Women in Politics: Does the centenary of women’s right to vote represent 100 years of progress?

2018 marks the centenary of women’s right to vote. Today, leaders such as Teresa May, Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde are testament to the progress made over the last 100 years and some would argue exemplify the achievement of total gender equality in 2018. Indeed, with the Prime minister of New Zealand just announcing her pregnancy and plans to resume work with her husband staying at home to care for their child, one could easily assume that the pesky trade-off between pursuing a career and family has thankfully evaporated in modern society. While the overwhelmingly celebratory tone of the media coverage of Arden’s pregnancy is encouraging, the patronising suggesting that it is somehow a radical advancement of #girl power is not. It’s 2018, a pregnant women leading a country should be commonplace not controversial. While predictions that New Zealand is overnight going to descend into a ‘state of nature’ due Arden’s ‘baby brain’ is laughable, the deeper prejudice which underlies this assumption is not; women who pursue a career and a family are incompetent at both. On the other hand, women appear to be equally damned if they decide not to start a family, with Andrea Leadsom accusing Teresa May of being a less capable candidate for the conservative leadership because of her childlessness.  

In her most recent book “Women and Power” Mary Beard explores the historic scrutiny women face in the public political sphere, demonstrating that modern media coverage can find its roots in the classical world. For example, Beard points out that in early fourth century BC Aristophanes devoted a whole comedy to the ‘hilarious’ fantasy that women might take over the running of the state. The comedy was premised on the fact that women simply couldn’t engage in public discourse as they would be unable to adapt their idle domestic chit chat to the lofty realm of politics. This stereotype persists in contemporary media accounts through the labelling of women’s speech as ‘shrill’, ‘whining’ and ‘whinging’; repositioning women from the public sphere of politics comfortably back into to the domestic sphere as stereotypical nagging wives.  Similarly, Elizabeth I adoption of androgyny to justify her intrusion into the male sphere of warfare in her famous Tilbury speech in which she declares “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, pertinently mirrors Margret Thatcher’s own voice training to lower her pitch in order to sound more commanding.

One hundred years after women were granted the right to vote their role in politics remains distinctly gendered and their personal choices subject to intense scrutiny. The continued parallelism between contemporary media coverage and classical literature demonstrates that despite advancements we are simply not as progressive as we like to believe.


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