Scrutiny is far higher when it comes to female politicians

Who would be a female politician – that was my first thought following a chat with a female acquaintance post the second leaders debate, writes Alison O’Connor
Scrutiny is far higher when it comes to female politicians

She told me her mother had been wondering the night before what sort of support underwear Labour leader Joan Burton may or may not have been wearing. The word Spanx did enter this conversation.

If I was Joan, I might have wept to overhear this sort of speculation, and all the other crap that female politicians have to put up with compared to their male counterparts. Just think, on top of orchestrating a national campaign, trying to keep her own seat in Dublin West, and having to be on top of her game for daily media interrogation, the Tánaiste will possibly have paid as much attention to her hair and wardrobe as to the dreaded fiscal space.

She dare not admit this fact, of course, because then she would be seen as superficial and vain; but had she not given it enough thought her sartorial choices would end up being a story of the campaign. It’s not that male appearance is not ever commented on, just that a man would need to have a pretty low sartorial standard before it would ever become a “thing”. I give you Mick Wallace as Exhibit A here.

What did become an election meme was something far more personal and intrinsic to Joan Burton — her hand movements while debating. Can you imagine putting into Google the name of a male politician and one of his body parts, and getting a full list of options?

The Labour leader handled the hands “controversy” post the Limerick debate well, saying the next day that some people might feel there was something inappropriate in a woman not standing back, sitting down “and doing a little bit of Downton Abbey and the teacups. That’s not me”.

Yes, the Tánaiste does have a high pitched voice, even higher than the“normal” female pitch, and she can tend towards a lecturing tone rather than an inspiring one. This is hardly a hanging offence, but you mightn’t think so if you listen to some of the discussion. But women are at an added disadvantage in a debate-style forum because when they attempt to interject, and necessarily raise their voice in order to do so, they can often be seen as haranguing. Watching Micheál Martin on Tuesday night on the RTÉ debate, he had three times as much hand action as Joan Burton ever does, but in a man it’s seen as acceptable.

Overall, the stakes are far higher and more unforgiving for female politicians; we instinctively judge women on appearance anyway, and in the political arena this is all the more acute because of the small number of women in politics. Throw in the fact that the women standing for election want to project themselves as capable, authoritative, decisive and all the while likeable, when we are programmed to see them in a nurturing role. The break from this norm is a challenge, not just for the observer, but particularly for the candidate.

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One of the cringe moments of the campaign came when Joan Burton was being questioned about her hands by journalists the day after the Limerick debate. She was flanked by her colleagues, junior minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Kevin Humphreys. They “jokingly” grabbed an arm each and attempted to pull down her hands as she spoke.

Can you imagine any single circumstance where two of Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin’s senior party people would attempt to physically grab a part of their leader’s anatomy and pull it in a certain direction as the media looked on? Didn’t think so.

At the time it did seemed like a clear indication of their panic at how the party has tanked in the campaign, and the inescapable conclusion that their leader has failed utterly to get the sales pitch for Labour off the ground. She did recover lost ground on Tuesday night’s debate. We won’t know the extent of the damage until Saturday, but Joan Burton has been massively unsuccessful in this campaign in trying to explain why people should vote for Labour.

In general, so many memories of this campaign centre around male politicians shouting each other down and throwing figures at each other like verbal weapons. Just like the debate format, such scenarios, where a woman is forced to jump in and raise her voice to be heard, can mean a hiding to nothing. The fear is that the response elicited in the viewer/listener is: “Will you listen to that harpey.”

Read profiles of the phenomenally successfully Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and you will find the phrase “nippy sweetie”. This is a Scottish description, apparently largely used by men, about women, for a spiky and sharp-tongued woman, and used about Sturgeon prior to the “image transformation” which saw a brand new wardrobe, haircut and approach.

Luckily, we have a far higher level of discourse here than what we’ve seen in the US over recent months, where Donald Trump accused journalist Megyn Kelly, a host of a Fox News presidential debate, as unprofessional, talentless and menstrual. Then there was the remark about the only woman in the Republican field, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s face. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next President?”

I’ve written already about the constituency tussle that has been going on between Fine Gael newcomer Kate O’Connell and Renua leader Lucinda Creighton in Dublin Bay South. Both are formidable candidates, very talented and would make excellent additions to the next Dáil. It also has to be said, for illustrative purposes, they are both exceptionally photogenic. It is disappointing though, how Kate has fallen into the media trap of being seen to get into a “cat-fight” with Lucinda. No doubt the “backroom boys” in Fine Gael have been encouraging the strategy all the way. They would like nothing more than the demise of Lucinda’s political career.

If Kate is lucky enough to get elected she would no doubt say the media exposure proved invaluable in getting her over the line. She would be correct. But while the Daily Mail, for instance, put her photo on its front page, they also had a sly dig inside by saying she’s been away from her new baby every day to go canvassing.

By taking part in the “game” women ensure that the pattern remains unbroken. Hopefully, through the election of more women politicians, as a result of the quotas, we will begin to see some change occurring.

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