By Markéta Šonková
Although constituting about a half of the world’s current population, women are still grossly underrepresented in politics, diplomacy, and positions of power. Taking into account the so-called Western world, women should have equal rights as well as responsibilities. So why there are so few women in high positions? And why do they often have to face belittling, ageism, sexism, harassment; and why is the way they got to their position so often questioned, as if they could not make it on their own, or worse? Why do societies and the media care more about what they wear and what they look like, rather than what they say? And why are there so many double standards? One day, women look too fierce, and the next day, they look too soft to be in politics. At other times, they are criticized for not having children, while in the next second, they get criticized for being too family-oriented to be in top-level politics. It is 2017, so isn’t it time we stopped questioning why women should be equally represented and started supporting political emancipation? After all, more diversity cannot hurt.
Now this is not to say that men do not suffer from injustice, objectification, or sexual assaults. They do, too, and especially in case of sexual assault, they face the huge stigma of publicly admitting being a survivor. Moreover, the debate does not end with emancipating women. It needs to continue with equal rights for all members of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as members of the LGBTQA+ community, and their access to political representation. However, considering the most basic binary our society still tends to rely on, this article shall talk about women in politics, diplomacy, and positions of power in the Western English-speaking countries that could be perceived as the traditional “Big Six”, consisting of Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA. After all, gender inequality is, just as senator Güler Turan writes for OECD, one of the most primitive and oldest forms of inequality. However, as the topic is rather broad, the following article offers maybe a slightly exhausting, yet not quite exhaustive, snapshot into the world of female politicians in the Western English-speaking world.
What Does the Law Say?
The evolution of voting rights was not easy for men either, as in many cases, the right to vote used to be directly or indirectly connected to one’s social status, ethnicity, and wealth. Take for example the USA: African-American men gained the right to vote thanks to the 15th Amendment in 1870, however, many of them could not in reality exercise such until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act eliminated obstacles such as the poll taxes and literacy tests. Yet, it took another 50 years for the Amendment number 19 to be ratified – the Amendment that gave the women the right to vote as well. As is to be seen in the “Political Milestones” infographics, women in the English-speaking world were given the right to vote in many cases not even 100 years ago and then it sometimes took some extra years for the first women to actually be elected. After all, a DC-based political scientist Maya Rockeymoore, upon reflecting on a question she was asked in 2008 whether it was more likely for an African American man or a woman to become a U.S. president, remembers correctly predicting an African American man to first secure the Oval Office. Examining the 15th and 19th amendments, she claims “men, regardless of race, have more social status and power than women in the U.S.”.
In 2017, it seems rather absurd to still have to justify why women should have equal treatment and opportunities as men in the world of politics.
In 2017, women in English-speaking countries can hold the most senior political offices, yet not many do. There have been, for example, only two female Prime Ministers in the long history of the office in Britain, which otherwise count 74 men to have held the post since Sir Robert Walpole at the beginning of the 18th century. And although women could become sovereign monarchs, it was only in 2013 when the laws of succession to the British throne changed the primogeniture clause and made the succession not dependent on gender. Furthermore, in the U.S., there has never been a female POTUS, while there is currently a male POTUS number 45 sitting in the Oval Office.
Positive discrimination and quotas tend to be a sensitive topic regardless of the area they are supposed to be enforced in. It is beyond the scope and expertise of this article to examine their effects and possible implications. Nonetheless, positive discrimination aside, in 2017, it seems rather absurd to still have to justify why women should have equal treatment and opportunities as men in the world of politics. Among other things, if only part of the population is represented, how can it be ensured that the rights and needs of those who are under-represented are properly reflected. Additionally, having more women aboard can help penetrate the often-criticized political “men’s club” establishment culture. Last but not least, women can help with bringing new ideas and points of view at the table. The list could go on.
