Insignificant Others

HANNAH MARTIN wonders why the women who are considered by the media to be political figures appear to be nothing more than WAGs.

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Glamour, Britain’s best selling woman’s magazine, recently ran a feature rating ‘inspirational women’ in a number of categories. So far, so feminist. Don’t be fooled.

In their ‘Politics’ (!) section, Michelle Obama came top, with Sarah Brown and Samantha ‘SamCam’ Cameron making all-too predictable appearances further down the list. Are these women politicians? No. They are political WAGs. We might tut over their matronly fashion sense; coo over their baby bumps, even shed a tear for their personal tragedies. But, it is wrong to thrust them upon us as role models. Drippy tributes to their noble husbands do not make political WAGs inspirational in their own right.

So, who should the media be touting as women of political substance? Caroline Lucas, maybe? She has led the Green Party since 2008 and been one of just two UK Green MEPs since 1999. She is also the favourite to win the Brighton Pavilion constituency seat in a few weeks time, which would give the Greens their first parliamentary representation. She has written extensively and campaigned on contentious issues such as globalisation, green economics and animal rights. She has a PhD. So, why must we be subjected to gushing interviews with what are, in all honesty, political non-entities – when names like Caroline Lucas would fail to raise even the faintest flicker of recognition in most young people?

Women would never aspire merely to be the wife of a movie star, the girlfriend of a singer or the partner of a doctor or lawyer. So, why assume that women would aspire to support politicians rather than becoming them?

The sad fact remains, however, that politics remains a largely male dominated sphere. In recent years, efforts have been made to increase female participation in politics, but the truth is that positive discrimination is a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Young women from all backgrounds need to want to participate; they must realise they are just as competent as their male counterparts. Simply propelling them artificially into Westminster is bound to be abortive.

The newspapers insist upon telling us useless information about women concerned with politics. We hear about Clegg’s plans to scrap tuition fees, and his wife’s £45 eco-friendly handbag; Obama’s landmark healthcare legislation and Michelle’s penchant for sleeveless dresses; Cameron’s gripes with national insurance and SamCam’s £29 Zara shoes (she wore them three times in three days, girls!) The women we are being taught to emulate in politics seem little more than clothes-horses and baby-makers who adore their husbands and think more about the school-run than the state of the economy.

The problem, however, is deeper rooted still. Even serious female politicians are subject to often embarrassing, personal media scrutiny. The host of women ushered into the Commons in 1997, for example, were unkindly dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’. In 2007, the new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, gave a speech on terrorism but was greeted by newspaper headlines discussing the moderately revealing outfit she had worn, with The Sun describing her as a ‘busty Home Secretary’ who dressed in ‘racy gear’. Apparently they mixed up their front and third pages.

Furthermore, the elected women themselves seem a little confused about the nature of the roles they are meant to play. Labour MP Caroline Flint resigned as Minister for Europe last year, angrily branding Brown’s government as ‘two-tier’, treating female politicians as ‘window-dressing’. Yet, Flint herself had previously posed for a full-length photoshoot with The Observer, with shots including the MP reclining suggestively on a divan. Women are always implicitly (and too often, explicitly) encouraged to use their looks to manipulate, in a way that men, quite simply, are not.

The media is almost exclusively to blame for all this. In raising the profile of political WAGs and ignoring bona fide women politicians, then subsequently vilifying those brave enough to enter the arena for their figures and dress sense, rather than their policies, the media projects a Catch-22 situation upon aspiring female politicians. Most of them decide to stay out of the Westminster minefield – and with this entrenched sexist attitude to female politicians, who’d blame them?

Political creeds entirely aside, give me Caroline, Hillary, or even the Bible-bashing Sarah Palin as role models. Let’s put SamCam, Sarah and Mrs Obama aside: in order for women to progress at all in politics, we must aspire to be leaders, not leaders’ consorts.