THOUGH particularly tasteless, the photo-shopping of Nicola Sturgeon’s face on to a skimpy tartan two piece-clad body riding a wrecking ball by The Sun last week was just the latest example of the sexism women in politics face on a regular basis. Days before that, it was MP David Hamilton calling Sturgeon “a wee lassie in a tin hat”, though she is 44, with a law degree and an approval rating to die for; before that it was Kezia Dugdale being criticised for wearing too much make-up on Question Time. And before that it was Johann Lamont being called a “fish-wife”. I could go on…
It’s not merely that the criticisms aimed at female politicians are personal as opposed to professional –plenty of their male counterparts suffer that fate. It’s that they are put-downs based entirely on insulting gender stereotypes, specifically women as the weaker sex, there to be seen rather than heard.
Another defining facet of the sexism female politicians face is that they can’t win. If Sturgeon’s not “a wee lassie”, she’s a “nippy sweetie”. If Dugdale is not an “Aunt Sally”, then she’s letting herself go. And just to head any hint of “whataboutery” off at the pass, the difference between portraying Sturgeon half-naked on a wrecking ball and Alex Salmond half-naked on a wrecking ball is that – with the possible exception of Aidan Turner in Poldark – men don’t suffer the same degree of objectification.
Of course, feminist campaigners were angered by the abuse, which could so easily deter women from engaging in the political process, but the scale of the backlash does demonstrate something positive about the new political landscape north of the Border. Having three women leading their parties at Holyrood hasn’t merely softened the tone of First Minister’s Questions or allowed the occasional outbreak of tennis-inspired congeniality, it appears to have created a genuine sense of sisterhood between Sturgeon, Dugdale and Ruth Davidson.
Some Labour Party stalwarts – Iain Gray and Blair McDougall, for example – praised Hamilton’s speech, but Lamont could be seen with a face like fizz and Dugdale was quick to condemn it, even as she launched an attack on the SNP’s “Barnett Formula bombshell”.
Later, both she and Davidson tweeted their disgust at The Sun’s image. In Scotland, we appear to have female leaders (or rather, two leaders and a deputy leader) who are prepared to put their opposition to sexism before narrow party interests.
In addition, while commentators south of the Border are bemoaning the lack of female participation in the electoral process, the referendum appears to have galvanised female voters here. Though some of the attempts to encourage women to get involved, like the “BT patronising lady” campaign, backfired, grassroots organisations such as Women for Independence inspired an engagement that has extended well beyond 18 September. Many of the issues that put women off politics in England – the macho atmosphere, the dearth of role models, a lack of interest in female-friendly issues – no longer apply here, especially now the Scottish cabinet is gender-balanced and the SNP backs a target of 40 per cent of the boards of public bodies being women. Sturgeon has also put her name to Women 50:50, a cross-party campaign which hopes to ensure a gender-balanced Scottish Parliament by 2020 (though Davidson, notably, hasn’t).
Before we start celebrating, it’s not all good news. Last week, two reports demonstrated just how difficult it will be to meet those challenges. A BBC investigation showed that, despite the hype, just 28 per cent of general election candidates selected in Scotland are women, with the Greens doing best on 42 per cent and the Tories worst on 17 per cent. Currently only 22 per cent of MPs in Scottish constituencies and only 35 per cent of MSPs are women, so we’ve a long way to go.
It’s a similar picture in local authorities: only 24 per cent of councillors are women and only three out of 32 council leaders; one of them, Rhondda Geekie from East Dunbartonshire, told the Cosla conference last week that even when she is introduced as the leader, people will shake the hand of the male council officer standing next to her.
Journalist Kenneth Roy looked at the boards of Scotland’s 52 major national bodies and discovered that, while six had a female majority and four were gender-balanced, 13 had a small male majority and 29 a large male majority.
Fixing all this will be no mean feat, but given the Smith Commission has agreed to the devolution of powers that would allow for the introduction of quotas on public boards, and campaigners are still pushing for the devolution of powers which would allow for the introduction of quotas for parliament, it is not impossible.
While they wait, women involved in politics – even if only by association – will continue to be exposed to the same old misogynistic garbage. If it isn’t Sarah Vine criticising Justine Miliband’s kitchen curtains, it’s southern commentators treating Salmond as if he’s the leader of the SNP, even though he handed over the reins almost four months ago.
Scottish activists appear to have discovered the most effective way of dealing with sexist jibes: humour. Thus Hamilton’s “wee lassie in a tin helmet” remarks were greeted with a rash of Women for Independence supporters wearing pots and pans on their heads in a show of solidarity (although the organisation advised against a similar stunt in connection with the wrecking ball image). And then Sturgeon tweeted to say, if anyone wanted to know about her kitchen they should ask her husband, as he is better acquainted with it. Such spirited defiance is the greatest weapon against sexism. It shows that in Scotland, there’s a will to change. And where there’s a will, there’s a way. «