Quoting hard facts, about 50% of the population and give or take 20% representation does not seem balanced. During the 2015 election in Canada, Justin Trudeau made a promise to make 50 per cent of his future cabinet ministers women and he delivered. Although much debate has been going on, thanks to him, there is at least one closely-watched “case study” of a balanced cabinet in the Western English-speaking world. While in 2017, the UK government “has rejected all six proposals to give parliament more equal female representation, prepared by the Commons’ women and equalities committee, including fines for parties that do not select enough women as candidates,” purportedly because of “additional regulatory burden” the regulation would impose on parties, writes The Guardian. The Obama administration, too, introduced legislation and rules to increase gender parity, many of which are now being quashed – and not only rhetorically – by the current administration.
Gender Bias: There and Back Again
The world can be a very small place, especially so when examining phenomena across country borders. This is not to say that the world can be reduced into a Huntingtonian paradigm. Yet, there are themes that go around in the world of (Western) politics that many women can identify with or relate to: having their looks and sartorial choices discussed, having their age or qualification questioned, being criticized for planning to have or having children – or lack thereof, facing harassment, sexual assaults, gender-related threats and vulgarisms, or having to justify that they really earned their position. Again, this is not to say men – and of course minorities – do not have to face similar issues too. However, a mere reading of media outlets can show the striking discrepancy in how male and female politicians are treated.
Threats against politicians, both male and female, are nothing new. Yet, threats against female politicians of a sexual nature, are sadly symptomatic.
The Face of Modern Politics
The world is becoming more and more diverse. The question is: is the world of politics becoming more and more diverse too? To answer the question, the BBC conducted a rather interesting experiment in the U.S. Congress. They put together a composite image of every Congress member to see what an average senator would like, finding out that it is “very white and very male”. As is to be seen in infographics on upper and lower houses(1) in parliaments in the Anglo-American world, their composition is still very male-dominated. The numbers do not reflect on ethnicity or religion, and therefore they reflect only on the most basic gender binary, yet, even the most basic gender breakdown shows a clear disparity.
Additionally, a CNN series Badass Women of Washington, in an interview with New Hampshire’s senator Jeanne Shaheen, who also happens to be the first woman in American history to be elected both Governor and U.S. Senator, showed another possible imparity: an idea that women might often tend to run for an office with a goal to accomplish something specific, not purely for the sake of holding the office. In fact, Senator Shaheen ran four campaigns for male candidates before she decided to run herself. Dana Bash, the program’s editor, highlighted another important point: women tend to need to be asked to run, while men think that they should.
(Wel)Come to the Dark Side
An Inter-Parliamentary Union research studied sexism, harassment, and violence against women parliamentarians. It showed that “by entering the political domain women are shifting away from a role that confined them to the private sphere and are entering a world where their legitimacy is sometimes challenged”, which might be triggering a resistance. “Such resistance,” the authors write, “can take different forms, such as sexist remarks, intimidation or harassment.”
Indeed, sexual harassment and physical threats are a sad reality that connects women across the party lines as well as the world map. In the light of the #metoo campaign that has taken social media by storm in recent weeks, female politicians, too, started speaking out. Although some of the cases they mention happened before their political careers began, there are stories that did not. Anne Jenkin, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, remembers being harassed “as a 22-year-old secretary at an almost all-male parliament in the mid-70s”. In the light of renewed attention to the issue, both the Speaker of the House of Commons and Theresa May called for zero tolerance of bullying and sexual harassment in the Commons – a problem that is allegedly deep rooted in the culture of Westminster. In fact, there is reportedly a list of Westminster’s MPs circulating with names of those accused of harassment. Additionally, former UK Secretary of State for Defence resigned in November 2017 over his inappropriate behavior in past.
