The General Election is now just a day away, and against the backdrop of erratic and volatile polling, we seem to have a much closer race between Conservatives and Labour than we did previously (or we don’t and the Conservatives are set for a landslide victory – who can tell?). Following my previous piece on the number of female candidates, it is now a good time to look back on the campaign, and the treatment of the women up for election.
An increase in women in leadership roles, both in terms of party leadership and senior Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet positions, has resulted in women appearing more frequently in coverage of this election than we have seen in previous elections. In 2015, the Loughborough Communication Research Centre’s content analysis of the press and television news coverage of the formal campaign found that only four of the twenty individuals who featured prominently in the media were women. In this election, the same analysis looking at the top twenty in each of the first four weeks of the campaign found that in the first half of the campaign (between the 5 to 17 May), eight of the top thirty individuals were female, and in the second half (18 to 31 May), thirteen women featured in the top twenty-nine.
As you would expect, party leaders including Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, Leanne Wood, Caroline Lucas and Arlene Foster featured in this list. Also included were Labour’s Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner and Diane Abbott, and Conservatives Amber Rudd, Karen Bradley and Priti Patel. The numbers tell a more complete story when looked at in their totality: only thirteen women were featured in comparison to twenty-seven men that made the cut. It is also worth noting that of those twenty-seven, three are former Prime Ministers, one was the husband of the Prime Minister and another four were politicians from other countries, including US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.
In terms of party comparisons, the Conservative Party are slightly behind Labour, with the three Cabinet members appearing less frequently and often lower down on the lists than the three Labour Shadow Cabinet members. While this can partly be attributed to May’s desire to keep the focus on herself and her credentials as a leader (#TheresaMaysTeam), many of her male colleagues did feature, including Damian Green, David Davis, Michael Fallon, Greg Clark, Boris Johnson, Philip Hamond, Jeremy Hunt, and Patrick McLoughlin. In comparison, May’s other female Cabinet colleagues, including Andrea Leadsom, Justine Greening and Liz Truss, have been almost invisible, whilst Priti Patel and Karen Bradley only made the top twenty for the fourth week of the campaign. This partly points towards May’s trust in these Ministers to deliver on the day (Truss for instance has come in for criticism for her performance as Lord Chancellor) as well as their ‘rankings’ in terms of importance of their brief. However, this itself is an important point: why are the female Cabinet ministers for the most part covering briefs considered less important?
It’s not just about frequency of media coverage, but also the content of that coverage. It seems that the Daily Mail has learnt from its poorly received ‘Legs-it’ headline, but comments on female politicians’ clothes and appearance still crop up too frequently. The fixation with Theresa May’s shoes has continued with headlines including ‘May’s Brexit shoes talk loudest on campaign trail’, whilst an article published just yesterday focused on author Hilary Mantel’s comments that May avoided looking like “a man in drag, which a lot of female politicians do”.
In a similar vein, treatment of female candidates as a whole is still far from acceptable. The comments received by Labour candidate Emily Owen are an obvious example. She spoke out after receiving messages about what sexual acts she was prepared to perform to get votes, her bra size, and how many votes would be needed for her to strip. She is not the only one: Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru leader, tweeted out a comment she received after the BBC leaders debate:
While both chose to make these comments public, the online and often private nature of such comments makes it difficult to judge the quantity. However, the trend of treatment of female politicians more generally suggests that many more female candidates experience this sort of sexist comment.
Diane Abbott has previously told the Guardian that if she were a young politician today, she would think twice about standing for Parliament due to the level of racism and misogyny aimed at black female MPs. Jess Philips had to have security measures put into her home after receiving more than 600 threats of rape in one night, and an overwhelming number of women MPs testify that the amount of violent abuse and threats they receive has increased.
Progress on the number of women in Parliament must therefore be linked to tackling the increased abuse to and threats made against women in public life. Against predictions that the number of women in Parliament will stagnate or even decrease for the first time in 20 years after the vote on Thursday, and analysis that shows that 7.5 million people in over 100 constituencies won’t have the chance to vote for a female candidate at all, we need to create a political system where women are actively promoted within politics.
This involves a change to the culture and atmosphere in the House of Commons, to ensure that female MPs are not subject to outright sexist behaviour (cast your mind back to Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames barking at SNP member Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh while she spoke) as well as unconscious bias. It involves ensuring that women are treated as seriously as men, rather than being defined by their sexuality and offered demeaning coverage that damages voters’ perceptions. And it involves allowing women to do their jobs without fear of sexist abuse, violence or intimidation.