Now it’s not just male politicians being accused of misogyny, it’s women too

There seems to be a new fad in town: a new take on an old subject that gets both political and social commentators twisted right up.  It’s the subject of misogyny.

“Nothing new there” I suppose most people will say as it’s been a hearty subject of debate for many years.  The problem is that now it’s not just the male politicians being accused, it’s the women.

Northern Ireland is a classic example, for years right wing traditionalists have been overtly misogynistic and in some cases, but certainly not all, were called out for a brief moment in commentary time.

This resulted in them changing nothing about their behaviour and getting on with their lives and sexist opinions as if nothing happened.

However, over the last year, there has been a change in the global political landscape with more women than ever ascending to some of the most powerful positions in politics.  Whilst Hillary Clinton may not have won the presidency she certainly did make a big impression politically.

Even Michelle Obama stepped further forward politically than some of her first lady predecessors.

David Cameron was replaced by Theresa May and Peter Robinson by Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness by Michelle O’Neill and Naomi Long returned to politics in a leadership role.

As a result of this shift in the political landscape, there’s been an interesting but alarming change in how our social and political commentators have reacted, and I remember when this situation first piqued my interest.

I was sitting in a Belfast newsroom and a group of well-respected male journalists were commenting on how the then newly co-opted MLA Emma Pengelly had been referred to in a Belfast Telegraph feature.

What was interesting was that they were exclaiming about how people would react if they produced a feature about a female politician in this way.

In the feature, a standfirst by the female journalist claimed Pengelly was “injecting glamour into policies”.  In one line Pengelly had been reduced to a figure of glamour.

Subconsciously this would have people insinuating that if she was busy “injecting glamour” into the policies that she might not actually be doing any real political work.

I decided that maybe I was over-reacting and read on.

The article went on to describe her as a “willowy newcomer”.  Could there have been a weaker term used to describe her slender figure?

And surely a woman who had progressed through the ranks of law and politics to earn a whopping £90k a year was as far away from a newcomer as someone could be.

By the fourth paragraph, the article was labouring her interest in fashion and fiction before reminding the readers she was a politician.

What’s worse for me is that same article didn’t end on a strong note about Pengelly’s political aspirations or her very strongly held DUP beliefs, no, it ended on the young woman feeling the need to justify her wages, talking about her expensive fashion tastes, watching boxsets with her husband and her admiration of Peter Robinson.

Was there misogyny at work and if so who was the misogynist?

Fast forward to Arlene Foster probably being the only person brave enough to attempt to put the DUP back together after Peter Robinson’s scandal-plagued term in office.

Once again it wasn’t her legacy as a lawyer or her political career that was in the spotlight – people became obsessed with her image.

Alliance’s Naomi Long has certainly dealt with the same type of thing given the press’ interest in her changing figure over the years.  Let’s not forget Twitter calling her the “Ginger Ninja” and the BBC repeating it.

Let me take a side-step from local politics just a moment.

Cast your mind back to January of this year when Theresa May was invited to meet Donald Trump.  There was uproar, how dare this sexist pig hold her hand.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading – mostly from feminist commentators.  Here was a strong female political leader meeting with the new president of America and all we could talk about was body language?

At the time I was involved in a group discussion on Facebook and I was truly alarmed at how many well-respected women were claiming the whole thing was a disgrace.

I watched the video, the scene in which Donald Trump takes Theresa May’s hand.  I also watched other interactions between them including a 17 minute press conference.  I had no love of either of them or their political policies but I still felt the need to defend.

Theresa May was not being dominated Trump on that visit, quite frankly it was the opposite. She kicked his political backside and he ended up in defence. I noted that Donald Trump was a man of a certain age and has – whether I was happy to admit this or not – some “gentlemanly” habits.

She kicked his political backside and he ended up in defence. I noted that Donald Trump was a man of a certain age and has – whether I was happy to admit this or not – some “gentlemanly” habits.

At the point at which he takes her hand in the film they are about to step downwards in a slope, you see Trump shortening his steps and you can see by the border on the wall that’s it’s a short slope.

He takes her hand at the point HE feels uneasy and taps it to signify the point of letting go. The hand holding lasts THREE SECONDS.  It was clear it was an automatic action and not a bold statement of power.

May was confident, steadfast, eloquent and came across highly educated in the issues she was talking about, she came across as knowing exactly what the issues she wanted to address were and gave an indication that she wasn’t just knowledgeable on the basis of the speech content but the ideology behind it.

