It’s UK election time again and, yes, the media are still reproducing and circulating the same old entrenched ideas about the place of women in the political sphere. It hardly comes as a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing and the eagerness of political parties to play the game is dismal. Here’s Sarah Brown, dutiful and loving wife of the prime minister, posing for the cameras. And there’s Samantha Cameron, pounding the campaign trail with her opposition-leader husband. Pick up a copy of Hello! and see the happy couples smiling and holding hands. Read about Sarah’s polka-dot dress and Samantha wearing comfortable clothes now that she’s pregnant. It’s just one media event after another. Samantha on WebCameron at last, Sarah endlessly on Twitter.
But wait, surely someone’s missing? When the main political parties launched their campaigns in early April, the Lib Dem leader was accosted by reporters. Where was Miriam? Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam González Durántez, was nowhere to be seen. How could this be? Because it was a weekday – she was at work. Not propping up her husband, just getting on with her own job. Well really!
None of this is ‘progressive’, as the main parties are claiming their policies are. None of it is even politics. In-depth reports about ‘the SamCam effect’ and endless discussion of ‘the Sarah Brown strategy’ are not signs of progress. In fact, in terms of female representation, it’s beginning to feel as if we’ve regressed to the 1950s and I’m heartily sick of it. The real line-up in the current election campaign is exclusively male. It’s almost as though the last 40 or 50 years never happened. The only visible, and occasionally audible, women are two US-style ‘first ladies’. These women’s participation in their spouses’ work is fine, of course, but they are not elected representatives and they have no political power in their own right. They are publicly displayed as decorative supports who add a humanizing, personalizing touch to their husbands’ political profiles. This not only diminishes women’s participation in politics, but also degrades our whole political process. An election is supposed to be about policies, not politicians’ wives. Now if we were seeing public displays of same-sex civil partners, now that would be some sort of political statement – a challenge to heteronormativity, at least.
The personal will always be political. But transforming politics into the personal? That’s just absurd.
Mary Talbot is Secretary of the International Gender and Language Association. This month sees the release of the second edition of her popular book Language and Gender, a clear and engaging overview of foundational research and current trends in the interdisciplinary study of language, gender, and sexuality, and ‘an essential guide for new generations of students’ (Mary Bucholtz, UCSB).