7 Sexist Moments In Parliament That Show The Problem Runs Much Deeper Than You Think
If you were asked to think of the most empowering spaces for women, chances are Parliament wouldn't make the list. And you're probably even less likely to name Prime Minister's Questions, the weekly forum where MPs take Theresa May to task over her actions, or as the case may be, lack of them. Sexist moments are common in PMQs. Anyone who has ever tuned in on a Wednesday will be familiar with the odd mix of braying, finger-waggling, and jeering that goes on when female politicians speak, but the sexist moments in British parliament go well beyond PMQs.
The issue of the treatment of women in parliament is under the microscope this week after the government pledged to make "upskirting" — the action of taking a photograph up a woman's skirt or down her top without her consent — illegal. The action failed after Conservative backbencher Sir Christopher Chope opposed it in parliament. Chope has since said he objected on account of parliamentary procedure and actually "wholeheartedly" backs the law, but the damage has already been done.
The problem extends beyond Parliament to UK politics as a whole. A 2014 survey of Mumsnet users concluded that political culture is as outdated as the Houses of Parliament itself (MPS are considering where to relocate as its buildings are in desperate need of modernisation), with nine out of 10 users describing it as "sexist." Perhaps it's hardly surprising that women don't feel welcomed by politics given that we're still a long way off 50:50 representation in government. Only 32% of MPs are women, which is the highest it's ever been.
But as they say in business, "you can't change what you don't measure." So I'm rounding up some of the most eye-roll inducing moments in recent parliamentary history to prove the Chope incident is no exception to the rule.
1. David Cameron’s "Calm Down Dear"
One of the most notorious moments in recent PMQs history was when Cameron told Labour MP Angela Eagle to "calm down dear" in April 2011. As if the remark wasn't patronising enough in its own right, Cameron was quoting Michael Winner, who according to the Telegraph, Helen Mirren once called "insulting and sexist." His '00s insurance ads famously saw him telling women to "calm down, dear. It's only a commercial." Sigh.
2. Jeremy Corbyn "Mainsplains" International Women's Day to Theresa May
The jury is still out over whether Corbyn was actually patronising Theresa May when he reminded her that International Women's Day was on the approach in March 2018, or whether he was simply stating facts. Either way, she certainly made her displeasure known by calling him out for "mainsplaining" to an audience of greatly-amused MPs.
3. Boris Johnson Calls Emily Thornberry By Her Husband’s Name
If there was an award for the most politically-incorrect, gaffe-happy, blunder-prone politician, Boris Johnson would surely have won it every year since coming into office. One of his more recent eye-roll worthy moments occurred in March 2018 when he decided to refer to Labour MP Emily Thornberry by her husband's title. On top of that, he also appeared to forget said title, which added an extra layer of classist dismissiveness.
He was immediately slapped down by the Speaker of the Houses of Parliament, John Bercow, who told him in no uncertain terms that that kind of address would not be tolerated.
4. William Hague Appears To Call Cathy Jamieson A "Stupid Woman"
Before he was living it up, sorry, doing important humanitarian work with Angelina Jolie, William Hague was a front-bench regular. In these particularly disappointing clip from 2013, when Hague was serving as Foreign Secretary, he appears to mouth "stupid woman," after Labour MP Cathy Jamieson asks a question. He later apologised for any offence caused but I can't say I miss his presence in politics since he decided not to stand for re-election in 2015.
5. Layla Moran Is Jeered By MPs
Layla Moran's first ever question in PMQs in September 2017 made for highly-uncomfortable viewing. As she got up to address the House, the Liberal Democrat MP was met with heckles and laughter from the (mostly) male MPs. Unnerved she turned to her colleague Vince Cable and asked, "What have I done?".
Speaker John Bercow then stepped in and instructed the jeering MPs to listen to Moran, calling her "highly-articulate." While I'd agree with the sentiment, it's a shame the House needs convincing to listen to a woman speak and it's hardly what you'd call a warm welcome to a new MP, is it? Also, while it was undoubtedly well intentioned, so what if she's what Bercow deems "highly articulate"? If she's been elected to represent her community, MPs should listen to her speak however she articulates herself.
6. David Lidington Tells Emily Thornberry To "Grow Up"
Somewhat ironically, Conservative MP Lidington and Emily Thornberry were debating Labour's proposal to lower the voting age to 16 in January when he told her to "grow up." (On a side note which just adds insult to injury, in the same exchange Thornberry pointed out that there had been one Emily elected to parliament since 1918, and 155 Davids.)
The Conservative MP's patronising put-down earned him a slap on the wrist from his boss Theresa May, with her spokesperson telling the Telegraph: “The PM would not have used that language.” Ouch.
7. John Bercow Compares Esther McVey To A Washing Machine
He might be first to jump on other members of the house when they say something sexist, but it doesn't mean John Bercow is guilt-free when it comes to gendered comments.
In 2015, after Esther McVey had finished responding to a question: "I'm reminded of the feeling when one thinks the washing machine will stop, but it doesn't." Bercow was later forced to apologise after Conservative MP Heather Wheeler complained about the comment.
According to the BBC she asked whether it was appropriate that the House of Commons was "a workplace that a female minister should have been referred to as a washing machine". Hear hear.
So, if you were ever wondering if a sexist moment in parliament was just a one-off or a bad apple, here's the evidence to the contrary. Here's hoping that changes ASAP.