To me, she projected a confident woman in control of her message and one who was unwavering in her political stance.

Trump, on the other hand, was another story. His speech was weak, he knew it was weak and he showed no signs of having “behind the scenes knowledge” of why the speech was constructed in the way it was. He really says nothing in it in comparison to May and the content of her speech.

He was merely pumping out buzz phrases and, in some cases, opening his hands in gestures that are widely known as submissive and/or apologetic. He did not project his voice and his eye contact was much less than hers.

Throughout the press conference Trump looks to May for approval and on more than one occasion she gives it to him.

I get that it’s important to point out times in which women are being forced into submission or put in a position where they can be anything but – however, I think we do women in powerful positions a great disservice when we go out of our way to criticise them for minute details when there’s much more to the story.

In March, May told the Guardian that she believed he was being a gentleman.  But the damage was done, she had been undermined by people completely misreading and misinterpreting a situation because of their dislike for Trump.

Don’t get me wrong, I struggle to find any political policies Theresa May is passionate about agreeable to my own personal liberalism, and I have no love in my heart for Trump as I side firmly with Standing Rock.  However, in the interests of fairness, it would be wrong of me to lambast them on false grounds.

Last week Theresa May hit the headlines again as she appeared on The One Show with her husband.  She was accused of being sexist because she joked about there being girl jobs and boy jobs in their home.

This light-hearted comment that gave us a little insight into this couple’s life at home was plastered everywhere as if the women’s movement was about to come crumbling down.

It was a lifestyle programme that wanted to see behind the scenes and that’s what they got.  Of course, no one mentioned the fact that her husband made it clear he did the bins because he was told to!

The sexism in politics saga continued at the weekend as Arlene Foster was dragged through the mud for calling Michelle O’Neill “blonde”.  Again it was a female journalist who loaded up the gun and gave it to Foster to shot herself with having been backed into a corner.

It’s important to note that Arlene Foster deserves to get a hard time as a politician, she’s got a lot of questions to answer as the head of a party that has been involved in so much perceived corruption in recent years.

In the Irish Independent interview, Foster was asked for “one word” to describe Michelle O’Neill and she said “blonde” as you would if that one word was “bald” or “ginger” or “boring” etc…

I’m not sure she necessarily meant it in the “dimwit blonde” manner but by this stage, she was backed into a corner and ended up making it worse trying to defend what she said.

Let’s not forget the reporter admitted to egging her on in the article.

I don’t particularly like the political policies of Arlene Foster’s party but that is completely irrelevant to this – the question is would Peter Robinson have been asked to describe Martin McGuinness in one word in an in-depth interview?

Was he? It seems a very bizarre question to ask, but similarly, it’s a loaded one.

What if she had have called her “feisty” or “boring” – in fact, is there any word that would have sufficed? That would not have resulted in people taking it badly?

I’m not defending what a lot of people have automatically considered as misogyny, all I’m doing is asking whether or not it was misogyny or was it a woman simply describing another woman.

How would O’Neill have described Foster ? “Frumpy” “harsh” or maybe even “a bigot”?

The big thing that is wrong here is how women in powerful positions are put under much more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

Neither Ian Paisley or Gerry Adams would ever have been asked to describe each other in one word – the question in itself is demeaning and derogatory.

It was a loaded gun the journalist handed to her to shoot herself and why? Who knows!  It’s not like there aren’t plenty of other subjects Foster could be trapped into an embarrassing statement with.

It’s time we stopped this over-analysis of women in politics and instead of analysing their every move from their fashion and off-the-cuff remarks to their appearance and start really analysing their actual political behaviour and policies.

Throughout this whole debacle one thing has bothered me greatly.  In the same article Foster talks about how the online trolling of her and the comments about her image, gender and looks upset not just herself but her teenage daughter who was forced to tears over it.

I don’t see one “sister” up in arms about how this woman was trolled so badly online.

I don’t see anyone out there asking why it is ok for people to question Arlene Foster’s GENDER based on how she looks…it’s horrific that we have stood by and allowed this woman to be treated like this regardless of her political policies.

So, if we’re going to defend Michelle O’Neill from being called a “blonde” by a woman she sees every day and knows personally and can call her out herself at any time then we have no choice but to defend Arlene Foster from anonymous keyboard warriors calling her a “man” and a multitude of other nasty remarks all based around her femininity!

  • Granni Trixie

    Insightful, thanks.

  • Nevin

    Are you having a bad hair day, jl? !!!

