Wives on the campaign trail: do they work?

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

According to the Daily Telegraph, it’s “Marks & Spencer handbags at the ready”. The Times has called it “war of the wives”. With an election looming in the UK and opinion polls showing a narrow gap between Labour and the Conservatives, all eyes are now on Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron.

While Prime Minister’s wife Sarah is fairly well-known in public life for her success as a PR executive, her charity work and having over a million followers on Twitter, ‘SamCam’ has until now maintained a much more private existence.

Fair enough, we all know that she’s from aristocratic stock, that she’s the creative director at Smythson and that in recent years, some women’s magazines have tried to portray her as a bit of a style icon for the middle-class professional woman.

But until last week she’d remained pretty silent on matters regarding husband David – in contrast to Sarah Brown, who at the Labour Party Conference last September introduced Gordon as “my husband, my hero”. In an emotional speech, Sarah reassured delegates that although he may be messy and noisy, at heart he’s a caring and passionate man who loves his country.

As of last week, however, the shy SamCam of old is no more. In a television interview on Sunday she spoke of life with ‘Dave’, regaling the nation with tales of clothes left on the floor, channel flicking and making a mess in the kitchen while maintaining that he’s a great dad, a great husband and a great choice as the next man to run the country.

And that’s not the end of it - soon to follow in the footsteps of Sarah and Samantha with a television interview of her own is Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s wife Miriam.

Some critics have argued that it’s a cynical tactic that started with Michelle Obama back in 2008 – you know, describe a few domestic shortcomings, emphasise his passion and integrity and it’ll rake in the votes – particularly from female voters if the media is to be believed.

And in an election where women are seen as key voters (it’s now a common refrain that ‘mums will decide this election’ due to issues like flexible working legislation and family-orientated policies), several papers are reporting that these wifely sound bites are obviously a last-ditch effort to win the female vote.

I can’t be the only woman who doesn’t want to be patronised like this. Can’t decide which party to vote for, ladies? Let the wife be the deciding factor! Messrs Brown and Cameron may be good husbands and fathers, but I’m much more concerned with how they’ll run the country over the next few years rather than with hearing cutesy anecdotes about their private lives. I’d rather see Sarah and Samantha talk policy than domestic life.

It does women a great disservice when society assumes that we’re more interested in leaders’ wives than any other political issue. We see it in the newspapers when they analyse the shoes of female politicians or pit them against each other in some sort of ridiculous ‘style battle’ as if we’re supposed to care. One tabloid even seems to have taken to somewhat nauseatingly terming 2010 the year of the ‘WAGs’ election’.

The fact that some newspapers seem to be quite happy to reduce women’s interest and participation in politics to nothing more than their concerns about motherhood and what handbags MPs are currently toting gives the impression that ever other important factor in this election is probably only of interest to men.

I for one will be looking at the whole spectrum of issues facing our country when polling day comes around and am wondering why certain newspapers are convinced that other women will act any differently. In a recent YouGov poll, 89 per cent of respondents said that leaders’ wives will have no impact on their vote, which is of course the way it should be.

This post orginally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via the Guardian.

Travels (part two)

Saturday, 13 March 2010

O'Connell statue detail

My second work-related trip of the year was to Dublin and got off to a less-than-fantastic start due to this winter's ridiculous weather. It was snowing hard when we arrived at the airport and by the time we'd boarded the plane a lot had settled. Around the time we were supposed to take off they announced they were shutting the airport and when we finally got off the ground we were two and a half hours behind schedule. This meant that we had to power round the city taking photographs and couldn't actually get everywhere on our itinerary (including the Guinness factory, much to the chagrin of my colleagues who totally made up for this later).

Nevertheless we found it a really vibrant and fun city, although very much geared towards tourism which meant astronomical food, drink and taxi prices. Although I felt there wasn't as much to see as on our trip to Paris, it was nice to stay over and experience the nightlife.

O'Connell statue detail

Trinity College

Oscar Wilde statue

Truly weird statue of Oscar Wilde which wasn't what I was expecting at all.

Temple Bar


O'Connell Street

More photos at my Flickr.

This is why I believe in equality

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Thousands of women and girls marched through central London yesterday as part of Million Women Rise 2010.

Sabrina Qureshi: "There is a way forward and there is a shared vision of a world without male violence. There is nothing innate about rape."

Her placard reads "Sri Lanka: stop raping Tamil women"

We heard the stories of women from Iran. Women from Uganda. Women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Injustices happening all over the globe as well as here in the UK. Women who have been attacked, objectified, abused, marginalised, denied basic human rights.

And we expressed hope that one day, violence and discrimination against women BECAUSE THEY ARE WOMEN will be a thing of the past.

This is why equality is important. It's not something to do with wanting to wipe out men. It's not something it was okay to stand for in the 1970s, with no need to stand for it now. Hearing these women speak we were left in no doubt that equality and respect is not something we've achieved. It's something we have to keep on fighting for.

Million Women Rise report at The F Word
Jess McCabe's photos of the day (see also Charlotte Cooper's photos and Hannah Nicklin's photos)
Videos of the day

Equality and the privileged woman

Friday, 5 March 2010

You know what saddens me? Seeing extremely privileged women eagerly registering their disapproval of feminism because they 'don't believe in equality', at the same time as telling everyone how satisfied they are with their loving husbands, wonderful marriages, beautiful children, idyllic home life and charmed existence.