In Ireland, Joan Burton, a former Tánaiste (2), and some female TDs (3) think that “the Dáil (4) is no Westminster, but it certainly is a boy’s club”. Additionally, a junior minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor spoke recently on the macho culture in Dáil. Although not having experienced sexual harassment herself – just as Mary Lou McDonald, a Sinn Féin politician, said she has not noticed the dark undercurrents in Dáil as seem to be the case in Westminster – she asserts that she has experienced being put down and her voice not being listened as much, compared to her male counterparts. However, the Taoiseach (5), importantly added that while “systemic bullying can never be tolerated … ‘all forms of inappropriate behaviour, boorish behaviour or obnoxious behaviour, don’t necessarily constitute systemic bullying or sexual assault so I think we have to bear them in mind’”. Additionally, the lenses of what kind of behavior is acceptable towards female politicians and women in general is changing for the better. Yet, there is a whole list of what Irish female politicians have experienced while doing their job, some of which not that long ago.
One of the most often and most striking examples of political sexism and sexism in politics is judging women by their looks or exaggerating the role of their clothes over their words and deeds.
In fact, some experts say that with the rise of populist, conservative, and nationalist parties and politicians in Europe, there have been attempts to limit women’s rights, including reproductive rights. Additionally, the subsequent environment might make it harder for women to face sexual harassment, as their claims might be still dismissed or even laughed off. Australia’s Anne Aly, a Labor’s member, creates a similar link to the Trump campaign and highlights how easily claims of sexual harassment reported by women can be dismissed, and not only when made against a well-known men in politics.
Speaking of Donald Trump, the GOP and some of its voters showed their color after one of the GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare. U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R, Alaska), Susan Collins (R, Maine), and Shelley Moore Capito (R, West Virginia) voted against the repeal, and as a result, after the repeal attempt failed, they started receiving threats from general public as well as from some of their male colleagues, including hints of a gun duel or physical reprimanding. All this just for breaking ranks. The subsequent Twitter storm, started by Donald Trump’s Tweet, brought with it threats of a physical, and often sexual, nature directed also against other women in the thread. Moreover, as Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck writes, “the comments are particularly poignant, given that Republican women in the Senate were excluded from the chamber’s original working group on health care”, whose decision would, among others, have an impact on female reproductive rights.
Threats against politicians, both male and female, are nothing new. Yet, threats against female politicians of a sexual nature, are sadly symptomatic. Their danger lies not only in what they imply, but also in the fact that they can prevent women from running for an office, or make them withdraw from a run. Just as Kim Weaver, who was running for the 4th Congressional District in the 2017 U.S. House race in Iowa did (6). Additionally, as Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, argues, “these kinds of comments undermine female leaders in the long run. The fact they call out specific women marks those women as outside of the norm. For those who may question women’s capacity to be just as qualified as elected officials, it mines that vein of doubt or underlying bias”.
Women in positions of power – not only political, however – could talk at lengths about the daily misogyny they have to deal with, often related to their looks. Some female Silicon Valley CEOs even reported to have gone so far as to dye their blond hair brown and ditch their contact lenses and heels in order to beat the pattern recognition, objectification, and draw as little attention to their appearance, and thus to be taken seriously and appreciated for their brains instead of looks. Now, pattern recognition is something that female politicians are not unfamiliar with. Additionally, just as in the case of business women, they have to fight against objectification and belittlement and to fight for actually getting to speak. Barack Obama recognized and noticed how women helped each other in the White House in order to be heard by “amplifying” – repeating a good point made by another woman while crediting the originator – and started to call on women more often.
There are articles being published on how to face the so-called “manterruptions”. Although it raises eyebrows that in 2017 we still need to be writing guidelines for women on how to be heard, it is hardly a coincidence that one such article appeared after the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings earlier in 2017 on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election which catapulted the California senator Kamala Harris (Dem.) into the limelight. Harris used to be praised for her tough approach in her 25-year legal career, but when she applied such measures during the hearings, she got interrupted several times in her allotted time for questioning, admonished by fellow male senators, told to be “courteous”, and later even labelled “hysterical” by one former Trump campaign adviser. Similar was the experience of the Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, who was stopped from reading a three-decade old letter by Dr. Martin Luther King’s widow criticizing Jeff Sessions, later resulting in an organic social media flood of #ShePersisted and #LetLizSpeak.
