about the indyref was exemplified in the heartfelt piece author Sara Sheridan wrote for National Collective last week. While a handful of men with fixed positions argued the toss about the definition of “ethnic nationalism” (interesting in its own way), she charted her four-month journey to voting Yes. What made the account so unusual is that instead of adopting the moral high ground, or bandying pejorative terms such as “separatist” or “quisling”, she accepted as axiomatic that there was no “right” way to vote, before going on to make an impassioned case for change. This is to be commended because acknowledgement of the legitimacy of alternative perspectives is a better starting point for constructive discussion which offers a greater hope for divisions to heal post 18 September – and that’s in everyone’s best interests, regardless of the result.
Accepting that most women prefer a less confrontational, more methodical style of politics – and that this does not make them lightweights – is the answer not only to wooing them to one camp or the other, but to changing Scotland for the better. Unfortunately, in Westminster, the odds appear to be stacked against Bercow. Tory MPS have already called him a whiner for taking issue over PMQs yobbery and “public school twittery”. But wouldn’t it be great if one of the legacies of the referendum, and the battle for women’s hearts was a greater insight into what makes them tick and a more inclusive future? «