James Williamson explores how many measures hoping to promote the role of women in politics may actually be a risk to the feminist cause.
Amidst the news that more than 50% of Labour’s parliamentary candidates in 107 key seats are female, a wave of obsession by both politicians and journalists appears to have fallen upon the number of women in the Conservative Party. Recent media coverage depicts the Tories ‘lack of women’ as nothing short of an evil conspiracy plotted within the walls of Eton, on foundations made of patriarchy and paths paved with misogyny. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions to this purported problem may simply endanger the cause of true gender equality in politics; with calls for quotas and all-female shortlists, proponents of so-called ‘positive discrimination’ for female politicians fail to observe the irony of their cause. Propelling females into positions through these gender-based shortlists can only ever achieve the job-by-gender culture that feminists and believers in equality wish to avoid, and risks seriously demeaning the role of these women, as well as the females who have earned high-profile positions solely on the basis of merit and political ability.
Gender-based shortlists can only ever achieve the job-by-gender culture that feminists and believers in equality wish to avoid.
A prime example of these attitudes is in the view expressed by former Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman. Deeming all-female shortlists for potential Tory parliamentary candidates to be ‘one of the measures on a spectrum of positive discrimination’ that the party ‘shouldn’t rule out’, Spelman appears to have failed to acknowledge the utter contradiction of the attitude that any discrimination could be regarded as ‘positive’ while simultaneously claiming a desire for equality. Of course, absolute equality of treatment between the genders in politics is essential, and a cornerstone of any truly democratic form of government. However, a policy which places females on shortlists over males based on their gender could never achieve this equality, as the emphasis of selection is placed upon gender, and not political ability: precisely the bias that should be avoided on either side. Be a fleet of parliamentary candidates 100% male, 100% female, or as in the case of the aforementioned Labour candidates, around 50% female, gender should, in an ideal world, be entirely disregarded. The mistake made by those calling for more women is demanding immediate change to make this possible, hoping to force it upon political parties, as opposed to allowing the achievements of females in politics to speak and inspire for themselves. High-profile figures such as Theresa May, Harriet Harman and the numerous female members of both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet (not to mention the late Margaret Thatcher!) show that this can be done without measures and quotas that devalue the merit of female politicians. Even one determined female politician, who propels herself to the top through merit, is a far greater statement for feminism than 50 females chosen for their gender, and thus never given the chance to prove that they could have reached these heights through their own abilities.
Quotas…devalue the merit of female politicians.
Worryingly, British politics are hardly being led by example, as Ed Miliband’s recent (and extremely ill-conceived) stunt demonstrated. At a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour’s leader apparently decided that his inner feminist would be a popular role to play that day. Denouncing the Prime Minister’s all-male front bench (conveniently ignoring the several high-profile female members of the Coalition Cabinet), Miliband lined his own front bench with any female in the party he could summon, deemed by BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson to be a mere gimmick ‘in anticipation of his question to Mr Cameron’. Again demonstrating the dangers of such focus on gender, Miliband’s stunt displays a far greater sexism than Theresa May’s convenient absence that day possibly could. Waving his female MPs in the face of Cameron’s front bench, Labour’s misguided leader used his female politicians in exactly the way that any true feminist should wholeheartedly oppose – as tools selected and positioned on his bench solely on the basis of their gender. Miliband’s attempt to express concern at the important issue of gender at best achieved nothing, and at worst is a backwards leap for feminism and his female MPs; Rachel Reeves, Mary Creagh and Yvette Cooper, who sat at Miliband’s side, are all accomplished politicians in their own right. In placing them at his side that day purely to boast of their gender to Cameron, Miliband utterly undermined these accomplishments in exchange for an unfortunate gimmick that assaulted the cause which he claimed to be championing.
Labour’s misguided leader used his female politicians in exactly the way that any true feminist should wholeheartedly oppose – as tools selected and positioned on his bench solely on the basis of their gender.
It would be foolish to say that gender disparity in politics does not exist – indeed it seems unlikely that a degree of rivalry between the genders should ever cease to exist, be it in politics or outside the walls of Westminster. What makes the issue quite so difficult, however, is that talking about it can only place more focus on the genders of those involved – exactly the focus that is required to be removed. What, then, can be done to address the issue? To rely on a tremendously overused and clichéd idiom, Rome was certainly not built in a day, and almost definitely didn’t conquer continents with quotas. Advocates of enormous and sudden change to the gender landscape of British politics are demanding not a natural progression, but an immediate, artificial illusion of progression, enforced by these female-weighted quotas and shortlists, that could only ever devalue the extremely important role of the many female politicians who have struggled and eventually won their place. To further attempt to stretch my metaphor to the brink of its use, equality in politics is not an Empire that can be built in a day with sudden measures to artificially inflate the number of females, but must build from the ground up. No politician, male or female, regardless of political stance, could hope to dismiss the achievements of the women who have worked their way to the top, be it Harriet Harman or Margaret Thatcher. These are the foundations that have already been laid, which brick by brick can be built upon by an upcoming generation of determined women. While demeaning demands for quotas and politicians such as Miliband may speak of equality, nothing can speak louder of the abilities of female politicians than the women who work, fight and win their way to the top, which is the only way a lasting equality and respect can hope to be built.
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