Benedicta Van Minnen

Women politicians in the firing line far more than men

Benedicta Van Minnen
Benedicta Van Minnen

By Benedicta Van Minnen

In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher was always bound to cause comment. However, much as one disagrees with her politics, one cannot deny the role she played in advancing female political leadership and the ground-breaking work making it easier for women to take up their places in political discourse. Whether this was deliberate on her part is irrelevant, an important part of her legacy has been the increased visibility of female leadership.

With that in mind, it is the actions of some of her detractors with their malicious and gleeful celebration of her death that causes unease and concern. The media shows images of groups of people, far too young to remember anything of the Thatcher years, gathering across Britain to celebrate and “dance on her grave”, whilst social clubs in union strongholds are planning parties for the day of her death. When her political contemporary, and ideological partner, Ronald Reagan, died, the same reaction did not apply, and he was largely treated as an elder statesman.

Other than the fact that common decency would militate against such crass bad manners, these actions should serve to remind society how female politicians face a level of hostility, vilification and personal comment seldom, if ever, experienced by their male counterparts.

Instead of criticising their policies, the criticisms leaved at women politicians often focus on personal attributes and characteristics as a way of undermining their ability and credibility. And this is uniformly applicable across the political spectrum – from Margaret Thatcher to Hillary Clinton. From Helen Zille to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Angela Merkel to Julia Gillard and everyone in between.

How many times is Jacob Zuma described as overweight, or Tony Blair criticised for wearing an ill-fitting suit? Boris Johnson’s hair is seen as endearing rather than being the subject of criticism. When is the vocal delivery of a male politician criticised whilst Thatcher and Gillard face continual derision. Such criticisms of male politicians would be treated with the contempt, but are regular and common place for women in the same position.

This is particularly true of the political left, and all the more worrying for that. It is interesting that the Unions who despised Thatcher’s policies, only elected their first female General Secretary, Francis O’ Grady in 2012, the ANC Women’s League has yet to suggest a female contender for leadership, and Julia Gillard is continually facing down political attacks from within her own Australian Labour Party.

Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report women have gained little ground in political leadership around the world, with men still in about 80 percent of key elected and appointed positions.

The popular slogan “well behaved women seldom make history” takes on a more sinister tone when its true meaning is revealed; not that women who make history are those who break the mold, but that “ well behaved women” are those silenced by society and traditional gender bias and who do not presume to take on public leadership positions.

Given this one can only draw the worrying conclusion that the level of glee being expressed upon the death of Margaret Thatcher has less to do with her flawed policies, but actually serves as a form of gender control and is indicative of a deep political chauvinism that the Left could well take on board as something they must examine within their own soul.


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