    The bad hair day bit is missing from the online Sindo. Obviously an oversight.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    That’s why I have just stuck a Ton on her at 2/1 for South Belfast ! That old dog PR is one of the best election strategists I know off ! Rarely have I seen him out manoeuvred at that game. You can bet he will be scrolling through that electoral register for SB and arranging pick-ups to polling stations to maximise that Unionist Vote and get Pengelly over the line ! If there is one Unionist who can match the clockwork operations of the SF Election Machine or any other political party machine it is without doubt Peter Robinson !

  • Granni Trixie

    If he is such a successful strategist why did he lose EB and leave the DUP in such bad shape?

  • Granni Trixie

    For your sake let’s hope it works out better than EB for PR.

  • johnny lately

    How does that change anything Nevin as I’ve no doubt the whole interview was choreographed, Foster knew what questions were going to be put to her and responded accordingly in line with her previous description of Michelle O Neill as being a puppet of Gerry Adams ie a wooden one, pruned and preened by Sinn Fein to be wheeled out as eye candy to an unsuspecting public.

  • mickfealty

    Tell me about it! I’ve been here for 15 years in June. It was okay for the first twelve months (for seven of which no one spoke). But some people really think there should be no cost to being rude to one another.

    If it works properly, the comments are for calling writers to account. It’s done me no lasting damage. I used to say that if you are going to get the privilege of getting the first word on the subject of your choice it is only good sense that your critics have the last word.

    But whilst that doesn’t entail letting chancers off, it does entail some listening to people who have views that can cover our own natural cognitive and political biases. Getting the balance between the necessary forthrightness to cut through the babble and listening to critics is a hard one to pull off, not least emotionally.

    Frankly, I’m fed up to opinionated boys and mansplainers (myself included). I don’t we’re unique in that, but sometimes its just dull to hear the same old rhetorical tricks masquerading as engagement. I wish some of us just had the humility to pipe down and listen to new voices once in a while.

  • mickfealty

    Yes. I agree. But that doesn’t make it any more genuine. Particularly when we see how women critics are actually treated by SF. That also has to weigh in the calculation, surely?

  • hollandia

    I would disagree with the self censoring thing. It’s a matter of whether a particular issue vexes you enough to comment on it. Most people would see that sort of bullying as part of the “rough and tumble” of politics. Others would see the outrage as “political correctness gone mad”. And a small rump will speak out.

    Also, don’t forget that most people in the north are focused on the big picture – the constitutional status, and as such are prepared to hold their noses with certain politicians as they defend/dismantle* the union.

    *Delete as applicable to your political bias.

  • jm

    I agree that remarks about appearance are all about avoiding ‘analysing their actual political behaviour and policies’. i think that this is a strategy to avoid giving any intellectual respect to the person. Saying rude things about the person not their polices is putting them in their place. That is what the below the line trolls are doing to Arlene. I also think that this is exactly what Arlene Foster was doing in her choice of language in answering the question. She is a lawyer by training. She used the word blonde knowing that we heard the silent ‘dumb’.She conveyed her point clearly that the subject was all appearance no substance. She was well capable of saying that it was a facile question to sum up a person in one word. She chose to answer in this way.
    i don’t think Arlene foster is sexist. She just used an opportunity to get a dig in because that’s who she is 🙂

  • mickfealty

    That’s the thing about ends justifying the means? So excoriating someone for calling someone else ‘blonde’ (when they so self evidently are putting a lot of effort into actually being such) is fine as a means to an end (even to people who have said the same themselves in the past) is fine because, well, it’s themuns?

    And organised bullying of dissenting females doesn’t matter, because, it’s usuns?

  • Tina Calder

    The one thing I like about Slugger is the direct contact with the readers who can challenge what I have written and some of my personal viewpoints behind the piece. I find this a really refreshing element to what has been an otherwise one-way street in my career.
    Awkward conversations, being challenged and having to explain oneself make me a better writer and a better commentator, when we aren’t held to account for what we write we blindly go forth with no real change in how we think, write or feel.
    With Slugger that’s the one thing I think that truly sets you apart from other sites and publishing platforms, the fact you have a very active commentary section.
    Importantly, I think that it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s not easy standing your ground when many people around you are claiming you’re not only wrong but uneducated in your decision. The time it takes to respond to each and every relevant comment is incredibly important as it’s this type of dialogue that Northern Ireland lacks. People shouting the odds at each other over partisan politics isn’t all we have to discuss, there are much deeper, wider issues and I, for one, am delighted and feel privileged to be given the opportunity to confront my own political and social viewpoints….and of course have my grammar corrected where commentators feel it necessary to point out !! 🙂

