Nicola Sturgeon: Sexism is behind many attacks on First Minister and other female leaders – Alastair Stewart

Andrew Tate is something of a despicable swine. Even before his arrest, the media personality/self-appointed guru was the purveyor of what might be called toxic pseudo-masculinity.

Across his media appearances and videos, Tate pretends to be a champion of male rights. He denigrates women and presents equality as a zero-sum game: parity and opportunity for women can only come at the expense of masculine privilege in an increasingly confused and sensitive landscape of gender/culture war.

In Scotland, we see this regularly. Much criticism of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is mainstream misogyny par excellence. And it is not just the usual cesspit of anonymous social media trolling. Attacks are fast centering on the First Minister's gender first, policies second. One example was the front page “Legs-it” headline in the Dail Mail comparing Sturgeon and Theresa May's legs.

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The predictable awfulness of some quarters aside, there's the muddied issue of her marriage to Peter Murrell. Because he is also the chief executive officer of the SNP, the relationship is taken as fair game, particularly when things go sour. The questions about when Sturgeon knew he had loaned £100,000 to the party are serious.

But look a little closer at the tone of some of the commentary, and it is less about what her husband did and more about what she did not know as a wife. A picture of “childless politicians”, published alongside a Sunday Times interview with Sturgeon, drew cross-party condemnation back in 2016. Sturgeon, May, and Angela Merkel, among others, were treated as odd for not having children. The general insensitivity around the First Minister's miscarriage at 40 was a damning indictment of the state of our public discourse.

Even women with children, such as Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton, can be judged too cold or incapable of being a good mother because of their "tough" public persona. Inversely, purported high praise like "ballbreaker" or "workaholic" is used by opponents to infer female leaders will not understand how their policies affect families. Misogyny tends to be divided between the superficially stupid and the biologically brutal.

Reducing politicians to their sartorial choices is unacceptable, but fair comments can, sometimes, be expressed – physical appearance should not be permanently off-limits. Boris Johnson has been accused of looking sloppy because of his unkempt hair. Jeremy Corbyn could not straighten his tie, while David Cameron and Rishi Sunak are criticised by some for looking too polished. Conservative circles infamously criticised Barack Obama for looking unpresidential in a tan suit.

However, there is hyper-personal commentary around the life choices of female leaders, which can be as tawdry and cruel as publicly discussing the health of Gordon Brown's son or alleging David Cameron can only know "privileged pain" at the death of his.

Misogynistic attacks on Nicola Sturgeon are a symptom of a wider social problem (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)Misogynistic attacks on Nicola Sturgeon are a symptom of a wider social problem (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Misogynistic attacks on Nicola Sturgeon are a symptom of a wider social problem (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

There is much to dislike – and dislike some more – about Sturgeon's time in office. Her style of governance, approach to politics, obsession with independence and responsibility for the overall state of Scotland today are fair concerns. Most would be lying if they said they were not enjoying the blood-in-the-water game of ‘will she, won't she’ resign.

Generally, Scotland's party political, business and journalistic ranks conduct themselves honestly. But there is a red-line tipping point between scrutinising female leaders or enjoying opposition difficulties and lazy ad hominem sexism disguised as legitimate scrutiny. Contrary to conventional wisdom, social media has not worsened any of this. The anonymity afforded online is not the cause but a feature. Few are stupid enough to set out to shock the public into condemning them as misogynistic. Those that do are pilloried and cornered into an apology.

The mistake of the public unionist/nationalist ranks is thinking that because animosities run deep and both are trying to out-patriot the other, anything goes – including sexism, racism and sectarianism. It is a problem most western democracies share. Politics has become in-your-living-room personal, and to be female is taken as a weakness to be exploited. Kamala Harris laughs too much, and Jacinda Ardern dyes her hair, only gets along with female politicians of a similar age, or is just the “lady with the big teeth”.

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It is a hidden, almost perverse, subconscious hatred of women. Swatting individual breaches of decency is essential but does not answer the underlying question: why is it that masculinity is so inherently threatened, and why does it mutate into such flustered ire at women in positions of power? The likes of Tate are not firestarters, but are emblematic of the problem.

There is no excuse, but we must drop the pretence that those who go after deeply sensitive or superficial topics do not know what they are doing. Either they are closet misogynists or they are incapable of an advanced policy debate, and have no business working in their chosen field.

Scotland might not be unique in the challenges female leaders face, but it has a profound obligation to do something above and beyond to tackle it. "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” is carved into our parliament. More must be done to address the ridiculous superficiality that female leaders are exposed to from the public and in professional quarters.

Politics might be a game for some, but progress can only happen when there is a broad pool of diversity, representation and experience representing our interests. God help us all if more future female leaders are deterred from entering politics.



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