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!