  • mickfealty

    I’m not going there Kev, there are rules about this place that apply even to me. 😉

  • hollandia

    Unfortunately, that’s where we are Mick, whether we like it or not. Like I said, because of the big picture issue of the constitution, we (and I mean “De People” of NI) are prepared to let a lot slide in chasing the prize. And a hell of a lot more than just common or garden bullying, which is by no means confined to either SF and the DUP, or indeed confined to politics.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I think we all know the reason why he lost East Belfast ? His wife Iris did not help him on that score ? He sucked the Alliance Party into the Flag Dispute for his own political gain for the DUP to retake East Belfast and Alliance fell “Hook-Line-And-Sinker” for it ! Now that is what I call a political strategist ! Did he really leave the DUP in such bad shape ? I thought they romped home after his departure in the 2016 Assembly Elections ?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    It will ! Bet a Ton make a Ton ! Not a bad days work ! If you get a hold of the new SB Election Register check out the wards and districts where the new entries are from ?

  • Nevin

    It changes the context, jl.

  • johnny lately

    Only in your mind Nevin although conveniently brushing Fosters previous description of Michelle O Neill as a puppet under the carpet when looking at her latest description as blonde, which actually reinforces the previous puppet description, says everything about the unionist mindset.

    Would a puppet on strings be seen as having a brain or having independent thoughts Nevin dont we all know what calling someone a puppet means and dont we all know that puppets are –

    “A puppet is an object, often resembling a human, animal or mythical figure, that is animated or manipulated by a person called a puppeteer. The puppeteer uses movements of their hands, arms, or control devices such as rods or strings to move the body, head, limbs, and in some cases the mouth and eyes of the puppet. The puppeteer often speaks in the voice of the character of the puppet, and then synchronizes the movements of the puppet’s mouth with this spoken part. The actions, gestures and spoken parts acted out by the puppeteer with the puppet are typically used in storytelling”

    Wasn’t it also suggested by other DUP members like Sammy Wilson that O Neill was a wooden one ie at meetings she just sat there, saying nothing.

    When you look at both descriptions Foster give of Michelle O Neill you can see clearly that they are both related ie Puppet, wooden one = Dumb under the control and direction of others. Blonde = Nice eye candy for the masses but dumb and easily manipulated by others.

  • Nevin

    jl, you continue to ignore the absence of the ‘bad hair day’ reference in the online Sindo.

  • johnny lately

    Yes Arlene Foster did say Michelle O’Neill never had a bad hair day and who would look after a puppets appearance, ie its hair, the puppet or the puppet master?

  • Nevin

    Have you read that Belfast News-Letter transcript of the Sindo interview?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Apologies if I was aggressive and off-putting Elaine. I just wanted to defend Tina’s original post but probably ended up sounding like I was antipathetic to your wider narrative about sexism, which I’m not. I wouldn’t in any way want to put you off commenting. The comment area on Slugger has some interesting thoughts and many not but one thing’s for sure, it is adversarial. Not everybody’s cup of tea; but the nature of the beast I think. I trained in law so it’s second nature / a bad habit to argue that way for me. But I know some see it as producing more heat than light.

    My own view for what it’s worth is that you get both. For me the heat is worth putting on your fire suit to get through, to reach some otherwise hidden little gems of insight people only reveal when really challenged. Hard maybe impossible to get that through other kinds of debate, and it’s one of the great merits of Slugger.

  • johnny lately

    I dont need to Nevin its no different than anyone elses transcript of the interview and Im already aware of Foster and the DUP’s previous derogatory descriptions of Michelle O Neill perhaps you will regale us with the non derogatory excuse for the puppet and wooden one remarks too as strangely enough there’s not much difference in meaning when describing someone as either a puppet or a blonde.

  • Nevin

    jl, it is different; the ‘bad hair day’ reference is missing from the on-line Sindo article.

    Here’s a snippet from Arlene’s reference to the importance of appearance:

    … sometimes you have a bad hair day and obviously that’s the day that you are going to be photographed.” Mrs Foster went on to say that she believed appearance was increasingly significant in politics: “I do think even for men now [it matters]. If you look at William Hague and what happened to him with the baseball cap, Trump and the tie and the hair, I think image has become [important] – it’s the age we live in.”