Looks and Clothes Over Words
Clothing choices do carry meaning, especially so in politics. There is meaning even behind Donald Trump’s seemingly unfitting suits and ridiculously long red ties. And there certainly is a meaning behind Hillary Clinton’s iconic pantsuits. Yet, one of the most often and most striking examples of political sexism and sexism in politics is judging women by their looks or exaggerating the role of their clothes over their words and deeds. One does not have to go far to start finding examples of such behavior. The Guardian’s Morwenna Ferrier writes that the fact that “we still place so much focus on what women wear in the public sphere exemplifies just how much gender roles continue to shape the lives of female politicians – and moreover, how the double-standards enforced on them put their appearances as well as their politics squarely in the spotlight”. The former UK chancellor, Ken Clarke, agreed when he said that “it was ‘tedious’ that stories about what women politicians were wearing featured in the newspapers” and that he felt sorry for women in politics, as “men in politics don’t have great news stories about what they are wearing”. Of course, male politicians’ sartorial choices are discussed too, but almost never in a manner comparable to the cases of female politicians – in a way in which the fashion discussion outshines the political discussion. This was the case for example with Hillary Clinton, whose clothes, makeup, and hairstyles during the presidential debates were discussed by the media sometimes more often than her speeches, unlike it was the case with Donald Trump, although the rhetoric skills and content were incomparable.
Across the pond, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, is a patroness of many charities and a mother of two, soon to be three, children. Her position in the royal family, just as with the rest of its members, does not lend her any executive role in and over British politics. Yet, she is a member of the family and the future queen consort, with her public role giving her power to be an influencer. However, the media often choose to represent her as an ornamental celebrity, rarely letting her words to be heard, while constantly commenting on her fashion choices. Undoubtedly, being a fashion icon might be seen as part of the royal brand, however, it should not outweigh the public work a member of the royal family does, as perceived by the media and the public.
This kind of treatment becomes even more striking with female politicians who do have executive power, like the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May. In October 2016, when live on ITV1’s Good Morning Britain, the Prime Minister was, yet again, asked about her shoes, as she is known to wear extravagant designer pieces. She rightly answered that “It is interesting that people focus on my shoes and I don’t think they focus on Philip Hammond’s or Boris Johnson’s in quite the same way. But look, do I regret the fact that people look at my shoes? Hey, it gives me an excuse to buy new shoes”. The final nail in the coffin was delivered by one of the co-hosts, Piers Morgan, who asked about the Prime Minister’s scone recipe, as she is known to be a fan of The Great British Bake Off. This is not to say that politicians cannot be asked about fashion or food, but it is rather striking that such questions were asked two days after announcing the Brexit date, when more pressing issues might have been asked about.
Mistakes of female politicians are often magnified and there is a need to change both the perception and narrative.
In 2016, Theresa May was not destined to take a break, as the “trousergate” awoke “the kraken of double standards in politics”. While David Cameron’s bespoke £3,500 suits did not seem to have caused that much fuss, May’s £995 leather pants she wore during an interview for Sunday Times unleashed a storm in the waters already mudded by the Brexit talks. Surprisingly enough, the storm was steered also by her female colleagues.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, appeared on a tabloid front page along Theresa May, featuring “legs-it”. The two politicians, while discussing “vital differences in their approach to Britain’s exit from the European Union and a possible second Scottish independence referendum that could break up the United Kingdom,” featured on the Daily Mail’s front page along the headline that read: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”, as both the politicians were wearing skirts on the feature picture. As The Independent writes, “the front page was condemned by a number of Labour MPs. Yvette Cooper joked that the clocks had ‘gone forward this weekend, not 50 years back’, while former Labour Leader Ed Miliband wrote the ‘1950s called and asked for their headline back’”.