In a bubble where husbands always earn enough for their wives to stay at home, in a bubble of beautiful houses and perfect tableaux of rosy family life some women are free to decry feminism and all it has done for them because they don't have to fight any more. They don't 'believe' in equality because they don't have to, their lives are just fine as they are, thank you very much. It's all too easy to think that 'rights' don't matter when you're not worrying about feeding your kids, or an abusive husband, or getting an education, or fighting oppression in every area of your life. When you don't have to worry about that sort of thing you can easily reduce it all to a matter of biology and say 'well, men and women are biologically different so this means they can NEVER be equal' as if this is the be all and end all, the final word in gender issues.

But this view relies on having a responsible, caring, loving, respectful husband. It relies on good self-image and seeing-yourself-as-God-sees-you and being satisfied with fulfilling a particular role. It relies on having had all the choices you want in life - going to university? Choosing when you want children? Having economic freedom? It's all there. I think some people need to remember that this sort of life isn't a reality for millions of women and this is why we need feminism. Or even if you don't want to call it feminism (and I don't see why not because it's a great word) - a worldview where women are of equal worth and status to men.

You can make all the self-satisfied comments you want about 'angry feminists' and 'I have all the rights I want - that's what matters to me'. Actually I can't let that one go because it is genuinely distressing to think that people feel that way. I know plenty of people do but when we are called to help the last, the least and lost what sort of selfish, insular person lives by that mantra? It's sickening. Every time I encounter a sniffy comment from an affluent white woman saying 'feminism is all about choice - and it's my choice to be anti-feminist' at the same time as extolling the virtues of her perfect husband/children/house/life/cupcakes every part of me screams 'YOU HAVE CHOICE. THAT'S THE DIFFERENCE. YOU HAVE THAT CHOICE. How about you change places with a woman who DOESN'T and let's see how you feel about equality.'

Middle-class white women standing by and taking advantage of all the privileges feminism has awarded them at the same time as disapproving of 'equality' and seeing it in terms of physical differences is obviously nothing new. We're coming up to International Women's Day and I just wanted to reiterate where I stand on that point because it is SO IMPORTANT.

Review: Living Dolls

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

In 1998, Natasha Walter’s book The New Feminism - which dealt with the gains made by feminists in the 20th century and the state of feminism in the 90s - was published. In her new book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, she brings us up to date on the situation and has an altogether more depressing tale to tell.

Walter argues that despite cries of 'empowerment', 'liberation' and 'choice', women are increasingly restricted by a culture obsessed with appearance, sexual availability and a narrow definition of femininity, while being made to believe that gender inequality is a product of biology rather than society.

The book is dvidied into two parts, the first of which - 'The New Sexism' - focuses on some of the most misogynist aspects of 21st century culture. Chapters with names such as 'Babes', 'Pornography' and 'Choices' catalogue lads' mag competitions in nightclubs where young women strip in front of a crowd of baying men, the realities of prostitution, the pressures on young girls to lose weight or to be 'sexy'.

If you’ve read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, you'll see that the message and facts are pretty similar but address the issues from a more UK-orientated point of view. Walter talks to women who have worked in lap-dancing clubs, women whose partners are addicted to porn and women who are outraged at the way they’re being sexualised. The overriding message is that personal fulfilment lies in looking ‘perfect’ and being desirable to men. Walter says:

“Since the idea has taken hold that women and men are now equal throughout society, it is seen as unproblematic that women should be relentlessly encouraged to prioritise their sexual attractiveness. The assumption is that it is a free choice by women who are in all other ways equal to men.”

As she points out by referring to economic inequalities, rape conviction rates and women who say they can’t eat without feeling guilty, it’s painfully obvious that much of this ‘choice’ is nothing more than an illusion.

“I once believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away,” admits Walter. Looking at society today it’s hard to believe.

Some criticism of Living Dolls has centred on its almost exclusively middle-class, UK-centric position which is pretty evident here. I have to say that if you follow feminist issues in the news and the blogosphere you probably won’t learn anything new from the first half of the book, which could have been a bit more hard-hitting.

It’s in the second half, entitled’ The New Determinism’, however, that Living Dolls really comes into its own. In the last decade there has been an explosion in newspapers reporting how women are ‘hardwired’ to love pink or have no spatial awareness or be bad at maths – ‘new studies’ and ‘fascinating research’ claim to show that it’s ‘all in our genes’.

Right-wing newspapers in particular, reports Walter, love these stories as they reinforce the traditional stereotype of women who need protection from men, can’t do certain things because of their gender and are probably best off just keeping quiet and staying at home.

She delves into these ‘studies’ in great detail, showing that most of their findings have been disproved by further research and that the media conveniently ignores any research that shows no significant difference in male and female personality, skills and aptitude.

She also discusses the fact that both women and men tend to ‘play up’ to stereotypes when they know they are being assessed according to gender. Even making women aware of stereotypes – such as telling them that they are ‘naturally’ worse at driving than men or ‘naturally’ do worse on maths tests – has been shown to negatively affect their performance.

“If we move away from biological determinism,” writes Walter, “We enter a world with more freedom, not less, because then those behaviours traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity could become real choices for each individual.”

The in-depth analysis of stereotyping and biology is interesting and enlightening, showing why it’s important to question the ‘science’ we see promoted by the media and why it’s not unnatural to deviate from traditional gender roles.

I would like to have seen the somewhat depressing messages of the book’s first half conveyed with a bit more passion and the anger they deserve, but as a portrayal of life as experienced by countless young women today, I hope it will serve as a wake-up call to many.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz.


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