    I also added Michael Foot’s treatment by the media re. his appearance.

  • johnny lately

    I see you keep brushing under the carpet the uncanny similarities between her previous derogatory description of Michelle O Neill and the present derogatory description.

    I also see you left out the bit about Arlene saying Michelle never had a bad hair day.

    “I think image has become [important] – it’s the age we live in.”

    What type of image do you think Arlene is attempting to portray to the masses about Michelle O Neill ?

  • Nevin

    “I also see you left out the bit about Arlene saying Michelle never had a bad hair day.”

    Arlene’s ‘bad hair day’ reference was to herself. Why are making up quotes? On second thoughts, don’t bother wasting folk’s time.

  • johnny lately

    “You never see her without her hair (looking) perfect.”

    Still trying to squirm Nevin with the deliberate ignoring of how strikingly similar in meaning Arlene Fosters previous description of Michelle O’Neill is to her latest description.

    Is that just a coincidence ?

  • hollandia

    Just as an aside, and slightly off topic, I had reason recently to jokingly chastise two female friends who were expounding on the aesthetic qualities of both Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau. It’s not a one way street, and in many ways is reflective of the modern media and its triumph of style over substance.

  • Nevin

    Now why couldn’t you have quoted Arlene accurately, jl, instead of indulging in spin?

  • johnny lately

    The only people who are trying to spin are those like yourself Nevin who’s floating the envy or compliment line, the latter being the most ridiculous as it would be like Gregory Campbell while in election mode describing Gerry Adams as handsome and well presented – not a snowballs chance in hell. The envy one your pushing for the Blonde description, although not an impossibility, is however highly unlikely when looking back at the puppet description and the similarities in meaning between the two descriptor’s used to describe Michelle O’Neill by Arlene Foster. There’s no such thing as coincidence in politics Nevin.

  • Nevin

    jl, you’ve still not explained the online absence of the ‘bad hair day’ reference from the newspaper that did the interview. I’ve opted for the envy line as that best fits the fuller account ie the context; I don’t think anyone else has.

    PS By a strange coincidence, I just referred to same in a short post in the new Ed Straw thread.

  • johnny lately

    Its the best fit for you Nevin concerning Fosters mentality when using the blonde reference in this case. However the Newsletter’s transcript makes no difference to the intended meaning by Foster describing Michelle O’Neill as being blonde. Your actually saying Arlene Foster is jealous of Michelle O’Neill but isn’t jealousy and hatred two sides of the one coin and also a sign of insecurity ?

  • Nevin

    jl, the reference is to appearance. You seem to be veering off on a different tangent. ‘Sometimes you have a bad hair day and obviously that’s the day that you are going to be photographed’ certainly indicates to me a twinge of envy but nothing to do with your ‘hatred’.

  • npbinni

    Thanks, Tina. That was very fair.

  • John Collins

    The Farmers Party, Clann na Taluin, Clann na Poblactha, The Depressive-oops sorry- Progressive Democrats, and The Greens- all small parties go the same way, if they enter coalition.

  • Jack Stone

    It wasn’t the comment’s genuine intent which caused it to blow up (although, to be honest, I take Arlene’s calling it a compliment a bit much). I think it was given weight because both sides wanted to talk about it. Fire needs Oxygen and it is the principle parties continuing to talk about it that is giving it ink in the papers.

    Wouldn’t attacking Michelle O’Neill for how her supporters talk about women critics be seen as victim blaming?

  • Shane Frank

    Whatever Foster said it is totally unacceptable and unreasonable that her young family be fielding and dealing with online abuse/slanging/sledging or whatever you want to call it. Please stop. Arlene Foster is a political opponent but she is also a parent and a normal lady like us all. Wise up. From a lifetlong republican….

  • Gopher

    People are always going to get judged on looks and its been happening in politics since the dawn of time. The Carthaginians, before christ was a carpenter picked Hannibal over Hanno on looks but rest assured if he, Alexander or Ceasar had crashed and burned they would have been called “spice boys” very very quickly, which incidently will be the fate of Macron and Trudeau if they make a pigs ear of things. That is somewhat worse than the man boobs editorials Cameron and Blair got everytime they went for a swim on holiday. I dont remember Thatcher being so precious, her science degree putdown was pretty cool.

  • chrisjones2

    “I’m a member of the UK Labour party”

    You should have said before and we might have made more allowance. You have our sympathy at what must be a difficult time for you

  • Michael Dowds

    Who’s we? Is it a royal we?