Although not a politician herself, but speaking on a political matter, a world-renowned British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Clooney received her dose of disregard for her work while talking in front of the UN in March 2017. There, she delivered a powerful speech on the crimes committed by ISIS, on mass graves, sexual slavery, and genocide happening on the Yazidis. Yet, some media outlets, including the Twitter account of Time, focused rather on her baby bump showing, as she was pregnant with twins at that time. In 2015, The Associated Press even identified her in a Tweet as “Amal Clooney, actor’s wife”. Yet another example of defining women: by their husbands.
Back to the Kitchen
Meet Tony Abbott, Australia’s former Prime Minister, whose sexist gaffes seem to have been part of his brand. Among his most “famous” lines throughout his career feature gems such as: “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up” in 2010; “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons” in the 1970s; or his talking about the sex-appeal of a Liberal candidate Fiona Scott instead of her education and experience. When he was the Opposition Leader before becoming the PM in 2013, his ongoing sexism made then Prime Minister Julia Gillard – the first woman in Australia to hold the post – to give a speech to address his sexism against women in general, as well as female politicians in particular. Her speech was subsequently dubbed The Misogyny Speech. The speech was lauded by Hillary Clinton, who herself, during her 2008 presidential race heard a journalist saying “shut up and go home”. Nonetheless, Abbott and his gaffes are just one of the examples of how women – in as well as outside – of politics get called by fellow men, often revoking the “traditional female roles” or reducing them to such roles when deemed convenient.
The Family Business
Women in politics – just as women in business or any other leading roles – have to deal with questions related to their family. Be it having or not having children, having or not having a husband or a boyfriend. It is important to remember that presence or absence of children, just as the presence or absence of a partner, does not define a female politician, or any woman for that matter, especially not in terms of their ability to do their job. Yet, the press as well as the public seem to disregard such arguments and keep making differences between male and female politicians when it comes to the question of family.
For years now, Nicola Sturgeon has been subjected to questions about not having any children. In 2016, she hoped honesty “might challenge some of the assumptions and judgments that are still made about women – especially in politics – who don’t have children”. It led her to opening up about a miscarriage she suffered when 40, adding that “she was now prepared to discuss the circumstances because she did not want young girls who consider her a role model to conclude that she had deliberately sacrificed parenthood for success as a politician”. Not only she had to relive her pain, but she also felt she had to publicly address the issue of her not having the children so that girls did not get the idea they will have to, one day, choose between having a family or being in a leading role. Her further response,
“If the miscarriage hadn’t happened, would I be sitting here as first minister right now? It’s an unanswerable question. I just don’t know. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know the answer. I’d like to think yes, because I could have shown that having a child wasn’t a barrier to all of this, but in truth I don’t know”,
however, shows that the dilemma between having a family or a career is still on the table for women in politics.
The same issue was addressed also by the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, upon becoming the Leader of Opposition in the summer of 2017. The Labour politician, who became the leader of the party in August 2017 was asked, seven hours into the job, whether she was planning to have children, as the country supposedly deserved to know. Although personally open about the issue and thus not taking an offense, she, however, said, defending women of New Zealand, it was unacceptable for women to be asked such question in 2017. The exchanged sparked a debate in New Zealand over sexism in politics as well as in general, with many commentators noting “that young male political leaders were never asked by the media about how they would balance a political and family life, though former prime minister Helen Clark often was”.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election showed that voters, at the end of the day, did not mind as much that one of the candidates was accused of, and even recorded on a tape of being complicit to, sexual misconduct, which only seems to top the long list of his sexist remarks. Trump’s victory sometimes resulted in comments that for some Americans, it still was more acceptable to have a sexual predator in the Oval Office rather than choosing a woman. Although it is a gross simplification and Hillary Clinton surely is not flawless, it sheds some light on how the presidency has changed under Donald Trump and what effects it might have on sexual predators. In fact, the U.S. election race and its result has a lot to say about misogyny, too.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice, said that there is “no doubt” that sexism played role in 2016 election. Hillary Clinton herself, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed to the conundrum of female popularity when in politics. She pointed to the fact that when she worked for someone else – for example as a Secretary of State – she was popular, while when she became seemingly working for herself, as presidential candidate, the viewpoint changed. Again, the broader context always needs to be taken account, and so it is the case with Clinton’s presidential run, however, the dynamics she draws attention to are hardly new and hardly unknown to women in positions of power. She further added, drawing attention to Sheryl Sendberg’s research: “When a man is professionally successful, he is seen as more likable. As a woman becomes more professionally successful, she is seen as less likable”.
