How We Talk About Women in Politics – And Why It Matters

Laura Cunliffe-Hall discusses the importance of the language we use to describe women in politics, following on from a tumultuous weekend for the government.

Underneath the mire and total disintegration of the government over the last week as top officials swiftly exited Downing Street stage left, one universal truth stood out amidst the multiple opinion pieces and Twitter commentariat – women in politics are talked about in a language that is rarely used for their male contemporaries.

At the heart of the story surrounding the dramatic departure of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser and Lee Cain, Head of Communications, was a description of Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative Party Head of Communications and the Prime Minister’s current partner, being referred to by Cummings, Cain and their allies as ‘Princess Nut Nut’. Simultaneously as reports of this degrading language was surfacing, further news items circulated describing Allegra Stratton, the new Press Secretary to the Prime Minister, as being ‘in tears all morning’ in reaction to Cain’s briefings against her. As Lisa Nandy pointed out, the same articles using emotive language to paint Stratton and Symonds as highly-strung and overly-sensitive, contrastingly depicted male politicians such as Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid as being decisively furious in their reaction to events. Rather than upset, they were only ‘angry’. These types of briefings are damaging on multiple levels.

Firstly, they reduce competent women and make them seem ‘lesser’ than their male counterparts, relying on the ‘hysterical woman’ trope rather than on the genuine emotions provoked by the specifics of an undoubtedly nasty and unprofessional culture within Downing Street. A culture that led to Stratton telling The Observer, ‘the country does not want to be run by people in No 10 who treat people discourteously and unpleasantly.” Stratton’s ‘tears’ are not relevant; by focusing on them instead of the complex political machinations going on behind the scenes within Johnson’s team that are distracting the government from their responsibility to the country in a time of national crisis, the real story gets lost. At the same time, a highly-qualified woman’s credibility gets publicly undermined.

Secondly, the focus on female emotions suggests that men can’t or don’t get upset at work in the same way as women. This narrative adds to the toxic masculinity culture that has led to a crisis in men’s mental health , demonstrating how outdated gendered discourse can be harmful across the spectrum of gender identity.

Thirdly, women being emotional is always portrayed negatively, as somehow indicative of a personal failing. Instead of focusing on how emotional intelligence and empathy can be useful political qualities (the success of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Kamala Harris in the recent US election are a testament to this); instead ‘tears’ become the subject of derision on Twitter as people line up to say they demonstrate you are not ‘tough enough’ for politics. Women’s emotional responses do not and should not define their careers and their reactions to political twists and turns, unless the same energy is preserved for their male counterparts. Emotion makes you human – and humanity is something we desperately need more of in politics.

Furthermore, the effects of how women are characterised in the political sphere has a knock-on effect elsewhere across business and wider society. Women in the workplace are already expected to suppress their emotions (in case they demonstrate ‘weakness’), speak slower and constantly present an image of confidence and control to match patriarchal expectations of ‘appropriate’ workplace conduct. Reports mocking Stratton and Symonds do little to challenge the perception that women at work need to change themselves to fit into a masculine work culture, rather than that the culture needs to change to reflect what women need. According to 2020 McKinsey Women in the Workplace research, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce. Now more than ever, women need to be supported and respected, within the workplace and outside of it, in journalistic and political discourse.

I could not disagree more with the politics of Stratton and Symonds, what they do and the interests they seek to protect through their work. Nevertheless, they deserve better than to be the subject of misogynistic mockery. Instead of political reporters focusing on hyperbole about women in tears, perhaps the same scrutiny should be applied to the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and if Stratton and Symonds can succeed in bringing about any semblance of a coherent communications strategy to regain public trust, where Cummings and Cain have clearly failed.

This government’s narcissistic self-obsession in a time of national crisis sums up their incompetence which has led to the UK becoming the first country in Europe to pass 50,000 coronavirus deaths. We can all agree that the government and their advisers must be held to account for their catastrophic handling of COVID-19. However, women’s emotions are not the problem here. It’s time to strip away Cummings and Cain’s blokey divisive spin and use our words to respect and when necessary, critique, women in politics for their policies, not their emotions.

Laura Cunliffe-Hall is newly elected to the Young Fabians National Executive Committee and was previously Communications Officer for the Young Fabians Environment Network. Laura works for a communications consultancy, specialising in stakeholder engagement and public affairs. She writes in a personal capacity.

She tweets @LauraHall1995.

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