The ‘Morally Sound’ Woman: Sexism and Theresa May

It’s 2016, the Brexit result has thrown David Cameron out of office and the media are currently analysing reasons to elect or reject Theresa May as the party successor. Lucy Denyer, writing for the Telegraph, lists three of these reasons as: ‘she’s been married to the same man since 1980 (morally sound: check), doesn’t have any children (could be a turn-off for some but it does mean she’s less likely to be distracted on the job). She cooks a new recipe every week and goes to church every Sunday…’

Sadly, these sexist stereotypes are nothing new. Within the media, there are countless examples of sexist representation, which at their time of publication spark outrage, but are quickly swept over in the 24 hours news cycle. However, apart from the odd investigative journalism piece into sexist representation, the general population is generally only exposed to these as individual acts, rather than the systematic and consistent sexism that it is. 

The next outrage occurred during May’s leadership race: while campaigning against fellow Conservative Andrea Leadsom, her investment in the country’s future was questioned due to her lack of children. Although Leadsom quickly apologised for these remarks and later dropped out of the leadership race, it still demonstrates the ease at which she could revert to stereotypical ideas of gender. If a female political leader can foster such ideas about her own gender, it wouldn’t be too much of stretch to assume that many members of the general public share similar views.

Soon after, in discussions of Brexit with Nicole Sturgeon, the infamous article ‘Forget Brexit, who won Legsit?’ was published, in which the Daily Mail analysed not the arrangements between the countries’ leaders, but their leg shape, positioning and choice of tights. Such an article sexualises and undermines women, insinuating that their value is inherently linked to their legs rather than their political insight and decision-making.

It’s evident not only in the way the media chooses to talk about her, but the way in which the everyday person discusses her. Theresa May is continually compared to Margaret Thatcher, purely for the reason of being a conservative female in politics, regardless of attitudes, policies and personality. Facebook posts even mentioned her choice of shoulder pads as linking her to the Iron Lady. If a current male politician were compared to a predecessor 30 years earlier, purely due to their choice in grey suits, it would seem ridiculous.

Numerous times I have heard Theresa May criticised for being cold and unemotional – but similar attributes in a man would be regarded as evidence of his rationality and ability to put personal feelings aside for his country. While personal matters often comprise some part of a politicians criticism, in Theresa May and other female politicians, it takes up a far greater proportion. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone laughing about her dancing, or how they find her smile creepy, or her inability to interact with kids at school. Now think of the times you’ve heard someone criticise her policies. Jeremy Corbyn, however, is more commonly criticised for his radical left policies, or idealistic election promises, both of which are completely within his political domain and therefore understandable targets.

Although anecdotal evidence and Facebook posts are not the most scientific examples of evidence, the truth is that they must be taken into account, as sexism is a socially spread phenomenon, often found in communications between friends and workmates. The culture of sexism is not limited to media publications and though not as widely advertised, individual interactions still contribute to an overall culture of undermining female politicians.

In evidencing this trend of representation, I must also present an alternative. Although we should, we cannot always immediately recognise sexism. So, in dealing with media stories or even our own perceptions of female politicians, there are two techniques to root out sexist rhetoric.

The first is to apply the ‘rule of reversability.’ Would you say that about a male candidate? If not, then why say it about a female one? Take the representation of Theresa May and apply it to David Cameron: would it make you laugh?

Secondly, situate female politicians in their chosen field: politics. Focus on their political strategies, their alliance-building skills and their ideological beliefs. Their personal life, unless it impedes on their job, should remain outside the jurisdiction of the media. Ultimately, a woman’s children (or lack of), her choice of dress, or hobby, or spouse, will not affect her ability to lead a country and should not be the focus of our attention.

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