Women and politics: class and construct

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 30 January 2012 in Diary
Diary
Some women like politics, some don't. Sadie Smith takes issue with the idea that women somehow want something different out of politics than men

“Women are interested in politics. Just not all the shouting and posturing the male politicians get up to!”

We’ve all heard this at some stage, haven’t we? Usually off a woman, to be fair, rather than a representative of the raping patriarchy, and it never fails to get right on my tits, to use a phrase relevant to the topic under discussion. Although I’m not the sort of woman comfortable engaging in minute inspection of my lady-garden, a quick check confirmed that I am a female of the species and a glance at bookshelf would seem to indicate that I am a feminist, so I thereby declare myself qualified to add my two-pennies-worth to this debate.

The reason why the representation of women in the political sphere is not reflective of the population is down to two factors that feed off each other: class and construct.

Construct can loosely be defined as how women see their role in society and how they behave as a result. This manifests itself as everything from how we’re expected to dress to how we’re expected to behave. Ever found yourself trussed up like a whore’s lampshade surrounded by a bunch of blokes chatting what sounds like rubbish to you, but feeling under an enormous pressure not to weigh in because your view won’t be as valid? Welcome to my early twenties, ladies and gents.

The assumptions we make about how women are feeds how we expect them to behave with respect to politics. The idea that women are, by nature, conciliatory rather than confrontational beasts, leads to the oft-made contention that us wimminfolk are political, but in a “different” way to men. We like helping people, and working for the community, you see. Not all this shouting and haranguing the silly boys get up to. Chuh. Men, eh?

Yeah, right. What is this rubbish, people? This is the political equivalent of a bunch of Stepford Wives sat around at a Tupperware party talking about how nice it is that the men have all gone off golfing and drinking, leaving the girls to discuss what’s really important: the purchase of kitchen utensils in order to cook them a nice dinner when they get home from the stripclub. I don’t want my political engagement to be limited to sitting around with a load of women talking about recycling bins and local baby changing facilities while the men thrash out the campaign strategy in the next room. If I’d wanted that, I would have spent the money I used to do a degree in politics on frilly pinnies and a boob job. I, along with fifty-one per cent of a very diverse population, am in possession of a hairy teacup. That it still appears to define my role with respect to how I am expected to experience politics is hugely depressing.

Some women like politics, some just don’t care. Just like, you know, men.

It is the patronising misconception that those of us with love tunnels rather than trouser snakes need to be coaxed into public life and protected against the nasty male shouting and hectoring that has led to the creation of one of the most misused good ideas ever: the woman-only shortlist.

Don’t get me wrong. In its ideal essence, the women-only shortlist is an excellent wheeze that would allow good, strong local female candidates to circumvent the occasionally parochial set-up that can exist in local parties. In its practical realisation, however, it tends to be used to crow-bar in the female friends of the party’s elite, the sort of north London barrister or well-known personality, who would have no problem getting on anyway.

Consequently, the women-only short list has succeeded in perpetrating elite powerbases within politics, while not helping the sort of woman – the local working class activist – who we really should be assisting to break out of the voiceless, backroom role that has been assigned to her by the wilful misunderstanding that women react to politics in a different way to men.

Class, school, connections and pedigree. These things still seem to matter, unfortunately.

I absent myself from the internet when such women “live tweet” an event that appears to involve a load of white middle class birds chatting about what’s important to other white middle class birds that seems to revolve entirely around childcare and “wimmin’s issues” as if us ladies are interested in nothing else. What about the many things that make us similar to men instead of the few that set us apart from them? I am a childless woman. Much of the female political debate is not relevant to how I experience the challenges of my status as the proud owner of a bearded clam. Do I have to shoot out a sprog or two before I can join the political narrative that only seems to be about the traditional construct of “the woman”? Why can’t the political sphere encourage the sisterhood to construct themselves in their own image, rather than endorse the pale reflection of a prescriptive “type”?

The problem with women in politics is the self-perpetuation of a false construct and privilege in the name of feminism.

And, as a feminist, I am totally not down with that.

Tags: All-Women Shortlists, Child care, David Cameron, Feminism, Women's Issues

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