Rosemary Evans examines the role of gender in modern political culture
On the 9th of August 1588, Elizabeth I made a speech before the land forces assembled to fight the Spanish Armada in which she declared that although she had ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman’, she had ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. The famous phrase was politically vital – it was Elizabeth’s attempt to manage the contradiction inherent in one woman (by virtue of her sex) being inevitably passive and feeble, but also holding a political position which demanded opposite qualities. Effectively, Elizabeth had to masculinize her political identity in order to show she could do her job.
Today, our understanding of sexual categories is different: gender is increasingly recognised as separate to sex, and it is old-fashioned to regard the characteristics of aggression and strength as being ‘male’, and compassion and weakness as being ‘female’.
However, old habits die hard, and over 400 years after Elizabeth’s speech, gendered behaviour, however damaging and unhelpful, continues to cling to sex. While the recent efforts to deconstruct perceptions of gender have been extremely positive – the most current example being the campaign to detoxify masculinity and encourage men to open up about their emotions – there is another harmful aspect of masculinity which has been left to thrive.
No-where is this aspect more prevalent in our society than in political culture – a culture that, subscribing to the belief that because something is time-honoured, it must be effective – prides itself in being traditional. From the gothic-style architecture of the Palace of Westminster to the use of bizarre, time-honoured rituals like the House of Lords Speaker having to sit on a cushion called a ‘woolsack’ that dates back to the 14th century, our political system is stamped all over with historical legacy. To give my favourite example, the space between the two benches in the House of Commons was carefully designed to be greater than the length of two swords in order to prevent opposing members engaging in a duel.
The result is that our system is proudly modelled on one in which it was deemed politically productive to have a literal duel with your opponent during a parliamentary debate. This is where gender comes in: What is never really pointed out is that, as with so many things in a world where, until recently, men have run pretty much everything, the traditional translates as (and in this case, disguises) the masculine. Despite the fact that 32% of MPs are women, Westminster appears to be a swimming pool of testosterone. The impression given by Prime Minister’s Questions is that there is hardly a moment during session when the Commons is not a volcanic mass of shouting, booing and (often derogatory) name-calling – an arena where MPs stab at each other’s egos like boys in a school playground. Given its deliberately adversarial structure, the ‘sacred traditions’ underlying British political culture nurture this kind of tribal behaviour, encouraging conduct that is decidedly competitive and hostile; behaviour that, unsurprisingly, isn’t very conducive to co-operation. Most of this antagonism is concerned not with the political, but the personal : a joke about someone’s appearance, or a crafty reference to a recent PR humiliation. To list a few, Michael Gove has been called a ‘pipsqueak of a man’, Ed Balls called a ‘turkey’ and John Bercow derided as a ‘stupid sanctimonious dwarf’. These insults, thrown around by grown men who have been entrusted to run the country, are all alike in their intention to patronise and provoke, and in their complete irrelevance to actual policy and government. MPs don’t draw swords in the house of commons anymore. But they may as well do, because a lot of what happens in there when fragile male egos are rattled is equally unproductive.
Not only is all of it utterly pointless, but it shapes the way we regard political competency – it turns antagonistic and malicious (not to mention egotistical and inflexible) into qualities that are considered useful in a good politician. It means people have little respect for those that can’t hold their own in a shouting match – essentially, those who cannot fit the ‘masculine’ model.
So where does that leave those 32% of MPs? Even without exploring the multitude of challenges faced by female MPs concerning sexual harassment and misogyny both in Westminster and in public life, these women are faced with the basic dilemma: how does the ‘traditionally feminine’ fit into a masculine world where your best chance of success is subscribing to a culture of hostility and aggression? The answer is that it doesn’t. Numerous female MPs have spoken out repeatedly against the traditional and macho culture they find themselves in. Responding to the incident last year in which MP Nicholas Soames made ‘woof woof’ noises at fellow MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh as she addressed the Commons, Harriet Harman criticised the ‘culture and atmosphere’ of Westminster, arguing that it was suffering from a ‘hangover’ from old traditions and needed to adapt to the modern world. Similarly, former MP and member of the House of Lords Lynne Featherstone has argued that women are deterred from entering politics by the culture of ‘bullying’ and ‘finger-pointing’ created by men. Women may make up almost one third of the commons, but the behaviour associated with ‘femininity’ (the antithesis to masculinity and thus the complete opposite of the behaviour so far described) appears to be invisible in politics. There is no ‘feminine touch’ of calmness, compromise and humility. In fact, femininity – defined in this instance as identifying with the female gender through displaying any qualities that might be described as ‘feminine’ – is treated as political baggage. It is something ambitious women must leave behind in order to succeed.
Which explains why the two women who did manage to fight their way to the top seem to have so much in common. One is infamously known as the Iron Lady, and the other used her reputation as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ as a focal selling point in her election campaign. Faced with a criterion for Acceptable Female Leader almost as narrow as the one faced by Elizabeth I, both women were forced to make a point of perpetuating the ‘masculine’ political ideals of antipathy and inflexibility in order to squeeze into it. They had to prove they were icy, ruthless and ‘unfeminine’ in their politics – essentially, the self-professed bitch. Theresa May can be as ‘feminine’ as she wants in superficial ways that are safely detached from her politics. Her apparent love of cooking and interest in fashion seems to satisfy a need to confirm that as a person, she is safely contained within the bounds of traditional femininity. When it comes to her political identity, however, she, like Elizabeth I, has to show she has the heart and stomach of a man. And being a ‘man’ apparently means being a bit of an arsehole.
Who knows, maybe a culture that nurtures arseholes is what we need in politics – an alternative has never been tested. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to consider the possibility that in politics, as with many things, being ‘bloody difficult’ (meaning willing, perhaps eager, to antagonise your opponents) is not necessarily a key to getting what you want, nor is it inevitably a useful quality in a politician. As agonisingly bored as everyone is of hearing about Brexit, it proves this point: Many months of Theresa May performing her much-advertised ‘difficult woman’ role before Brussels in Brexit negotiations seem to have yielded nothing. Brexit also proves the futility of a competitive, adversarial political culture, in that it is a key example, if ever there was one, that the issues facing a country should come before party squabbles and delicate egos. And a key example that it does not.
A popular opinion at the moment is that negotiation and compromise (traditionally ‘female’ things that show spinelessness) are wrong, and pride and obstinacy (‘male’ things that show heroism and integrity) are right. A no deal Brexit is a good thing, apparently. This glorification of obstinacy and condemnation of compromise is a good reflection of the ‘masculine’ values that dominate British politics: Pride (whether personal, national or partisan)is considered more important than actual practical benefit. It is better to protect your self-image (or that of your party) at the risk of gaining nothing than to settle for compromise in the hope of gaining something.
I am reluctant to use the phrase ‘female touch’ because it is an extremely outdated concept – men are just as capable of negotiation, humility and keeping a cool head as women are, and you would hope it was basic practicality and reason, rather than the influence of any ‘female touch’, that persuades them these are valuable qualities in politics.
At the time when Elizabeth I likened herself to a male leader, the world was a different place -England was in the midst of a brutal war with Spain while MPs made a habit of bringing swords into parliament – antagonism and pride were indispensible qualities for the politics of the time. Today, the world is very different, and perhaps it is time political culture caught up.