The recent Cabinet reshuffle in which an unprecedented number of women were catapulted into senior government has given the right wing press a field day. Newspapers like the Daily Mail have been able to release their inner sexism…or some might say, show their true colours in all their blue-blooded glory.
It would be too easy to go along with the populist view that successful women are finally making it in the public sphere. Yet the right-of-centre news media continue to construct women leaders in reductive ways by foregrounding sexual aspects of their identities. Moss Kanter (1993: 211) classically argued that leading women are targeted because they are highly visible as people who are different, and yet they are not permitted the individuality of ‘their own unique, non-stereotypical characteristics’. They are often women in a masculine domain, who are perceived to aspire inappropriately to the privileges of the dominant order.
A quick glance at the article ‘Now win the election, PM tells new girls’ (The Daily Mail, 16.7.14) shows us that sexualised stereotypes of senior women are still alive and kicking. Characterised purely by their looks and clothes sense, the ‘new girls’ are quickly shoe-horned into Kanter’s four categories of seductress, battle-axe, mother and pet. New employment minister, Esther McVey is principally characterised as a seductress with her ‘blonde mane’ and ‘thigh-flashing’ dress, which also manages to ‘emphasise her bust’. Less obviously admired by the press is under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence, Anna Soubry, thematically caricatured as an ‘iron lady’. She ‘has the air of Margaret Thatcher’ with a ‘fake posh voice, tough manner, helmet hair and forbidding jacket’, and crucially, her handbag is ‘big enough to carry a few missiles’. Meanwhile Lady Stowell, new Leader of the Lords is portrayed as the mother/hausfrau stereotype, accused of a ‘little mother-of-the-bride’ look. Lastly, Liz Truss, new Environment Secretary and touted by the press as a possible future Prime Minister, is painted as David Cameron’s pet, sensibly wearing a ‘patriotic’ ensemble of red, blue and white but with the dated effect of an ‘eighties air hostess’.
Kanter said that such tokenism would not help the cause of women. I say, if they can withstand the excoriating gaze of the other, and that is a really tough call, they have a real chance of transforming the position of women in government!