As the General Election looms, Debbie Cameron wishes people would stop talking nonsense about women doing politics differently.
Last Wednesday on The World at One, the BBC’s Martha Kearney interviewed two politicians about their parties’ newly-launched manifestos. The first interview was a bit of a gladiatorial contest, with the participants competing to set the agenda. Though Kearney cut in frequently in an attempt to stem the flow, she was often defeated by the time-honoured tactics of the experienced politician—raising the pitch and volume of your voice and continuing to say what you came to say, whether or not it’s an answer to the question you were asked. There was a lot of simultaneous speech, and at times it got quite heated. But the interviewee stayed on-message, and ultimately in control.
The second interview was different. It began as a polite, almost stilted exchange, with none of the overlap that is normal in conversation. The interviewee allowed Kearney to direct the proceedings, waiting for her to finish each question before starting to speak, and sticking to the terms of the question. At times the answers were rather halting, but Kearney showed no impatience. A few minutes in, though, she asked a question which elicited some obvious waffle. At that point she did interrupt: her guest tried to keep going, and the exchange turned into something more like the first interview, with both speakers raising their voices and talking over each other. The interviewee became increasingly flustered, and struggled to respond to Kearney’s challenges. If you judged it as a contest, then Kearney won on points.
If I asked a random sample of people to tell me who they imagined these interviewees were, most would probably say that they imagined the first one as a man and the second as a woman. If I asked them to explain their reasoning, they might point out that men are generally more assertive and less intimidated by adversarial situations; they tend to take up more speaking time, and they frequently interrupt and talk over other people, especially when those people are women. Women, by contrast, are less assertive and more supportive, more respectful of others’ speaking rights and more attentive to their contributions. They don’t typically enjoy verbal duelling, and may not perform well in situations that demand it.
These differences between men and women have been a recurring theme in the 2015 election campaign. The campaign has been a multi-party affair: neither of the main parties is expected to win the election outright, so more attention than usual has been given to the smaller parties they may have to rely on for support. Three of those parties are led by women: the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. Their profiles have been raised by their appearance in televised debates, and it is widely agreed that they have performed well. Many positive comments have focused on their style of debating. ‘Look’, people say approvingly, ‘these women are showing us that political debates don’t have to be competitive shouting matches. They’re listening to their opponents rather than constantly interrupting them. They’re not just hurling insults or trying to score points, they’re engaging constructively with the arguments. How civilized! What a refreshing change! Let’s have more women in politics!’
For some of us this is déjà vu all over again. In 1997, when the landslide Labour victory brought a record 119 women into Westminster, we were told that their civilizing influence was going to change the culture of politics and make the House of Commons ‘less of a bear-garden’. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, declared that female politicians were a good thing because ‘democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. Over in Swindon South, her colleague Julia Drown opined that ‘women are more co-operative: they’re not so into scoring points and more interested in hearing different points of view’.
As a feminist I am broadly in favour of female politicians. But these observations about their more co-operative, more ‘civilized’ style of speaking make me want to bang my head against a wall. Why? First, because they’re factually wrong; second, because they’re patronising; and third, because the thinking behind them is sexist to the core.
Women in the debates: how did they really speak?
I have struggled to reconcile my own observations of the female party leaders with the comments made by other people on their behaviour. The suggestion that these women’s approach is less adversarial than the men’s—that they don’t compete for the floor or talk over other speakers or try to score points off their opponents—is so inaccurate, I can only understand it as a case of what scientists call ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to pay attention to things that match our expectations while overlooking things that conflict with them. We expect women to be different from men, so we look for differences and pass over similarities. We think certain behaviours are typical of women, so examples of those behaviours—even if there are very few—get noticed and remembered in a way the counter-examples don’t.
Consider, for instance, one of the most memorable moments in the first TV debate that featured seven party leaders. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage made some racist, scaremongering remarks about immigrants with HIV, and Leanne Wood told him—to applause from the studio audience—that he should be ashamed of himself. This was a highly adversarial move. Wood jumped in to deliver, in tones of unmistakable disgust, a highly effective put-down. Her behaviour contrasted starkly with that of the three male politicians, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, who were conspicuously silent. She deserved the applause for her guts and her presence of mind. But how can anyone who watched this intervention maintain that women ‘aren’t into point-scoring’? What did her comment to Farage have to do with being constructive or preferring consensus to conflict?
Nicola Sturgeon is seriously into point-scoring. The most experienced of the three women, and for many people the most impressive, she is also the one with the most consistently adversarial debating style. In the second, ‘challengers’ debate (involving five opposition party leaders, but not the leaders of the governing coalition parties), she provided one of the night’s main talking points when she confronted Ed Miliband about his unwillingness to work with the Scottish Nationalists. In this section of the debate it was Sturgeon who took the initiative, forcing Miliband onto the defensive. She did it by issuing a series of challenges, putting him on the spot with a direct command or request (‘tell me, Ed…’ ‘so are you saying…?’). Rather than listening politely to his responses, she rarely allowed him to finish his turn uninterrupted. She repeatedly talked over him, and refused to stop speaking when he did the same to her.
Sturgeon wins points not only because her arguments are good, but also because she doesn’t shy away from attacking her opponents, and she doesn’t give ground when they attack her. She is not only a skilful exponent of the adversarial style, she is also a highly competitive one: there’s no doubt she’s in it to win it. In fact, I would say she’s a more competitive debater than either Miliband or Farage (who comes across as combative because the substance of what he says is often inflammatory, but whose discourse style is actually not particularly adversarial).
