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Kerry Hudson: Politics double standards keep barriers firmly in place for all women

There is no question that women MPs receive more scrutiny over their physical appearance than men (Photo: AP/Shutterstock and Stefan Rousseau/PA)
There is no question that women MPs receive more scrutiny over their physical appearance than men (Photo: AP/Shutterstock and Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Brace yourself.

Recently, the shadow chancellor, Angela Rayner, was accused of a heinous crime; when sitting down, she crosses her legs. Trigger warning: sometimes she is not totally inanimate and even moves occasionally during parliamentary debate.

This made national news last week, as she was accused by an “anonymous” Tory of using “Basic Instinct ploys” to distract Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions. Essentially, she’s made the mistake of not crossing her legs at the ankle like a debutante in deportment lessons, while wearing a skirt higher than calf length.

Listen, this story obviously has as much credence as saying that me rummaging through the yellow sticker selection in Tesco is the same as recreating the 9½ Weeks food sex scene. But, it speaks of a far bigger problem. There’s misogyny in the seats of the houses of parliament.

The recent Fawcett Society Sex and Power Index showed just how slow the progress in gender parity is in politics, with the percentage of women rising only “32% in 2017 to 34% at the 2019 election”. And is it any wonder, when women MPs receive vastly more scrutiny than their male counterparts?

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner (Photo: Ben Evans/Huw Evans/Shutterstock)

Female MPs must not only do their jobs well, but are expected to be likeable and well-dressed; appropriately dressed, too. It’s OK for Boris Johnson to turn up looking like a duvet found in an underpass, or for Jacob Rees-Mogg to loaf about during a Brexit debate in Victorian cosplay apparently hand sewn by foundlings, but female politicians must never put a sartorial foot wrong.

Rishi Sunak can wear a £95 pair of sliders and socks while preparing the Budget – but women in politics cannot… cross their legs?

A laughable article can do lasting damage

Perhaps the allegations about Angela Rayner could be seen as a kind of journalistic joke. Because they certainly are laughable.

Women face this type of treatment, large and small, in every facet of working and personal life, and we are all tired of it

Except, when the story broke, she was spending time with her teenage sons who she then had to protect from the news. Except the article was leaden with classism, keen to point out that Angela is not only in possession of – stop the press – a pair of legs, but that she’s also a working class woman who went to a comprehensive school and had a job as a care worker while she was a young mother.

Except there will be other young women who believe in trying to serve and shape their society for the better who will see this sort of headline and will think twice about trying to get into politics or any visible position. Except that women face this type of treatment, large and small, in every facet of working and personal life, and we are all tired of it.

At least the Tory leadership came out in support of Angela Rayner. With Boris Johnson tweeting a sort of support saying: “As much as I disagree with @AngelaRayner on almost every political issue I respect her as a parliamentarian and deplore the misogyny directed at her anonymously today.”

Nadine Dorries also came out in sort of support by tweeting… the exact same message. But nothing says genuine concern for misogyny in your party like a cut-and-paste tweet, right?

‘Woman sits in seat, does job’ isn’t the story we should focus on

Perhaps they were distracted since, in the same week, it was alleged that a male Tory MP has been watching porn in the Commons while sitting next to a female MP.

I have worked a lot of jobs in my 40 years and have never sat next to someone watching porn. You know why? Because I have never been in an environment, or worked with people with the sense of entitlement, where they thought they could get away with it.

Together, these two news stories about a woman making national news for – I’ll say this again – crossing her legs, and a Tory MP, paid for by the public, watching porn in the House of Commons tell a sorry tale. Not just about politics in the UK, but also about the barriers still facing women in all sectors.

I’ll leave you with some headlines that I think are more pertinent than: “Woman sits in seat, does job, occasionally shifts position”.

Nearly four million children living in poverty in UK

MPs fined for breaking their own laws in “partygate” scandal

Homeless figures 38% higher than when Conservatives took power

Approximately 11,400 winter deaths caused by cold homes

What will it take to get them out?

Kerry Hudson is an Aberdeen-born, award-winning writer of novels, memoirs and screenplays. She lives in Prague with her husband, toddler and an angry black cat

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