Women in Government – facts, figures and rationalising

This is kind of an extension to Faith’s article about party representation.

Since 1918, women have been allowed to stand for Parliament, while not being very long ago, this hard earned victory should have represented a massive change in our country. One would hope it would allow the government to more closely resemble the people – one of the signs of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately this is not the case, while women and men are approximately equal in number (until we get older) only 291 female mps have been elected compared to 4365 male ones since 1918. In the last parliament men outnumbered women approximately 5 to 1. It’s often suggested that having a first past the post system makes us more likely to have straight white christian men in parliament, but even so – why are people not making a bigger deal about this?

Here’s my opinion (roast me in the comments): when women are political they are either perceived as being opinionated, or manly, or in some way not “normal” in order to excuse this “unusual” behaviour, such as lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or “radically feminist.”   Apart from the fact that most of these things, if not viewed as inherently bad (“she doesn’t even shave her legs!”), appear to be used to defeminise women, it is a problem that needs tackling. If women feel they have to be the next Thatcher, or Widdecombe, to be a politician, it’s no wonder we have so few running.

If my sister turned to me and said “I want to be prime minister!” I would seriously wonder if it were possible, unless she grew (figurative) balls, to be accepted. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with mps with traits not stereotyped to be feminine, I’m just saying we have set a mold for female mps, and it’s time we got over it.

Take away fact – if we had two men for every women in parliament, there would still be twice as many as before.

7 Comments

  1. Sean Newham
    Sean Newham

    May 11, 2010 at 7:37 am

    I forgot to cite my data: Election reform society, national statistics and the house of commons website.

  2. Interesting article! Significant that you have referred to Widdecombe and Thatcher — the Tory party had a v strong relationship with 20th C female electorate. I think this is partly because of the specifically masculine identity of the labour movement in both 19th C and 20th C contexts. Worth remembering that a lot of important parliamentary legislation was pushed through by NUSEC under Tory govt 1925-9 — Married Women’s Act, the Law of Property Act, Matrimonial Causes Amendment Act, Guardianship of Infants Act etc. Problem was, it legitimised women as mothers and wives only, and no where else on the party political scene was this being rebutted; Ray Strachey and NSWS’ old-style ‘equality feminism’ def didn’t have as much purchase. Role of women as mothers and wives was solidified across the party political spectrum, and as yet none of the major parties are committed enough to shaking this off.

  3. If you look at the way the leaders’ wives were treated in the media in the recent election campaigns, and even the women standing for election, it’s no wonder that this discourages women from aiming for political post. The focus was all entirely on appearance and ‘femininity’. I believe The Daily Mail also recently ran an article complaining that female politicians in Britain just aren’t as attractive or sexually appealing as elsewhere in the world. They particularly focussed on Italy, where a porn star/glamour model now has a top political job.

    Admittedly, The Daily Mail might also see unattractive female politicians as causing cancer, so I’m not entirely sure whether their facts are all correct but it is an intimidating atmosphere for a woman to enter, knowing that she will largely be judged solely on appearance.

    And you wouldn’t see it happen to men. You don’t see it happen to men. No-one tells male politicians for having wrinkles round their eyes, or for just being downright ugly; apparently appearance doesn’t affect men’s credibility…

    • Sean Newham
      Sean Newham

      May 13, 2010 at 12:53 pm

      Actually I disagree, in recent years there has been a strong emphasis on appearing young and healthy if you are a Prime minister, or in the public eye for men as well as women (Gordon was rumoured to have had botox at one point, and his health was a national concern for a while). I will admit that the extent to which men are expected to “look nice” is more subtle, less prevalent and less extreme than that directed toward women. A general principal emerges – a person should be picked on their qualities as a political agent. Not how much love one has for shoes, which is what is being said by the bbc and news outlets about the most senior female cabinet minister, Theresa May, who appears to be homophobic whilst in charge of equality, I guess you really can’t have it all.

      • @sean- it’s not just about ‘looking nice’- rather than the issue being that the appearences of men in the public eye is simply ‘less’ scrutinised than those of women, (which is the case), but that the ideals against which they are scrutinised are totally different– a prime politician (man) is a ‘man in their prime’ in terms of career- that is with maturity and gravitas of age and accumalated experience and connections, who’s worked their way up the career ladder, but who is still young enough to out compete the next generation. A woman ‘in her prime’ is a woman who is in her prime as a reproductively (and sexually) active woman– so the image is significantly younger.

        also men dress to be ‘unmarked’- the default person, suits are designed to homogonise male bodies, while women present as ‘the other’- and their choices in appearance cannot avoid showing individuality. Women who attempt to make the rules for male self presentation apply to them stand out as ‘mannish’- so their efforts are partly self-defeating.

        • Sean Newham
          Sean Newham

          May 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

          Beva, I’d disagree that the woman-in-her-prime “ideal” you present occurs in politics. The most successful female politicians are those who have “masculine” traits, not those who are reproductively able – women in politics also tend to be older, as do men, so I’m pretty sure the idea you’ve portrayed doesn’t apply here. As for dress, women can dress to be homogeneous, there are plenty of suits that are feminine yet unexciting, it’s just that women have more freedom to express themselves in their clothes generally, but are either made to be “manly” or in some way be “different” to succeed in Parliament. Unfortunately there is no real way to solve this, how do we make people feel that politics is for everyone? We see men in government as white and middle class, generally christian and straight to boot, while women are “activists” or “manly” when they do the same, even if they are all the things their male counterparts except ordinarily. Although I feel this is part of a larger problem of society telling people, specifically women, what is “suitable” for them to do, I feel trivialising the “roles” as women are supposed to be sexual and men experienced misses the point.

          • “it’s just that women have more freedom to express themselves in their clothes generally” – I’d hardly call it ‘freedom’. Why is this the case? That freedom is essentially (as I see it) an extension of the fact that women in this culture are ‘decorative’ whilst men are more practical, and allowed to be more practical. Hence wearing suits. Which, as Beva said, homogenise the Male body and reduce its individuality.

            Also, there’s a huge double standard for women. On the one hand, newspapers and magazines strongly criticise our female politicians who dress attractively as it seems to show a frivolity not desirable in a politician. On the other hand, then when a woman reaches as close to the top of the political game as she can, she is often perceived and presented as somehow less-than-human. For example, Hilary Clinton. In the 2008 presidential campaigns she was mocked in the American media for being rather like a man. Her laugh was characterised as being robotic and showing that she wasn’t actually a proper human being. But Sarah Palin on the other hand was seen as a far more easily sexualised woman, and so suffered sexualised satirical attacks (and a porn film made ‘starring’ her…) and was portrayed as vapid in satirical programmes like SNL…

            I think the same goes for female politicians over here. Their appearance, whether too “masculine” or too “feminine” is used to back up criticisms of their fitness to govern. Men, whilst they may suffer some of that in the media, are not victim to anything like the same sort of criticism. It is not so widespread, criticism of a man’s appearance is not also used to back up assumptions about their character to the same extent, and it is desirable for a man to seem ‘powerful’, whilst a woman who seems ‘powerful’ is unnatural.

            Which is why it’s probably quite hard to encourage young women to go into politics.

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