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Sexism and misogyny in politics is something every single woman in the Commons comes to expect. Obviously it exists everywhere in the country, but it must be said that the level of woman-loathing I have come across in politics is unrivalled by any place I have ever worked or lived.
There are few jobs where what you wear or what kind of body you have are commented on throughout your working day, as if this were completely normal – and that is before the hatred, death and rape threats have even started.
Florence Eshalomi, the MP for Lambeth, stood in the Commons last week – in the debate on Boris Johnson’s partying misdemeanours – and said: “I also know, in the context of that word ‘privilege’, that some things are not afforded to me, as a female black MP, because of the scrutiny that I face. I am very careful in debates, making sure that I state the truth and the facts, because – as a result of being a woman – sometimes I am not afforded the privilege of doing otherwise.”
She is not wrong. Mistakes made by women in politics and women in the country are judged much more harshly; as if men making mistakes is to be expected, as if they are held to a more reasonable standard.
Women are held to a higher standard in politics. Had I been caught groping a man who worked for me behind my husband’s back while breaking lockdown rules, there is just no way I would still be in the Commons – as Matt Hancock is. There is no way the papers or the public would tolerate that I had done that to my family and the country.
The ridiculous and misogynistic story about Angela Rayner in the Mail on Sunday is actually considerably more sinister than it might first appear. The crux of the story is to suggest that because Rayner has nothing else to offer in the way of challenge, she has to lean on sexual power to control a man. Let’s deal with the stupid elements first: the part that is so provably untrue, because Rayner is a better performer at PMQs than Boris Johnson. Her words are better.
The snobbery of the article suggests that the only way girls from poor backgrounds can rise to the top is by using sex. And it totally misunderstands that as a kid, Rayner, with her challenging background, would have faced hundreds of roadblocks getting to Westminster – yet she still made it.
If Boris Johnson had been born where Rayner was born, in the same circumstances, he would never have made it to the Commons – let alone to be the PM. By every metric, Rayner has had to be more impressive in order to overcome her lack of privilege. The lie that very privileged people tell themselves is that it is innate talent alone that helped them rise to the top. It isn’t.
So now that we’ve dealt with the stupid, let me explain the sinister: the exact reason why rape convictions are so low, and the same reason that on the same day as the Rayner story came out, the Sunday Times also published a piece on the 56 MPs currently facing complaints about sexual harassment or abuse in Westminster.
It is the reason that a man took to the streets of Plymouth and shot many of his neighbours and his mother. It is the reason women are murdered by their partners. Society – and by that I mean a patriarchal society – believes that women control men through sexual power; that women’s sexuality is something that they can (and do) use to keep men in line. It is a lie, but one that has been told for so many years that it has become deeply ingrained in our culture and is believed, almost without question.
The power imbalance that exists in Westminster is the reason that it has become such a hotbed of the #MeToo scandal. We even see it played out on screen. Westminster is a place where power and patronage, friendship and loyalty are the main currency. If you want to get ahead, questioning the powerful will not help you. This fact is currently writ large on the face of every Tory MP who cannot bear that the person who holds power in their party is so immoral.
Power – and who wields it – matters in politics, and for many, the #Metoo movement caused a power shift where women who had been abused suddenly held some of the power, however fleetingly. Just as with accusations of rape or abuse outside of the building, the easiest way to get out of this particular bind is to try to make out that women involved were in fact the powerful ones, and that they used their sexual wiles over poor, weak men. It sounds laughable, I know – but believe me when I tell you that this happens.
Men are painted so often as being helpless specimens with no control over their silly actions; “boys will be boys”, after all. I am always so perplexed about how people can call feminists like me a “man-hater”, and then in the same breath defend men on the basis of them not being able to control themselves, as if they are stupid, base creatures.
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I think considerably more of the men of the world than this. I think they are clever, capable human beings with courage and agency over their actions. I don’t believe any man I know would be so weakened by the very sight of a woman’s knickers to forget all of his decency and decorum. But in order for men to get away with sexual misconduct and the misunderstanding of consent, this is the line that must be held: “women have a sexual power that can essentially control mankind”.
If this is the case, then I am not sure, sisters, why we haven’t wielded it better to get equal pay, equal partners in domestic labour, a few more of the powerful positions in society, more of the world’s wealth and – frankly – more of the political power. I should have known I could have got all of the legislation I fought for with a simple flash of a bit of lace. What a fool I have been.
The real Westminster story this weekend was the one about multiple Members of Parliament being accused of sexual harassment and misconduct, yet the one that got all the airtime was the Angela Rayner story – because it seemed so ludicrous that it had been written.
I am here to tell you that they sit hand-in-hand: the first story only occurs because the second story gets told again and again, to convince us that it isn’t men who have power but those wily womenfolk and their hypnotic knickers.