Ursula Somers | @ursulasomers_
Joe Biden’s recent victory over Donald Trump in the US election has allowed many of us, from both the left and right of politics, to breathe a big sigh of relief. An end to the Trump era means loosening restrictive immigration policies, taking climate change seriously and a President who finally takes the pandemic seriously as well.
However, although many of us agree that a Biden-run White House will be much better for America and the rest of the world than another Trump one, let’s not forget Biden is no perfect candidate. He has been accused of sexual assault by Tara Reade and ‘inappropriate touching’ by numerous women throughout his long political career.
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These accusations are serious, but in comparison to Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign which was largely derailed by her email scandal, it seems to have been brushed under the carpet. Although, ideologically, many progressive feminists have little in common with Clinton, that does not mean that seeing her being held to a higher standard that her male colleagues is not troubling.
Whether you agree with Hilary’s politics or not there were clear differences between how she was treated in the 2016 US election compared to Biden in this election. Perhaps for Trump, some of the media and many voters, the concept of a president is inherently linked to being male. This was obvious from the infamous ‘lock her up’ chant, for what exactly, still remains unclear. However, this does not stop many conservatives at rallies using this relentlessly in the US today and is obviously a tactic to silence female voices in politics.
This raises an issue for feminists trying to navigate politics: should we focus our precious energy and activism protecting representatives from misogyny or unfair scrutiny, who disagree with our values, or pursue classist, sexist and racists policies just because they are women?
Unfortunately, the example of Hilary Clinton is not a one off and there are plenty of cases in both international politics and here in the UK of women on the right wing being exposed to misogyny from people from all types of political standpoints.
Cast your mind back to what feels like forever ago, when Theresa May was our Prime Minister. Her leadership quickly went downhill after her Brexit deal failed to pass through Parliament three times. Boris Johnson then won the Conservative party’s leadership and a general election with the promise of an ‘oven ready’ deal which everyone would love. In reality, he had only bothered to renegotiate as little as 5% of May’s original deal.
This is a classic example of the glass cliff phenomenon; May stepped up to the challenge of negotiating a Brexit deal because women are often stereotyped with attributes which suggest they are good at handling crises, and perhaps also because no white male politicians were willing. It was no surprise that when she failed many white male backbenchers of her own party were unable to hide their pleasure.
This raises a lot of questions: can Johnson’s deal really be much better than May’s? Or is he just a man? And if you are a Remainer and care about gender equality should you be calling this out, trying to stand with a woman who is actively working against your interests?
Lastly, it is impossible to cover this issue without talking about Priti Patel; a prominent member of the Conservative party and current Home Secretary. Patel has been accused of bullying her staff. Many Labour MPs and left leaning journalists have argued she has weaponised her South Asian heritage to silence criticisms of the government’s discriminatory policies. Also, Patel has worked to end free movement for UK citizens which despite her view that it ‘opens up’ the UK, effectively sanctions ourselves, as it will be a lot harder for young people to enjoy and experience travel, study and work in Europe. Patel’s political record is therefore very unlikely to impress a progressive voter (to say the least). Does this justify turning a blind eye to the fact that she receives a much higher torrent of abuse than her white male cabinet colleagues who are pursuing the same goals? Should we defend someone who is the target of sexist abuse when they are perpetuating harmful policies?
I am not saying that doing this is easy, I am not even saying we would be positively acknowledged for doing this. In fact, I am sure many people would be horrified by the idea of defending someone who politically opposes them. However, we cannot let oppressive forces like racism and misogyny continue to run riot in society, regardless of who they are targeting.
Politicians need to be held to account for their promises, ignorance, exclusion, and corruption. To abuse a politician with a sexist or racist argument is not effective and should not be tolerated. We need to call this out whenever we see it. Politics does not have to be a zero-sum game, loaded with hate for the opposition. This kind of attack is tribal and likely to contribute to polarising our society. Ultimately if we continue to turn a blind eye to this, we are going to harm the institutions and systems that govern us as we ignore the fact that political actors are nuanced and complex.
So, what’s the solution? Well we need more women in politics, but women who we can look up to and we need to work harder at creating a safe space for them in politics too. Patel, May or Clinton haven’t made much effort to protect other women and minorities, which in fairness, they are not obligated to do. Patel’s bullying, ending free movement, and silencing other women of colour is exclusionary and impacts women and minorities negatively. But it is possible to criticise her without being racist or sexist. It is not enough to have a few women in high powered roles if all they are going to do is preserve the status-quo and discriminate. Instead we need a wider variety of female politicians, with a wider diversity of experiences and views.
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