The number of women intending to vote is at a low point. At the last election, only 64 percent of women voted, and though the turnout is low in both genders, with only 67 percent of men voting, the drop is more significant in female voters. I wish this could have come as a surprise to me, but having watched the ITV leadership debate and followed it on Twitter, having seen the attempts of parties to engage women which became some sort of surreal farce where gender stereotypes reached their limit, and having read the main points of each party, it’s pretty easy to see why.
We have an election year where for the first time ever there is a roughly equal gender divide in leadership, with the old boys club leading the three main parties and UKIP, and women in control of Green, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. I was really looking forward to the debate and, ignoring what I saw on social media for the moment, wasn’t let down. Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon came across as the most sensible and reliable leaders there by far. I found myself, as did many others, wishing I were Scottish just so I could give another vote to Sturgeon who was easily the best performer of the night.
The three female leaders provided an intelligent debate, answering the questions to the point regarding their policies and giving a fresh perspective on the state that Britain is in, promising hope and a positive future for Britain, instead of more cuts. They were the only ones seemingly aware (with the possible exception of Miliband) that there are people in Britain who exist outside the mid-upper class and from outside of Britain. People who, surprise surprise, are actually capable of emotion, and probably don’t like their illnesses or nationality being used to objectify and blame them.
Yet it seemed as though half the media failed to realise that we are no longer living in the 1950s. I didn’t realise that it was necessary to send out notices to remind journalists that women are now politicians and should be treated as such, but as the debate continued, I found that I was clearly wrong.
When I took to Twitter during the debate, one of the first things I saw tweeted was a ‘Political Sexism Bingo Card’ for use during the Leadership Debate. It was one of those things that I wished could be just a joke but half an hour into the two hour programme it was half way full, and an hour in there were only three more criteria left to go.
Seeing the strongest candidates treated like this all because of their gender is truly horrifying. If they were men, they would be all over the front page of papers for their performance. Instead, they were the subject of articles with headlines such as ‘Sexy Leanne Wood has Twitter swooning with her accent’ and ‘Nicola Sturgeon wearing TONS of make-up, even more than Farage, says election is a chance to change the way we do politics’ as if she is somehow going to turn it into a dressing up party. Newspapers need to stop treating every woman that appears in front of them as an object to be judged and start treating them as politicians, or people, some of whom are capable of leading significant parties into power.
It’s hard to see how the general public are meant to have any hope for change when this is the image the media is giving those offering the best policies. It’s no wonder that so many women have becomed disillusioned with the current state of UK politics when people who speak out are spoken over by the old boys club, or else subject to having their credibility destroyed by the Metro or the Independent or whichever paper tweets the next sexist article.
But the discrimination of women in politics isn’t just about women in power. It filters down into the policies of all major parties, and their failure to tackle, or even make a talking point of, issues that are important to women across the UK. Yes, the Tories might have written on paper that overall, there is a 17% difference in mean hourly earnings between men and women. Yes, they might have stated how they want to introduced compulsory pay audits. Yet, they were the only party who had members voting against the bill that Labour brought in promising just this. Similarly, they accept that sexual assault is a severe problem and propose to give Rape Crisis centres more funding, but would these centres be in need of more funding had the conservatives themselves not cut it in the first place?
One can see a similar trend with the other parties, with Labour and Green the only two that really stand out for tackling issues concerning women. These two parties are the only ones which offer feasible solutions to problems of domestic violence, the only ones who hope to tackle gender inequality in the workplace properly and efficeiently, and the Green Party is the only one standing up not only for UK-born women, but also for women seeking asylum in our country.
Of course, women’s issues aren’t the only ones to be looking out for in the run up to the general election; there are many more equally important policies that will be defined in the manifestos. But at the same time, they shouldn’t be disregarded. We need to make it clear that when we’ve elected who we’ll elect, we will not just sit by and see if they make any progress for women. To get people engaged in politics we need to start showing them how to take part in our democracy and how to have a voice. The parties need to show women that they are going to pay attention to what they want, and listen to their needs rather than trying to take a stab in the dark about how to tackle gender inequality with advice from middle aged, middle class, private school boys. They need to show that they will not take the portrayal of women in the media lightly. They need to show that they are serious about our rights. Perhaps then women will want to harness the power that was granted them almost a century a go and head to the ballots.