The ‘visibility issue’ of women in politics is not just how many are sitting in Parliament. It’s also an issue of who they’re allowed to be once they’re there. If you ran a quick list of current famous, memorable political personalities in your head, I’d put money on most of them being male.
Put simply, men in public life are allowed to caricature themselves to a degree that woman simply aren’t. The parameters in which female politicians are allowed to express their personalities boil down to being either a bitch, butch, or a mummy. In comparison, male politicians possess a whole spectrum of skins, waiting to be slipped into. How was it that Boris Johnson was able to get stuck on a zipwire in 2012, but then be taken seriously by many during the Leave campaign? Philip Hammond is labelled as the front bench’s Eyore and the ‘most boring man in British politics’ yet remains widely respected in the chamber. Corbyn’s excited adoption of SnapChat further testifies to his public icon persona. What about Farage, mixing politics and pints for years, and personifying every man ever you don’t want to get stuck talking to in the pub. And don’t get me started on Bercow or Rees-Mogg.
This is not to say that female politicians are not allowed to have personalities full stop, but the media personas they do possess are far more limited than the above. Not to mention that what women are wearing – instead of what they’re saying – is too readily a starting point. See Theresa May, quickly labelled as ‘Maybot’ for her ‘robotic’ campaign style. While May’s relations with the public could be drastically improved, the press lazily tropes her as this metal figure with a dramatic shoe collection. Need another example? Scroll down to the comments section of any article covering a woman trying to get elected/ legislate/ just politic and count the number of times said woman is described as ‘cold’. The Daily Mail would be an easy starting point. Sure, maybe May doesn’t want to strap on a harness and zipwire into the next PMQs, but maybe she’d at least like to be asked?
I recently met three leading female Conservative politicians; Amber Rudd, Ruth Davidson, and Andrea Leadsom. It wasn’t planned, but between the Rudd’s steely media image, widespread memes of Davidson in a tank, and Leadsom’s own self-righteous comments on motherhood, could they be the bitch, butch, and mummy of the right? While the ‘best’ politicians never fully let the mask slip, I’d like to think that my positionality as a young, amateur reporter allowed for a bit of slack. I hosted Davidson at a live Q&A event in January, interviewed Rudd for a radio show feature in February, and posed questions to Leadsom whilst at a roundtable event in March. They do say first impressions are made in the first seven seconds. Although, at each event I was able to be alone with each politician for about 20 minutes. There is no doubt the way the media depicts women is unfair, so I have decided to report on who I found.