Some commentators have pointed out that the women have been very supportive to one another—agreeing with each other’s points, not challenging each other, and engaging in a group hug at the end of the second debate. All that is true, but I think it has more to do with party politics than female solidarity. The women have nothing to gain by challenging one another, because their parties are not in competition for the same votes. The two nationalist parties are only contesting seats in Wales and Scotland respectively, and the Greens are not a serious rival in either territory. On the other hand, they do have something to gain by supporting one another, because the main platform on which all of them are fighting this election is opposition to austerity. So, it makes sense for them to amplify that message by maintaining a united front, and it would equally make sense if they didn’t all happen to be women. Would they show the same supportiveness to women who were not their political allies? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t: if UKIP were led by a British Marine Le Pen, I don’t think she’d have been invited to join in the group hug.
But we don’t have to speculate here. I’ve already described an extremely adversarial encounter between one of the three female leaders and another woman. Contrary to what you may have assumed, the first of Martha Kearney’s two interviewees, the one who dominated their exchange and resisted Kearney’s attempts to take control, was not a male politician. It was, in fact, Nicola Sturgeon.
You’re all individuals
The second interviewee, the one who initially deferred to Kearney’s authority but then got flustered and defensive when she challenged his waffling answers, was a male politician: he was UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. And if your reaction to that is ‘Who?’, you’ve anticipated my next point. It’s always a mistake to treat individual men and women as generic representatives of their gender, and to assume that any difference between them must be a gender difference. In the case of O’Flynn and Sturgeon I think it’s pretty clear that gender is a red herring. The key difference here is experience: Sturgeon has done far more political interviews than O’Flynn, and is therefore a much more confident and skilful performer.
The point that individuals are not generic men and women isn’t just something to bear in mind when making cross-sex comparisons. One reason why it is problematic to talk about a female style of speaking is that female speakers aren’t all the same. Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I’ve been discussing there are clear individual differences.
There is a particularly striking contrast between the most experienced of the three, Nicola Sturgeon, and the least experienced, Natalie Bennett. Bennett is more reticent, more formal and less spontaneous; she’s much less inclined to challenge others directly or to take the initiative in the way Sturgeon did with Miliband (or Wood did with Farage). Apart from the difference in experience, the two women have different personalities and are differently positioned in terms of political influence (it’s a big advantage to Sturgeon that everyone expects her party to be a serious force in Westminster after the election; Bennett has no such leverage). The cumulative effect of these differences is large: you would no more confuse their debating styles than you would confuse their hairstyles, or their accents.
But the problem isn’t just that commentators make sweeping generalizations about women. The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?
The burdens of civilization
Telling women they’re different, and that in some ways their difference makes them superior to men, has always been one way of consoling them for their inequality and powerlessness. It has also served as a convenient excuse for perpetuating that inequality: women demanding entry to some male-dominated institution can be told that they’re unsuited to it, or too good for it. The latter was a popular argument with Victorian anti-suffragists, who were fond of asking why the angel of the house would want to dabble her pristine wings in the sewer of politics.
At a certain point, when the angel’s demands can no longer be denied entirely, the argument changes tack: women can be allowed in after all, but not simply because they, like men, are people. Rather, because women’s distinctive qualities and ways of doing things are needed to civilize the institution. Like wives putting up curtains in their husbands’ sheds, women in politics, or business, or the Church, will use their feminine touch to smooth off the male rough edges, and everyone—men as well as women—will benefit.
This is exactly what was said about the women MPs who went to Westminster in 1997. Evidently their civilizing mission was not successful: eighteen years later, here we are again. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: you can’t be expected to change an institution’s culture if your position within the institution is one of structural powerlessness. And the women MPs (or ‘Blair’s Babes’, as the Labour ones were different-but-equally called) were in exactly that position.
It wasn’t just that they were heavily outnumbered, though they were. The linguist Sylvia Shaw, who did research in the House of Commons a few years after the 1997 election, found that the men did not treat their female colleagues as equals, they treated them as interlopers. The women were subjected to sexist barracking when they rose to speak, and sanctioned for breaking the arcane rules of Parliamentary debate while men were allowed to break the same rules with impunity. As a result the women got less speaking time and had less influence in debates. They didn’t struggle with the adversarial debating style of the House of Commons; what they struggled with was the sexism of the men in the House of Commons.
This is another reason why I get angry when people say that women don’t shine as public speakers because the adversarial style doesn’t suit them: they aren’t into point-scoring, they’re not interested in power, they’re natural consensus-seekers who shy away from conflict. This implies that women are unequal in public life because they’re different, when really it’s the other way round. If women aren’t allowed to participate on equal terms, any differences we see are more likely to be effects of sexism than of sex. We can’t know what difference their sex makes until we see how they behave in conditions of sex equality.
That’s what makes the election debates so interesting. They’ve offered a rare opportunity to watch politicians performing in conditions of near equality (in one debate there were four men and three women, in the other three women and two men; all participants had the same status as party leaders; they were all bound by the same rules and had an equal number of pre-allocated turns). And under those conditions what I think we saw was not a male-female stylistic divide. There were differences between individuals, but no clear division by sex.
You might be thinking: but surely there are good feminist arguments for a less adversarial style of political discourse? I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that some of the conventions and rituals of Westminster have little to contribute to modern democratic debate (the cheer-and-jeerfest that is Prime Minister’s Questions comes to mind). But I have never bought the argument that adversarial discourse itself is a ‘male’ thing, and serves only as a vehicle for macho posturing.
Since conflict is an integral part of politics, I think adversarial discourse will always have a place in it. It’s not the only game in town—deliberation and negotiation are also important—but I can’t imagine a political movement or a democratic assembly that wouldn’t require its members to engage in debate. Saying that women are too civilized to get involved in the adversarial stuff is like saying that angels shouldn’t dabble in sewers. It’s saying that women can’t do politics at all. And if that’s a feminist argument, I’m a banana.