Presence or absence of children, just as the presence or absence of a partner, does not define a female politician, or any woman for that matter, especially not in terms of their ability to do their job.
On top of the aforementioned bias, The Vox writes that “the more ‘hostile sexist’ attitudes voters held, according to research by political scientists Carly Wayne, Nicholas Valentino, and Marzia Oceno, the more likely they were to vote for Trump. Hostility to women predicted voters’ support for Trump just as strongly as racial resentment, and even more strongly than affinity for authoritarianism”. They continued that U.S. society “values women under certain narrow conditions” and that “for many voters, Trump’s toxic masculinity was a deep part of his appeal”.
A research – coincidentally conducted by Trump’s alma mater – further shows that the Trumpian treatment of women or bragging about some of the deeds, embolden men and allow them to embrace such conduct as a norm. After all, the aftermath of the presidential race saw a flood of hate crime and harassment across the U.S., although that wave was mostly racially oriented. At the end of the day, if the president of the United States does not have a problem to retweet a gif in which he is hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball or bragging about physically assaulting women – later excusing it as a “locker room talk” – what example does he set? Sadly, even Canada’s Justin Trudeau, otherwise hailed a champion of women’s rights, was deflecting when asked shortly after Trump’s inauguration, whether he perceives Trump as a misogynist.
The Case of “The Nasty Woman”
A lot has been written about Hillary Clinton and her presidential run. And there are many issues that stand out. Again, Clinton is by no means flawless; nobody is. Yet, the vitriol she has faced during and after the election is unprecedented compared to other unsuccessful presidential candidates, and shows both American sexism as well as deep-rooted misogyny against women in general.
Hillary Clinton was an outstanding candidate – she was both a first female nominee of a major party as well as the first former FLOTUS to run for president. However, she was not the first woman to be a nominee – that was Victoria Woodhull in 1872 – who, not unlike Clinton, was “subjected to intense personal scrutiny and judgment, of a degree that male candidates did not experience”. Additionally, “reporting of Woodhull’s activities would, as with female politicians ever since, rarely fail to incorporate comments on her attire”. Eventually, she was nicknamed “Mrs. Satan”, while Clinton became “The Nasty Woman” and “Crooked Hillary”.
Over 100 years after Woodhull, one can ask a question whether we, as a Western society, have moved forward. It is Maya Rockeymoore who points out that “almost all of the most prominently circulated political journalists are men” and thus the assessment of Clinton – and consequently of other female politicians – given by journalists, is often through the male lenses”. She further writes that in the “male-dominated system, the identity, attitudes and perspectives of men are normalized and affirmed while those held by women or non-gender conforming individuals are actively suppressed or pathologized”.
Owning the Labels
During the third presidential debate in 2016, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton’s speech on the topic of debt and entitlements saying: “Such a nasty woman”. The “Nasty Woman” started trending on Twitter and other social media networks, just as the Warren hashtags did later in 2017, becoming a “weaponized meme”. Moreover, it triggered a viral flood of solidarity. The hashtag started trending almost immediately, soon afterwards “nastywomengetshitdone.com” was automatically redirected to Hillary Clinton’s official campaign page, and within an hour, “Nasty Woman T-shirts ― with proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood ― were available for purchase,” writes The Huffington Post, whose HuffPost Women even asked its “readers if and why they identified as ‘nasty women,’ akin to Clinton”. Similarly, People Magazine, Vox, and Bustle called it “a battle cry”, “the best thing Donald Trump has ever done for her campaign”, “the female empowerment message Donald Trump didn’t mean to inspire” respectively. During the tense election cycle, facing both covert and overt sexism, “the ‘nasty woman’ moment struck a chord with many American women,” writes Emma Gray. Additionally, it inspired an exhibition, proceeds of which went also to Planned Parenthood, making it a double rub of salt in the wound. The Nasty Woman merchandise could be seen literally everywhere, including the Saturday Night Live parody of the debate – and it was similar with the Elizabeth Warren merchandise in February of 2017.
Who’s Your Backbiter
However, it would be a mistake to think that it is only men who pile on women in politics. Female journalists and female commentators can be harsh on female politicians too. After all, the “Legs-it” article was written by a woman journalist. And also, one of the very vocal and at the same time popular critics of Hillary Clinton is Tomi Lahren, a 25-year-old woman from South Dakota. Even Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s counselor, stressed that “it turns out that a lot of women just have a problem with women in power”. Although she agrees that “powerful women are judged differently than men”, that women do face some inherent disadvantages in the world of politics, and that she has also experienced being deliberately sidelined. It is Madeleine Albright’s famous line: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” that outlines the idea that women should stick together and help each other to ensure progress for other women. Yet, there are scientific theories on why it is not always the case.
Nonetheless, the situation is slowly getting better and there are now initiatives, think tanks, and parliamentary and government committees and departments that are dedicating their space and time to female (political) emancipation. Among others, there is a Minister for Women in the Australian Parliament and a parliamentary page dedicated to women in politics. There are politicians like Irish MP Ivana Bacik who has been vocal on women rights in Ireland and Irish politics and who helped introduce gender quotas in Ireland. Women also networked and launched a grassroots community for Hillary Clinton in 2016, such as Women for Hillary. In case of the U.S. Congress, women try to stick together across party lines. Senator Shaheen points out that women in today’s Congress benefit from the efforts of two former Senators: Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX) and Barbara Mikulski (D, MD). The two senators started a dinner club in which they regularly got together women from the Congress, regardless of their party affiliation. As a result, some bipartisan legislation was passed, among the most important pieces being the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which was co-sponsored by all the women senators. Celebrities and celebrity politicians like Justin Trudeau support gender campaigns such as HeForShe. The BBC launched a program 100 Women that also included political issues, while CNN has Badass Women of Washington. The British Conservative Party launched an initiative Women2Win, successfully debunking one of the myths that only the left-wing engages in political feminism. The UN has an entire organization on helping and empowering women called UN Women. Georgetown has the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, there is Women in International Security, and NATO, too, has a Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security. And in fact, even the labels such as “The Nasty Woman” or the attack on Elizabeth Warren resulting in #ShePersisted brought women, not only in politics, closer together and showed the poignant double standards for women in politics.
Femininity Lost; Femininity Regained
There is a lot of work that still needs to be done to equalize women’s position in politics. It is also important to look beyond one’s social and media bubble, an issue that is becoming ever more urgent. Mistakes of female politicians are often magnified and there is a need to change both the perception and narrative – not to be afraid that creating gender-balanced cabinet might backfire should it not – for whatever reasons – work out. People in the position of power need to encourage the change, regardless of party affiliation, race, or religion – and there are cases proving that change can be done. There is a whole generation of male politicians who is turning veteran. Without diminishing their contribution to respective societies, maybe one day, their seats might be filled by women. At the same time, none of the measures should turn into a witch hunt – either against men or women in politics – or make women masquerade as men in order to get them into the inner circles of politics. Representative democracy should truly represent the population, so let women represent. As women, but for both women and men.
Markéta Šonková is with the Association for International Affairs (AMO).
1 All the data reflects the situation of when the article was written.
2 Deputy Prime Minister
3 Téachta Dála is a member of Dáil
4 The lower house
5 Prime Minister
6 However, she mentioned other reasons for withdrawing, too.