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The rise of the ‘dangerous woman’

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SNP, female politicians, media representation, Clinton, SturgeonMisrepresentations of Clinton and Sturgeon by media reflect their threat to the political establishment. 

Hillary Clinton and Nicola Sturgeon, two women in positions of political leadership, have in recent weeks become subjects of intense media scrutiny.

When Clinton officially announced her 2016 presidential campaign, a flood of media coverage speculated on what her candidacy represented for both US politics and for women.

And Sturgeon, recently branded the ‘most dangerous woman in Britain’, has risen to spectacular prominence in the public eye during the run up to the UK elections on 7 May, with consistently high public approval ratings.

The ‘danger’ it seems, resides in the current and unprecedented dominance of women in the political running, and their incidental popularity.

Hillary Clinton’s journey to this point has been hard fought, and with over 35 years in the White House, few can rival her experience and expertise.

And the representational significance of her candidacy is unmistakable; of the 43 presidents the US has seen, not one has been a woman, and in a Congress of 535, female representatives occupy only 104 seats.

Gender will undoubtedly feature prominently in coverage of the US election, and rightly so: Hillary Clinton has long been an ambassador for equal rights: she spoke of “women’s rights as human rights” at the fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995, and has campaigned tirelessly for issues such as equal pay and reproductive rights throughout her political career. The USA’s 2016 elections thus present an opportunity for gender perspectives to be examined on the political agenda and in public discourse, in an unprecedented way.

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Scotland’s First Minister, has also made a career of politics. Sihe joined the SNP in 1986 and has been an MSP since 1999, occupying successive roles, including as the SNP’s Shadow Secretary for children and education, then for health and later for justice.

And under Sturgeon’s leadership, positive gender equality measures have been implemented, including 50:50 male to female ratio in her cabinet, and generous childcare provisions and gender balanced boards are central priorities in the SNP manifesto.

But while women’s policies, and the women’s vote, have been central to Clinton’s early campaigning, (see her first video here), Nicola Sturgeon’s growing reputation as a progressive and highly competent politician has developed in line with her wider commitment to issues of social justice, in which gender equality policies inherently feature.

Sturgeon’s professional management of some fairly radical positions has steered the SNP, as a minority party, into the forefront of Westminster politics, to widespread support.

As women become increasingly dominant in politics and the discussion that accompanies it, institutional sexism remains a hallmark of (largely right wing) mainstream media, which differentiates the criteria through which male and female politicians are scrutinised.

For women, appearance is often judged more thoroughly than their work, and language can often adhere to archaic and harmful stereotypes that denigrate women’s suitability for their roles in politics.

Clinton’s aides have pre-emptively issued guidelines to protect against and monitor ‘coded sexism’ in the media coverage of her campaign. Guidelines which include avoiding words such as ‘polarising’, ‘calculating’, ‘disingenuous’, ‘insincere’, ‘ambitious’, ‘entitled’ and ‘overconfident’.

Despite these efforts, sexist and ageist remarks by prominent voices have strived to undermine her campaign in its early stages. A recent New York Times op-ed reproached Clinton for “basking in oestrogen” and right wing commentators have criticised her appearance and questioned her capacity to juggle roles as both President and grandmother.

Nicola Sturgeon lacks the support infrastructure to police the media on the same scale, and the attacks directed at her in the media have been overwhelmingly sexist.

Her wardrobe and her confidence have been repeatedly targeted in offensive language and pictures: The Sun portrayed Sturgeon in tartan underwear riding a wrecking ball under the headline “Tartan Barmy”, and she has likewise incurred titles including “Lady Macbeth” and “Little Miss McHypocrite”.

But in the run up to both elections, policies must assume the focus of analysis and speculation.

Clinton’s position on campaign financing, as beneficiary to billions worth of campaign ‘dark money’, and her previously hard line approach to immigration and LGBT rights, constitute just a few of her controversial stances on sensitive issues which must be addressed.

It is important that we see a woman succeed to become president of the United States, but like any other professional politician, Hillary Clinton’s rebranding in the pre-election build-up will be extensive, and therefore the extent to which we regard her as progressive and radical should be dependent on the next 18 months of her campaign, not determined by her gender.

Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity appears relatively unaffected by the inappropriate media attention she has received, and polls suggest that her politics and personality override these attempts to downgrade her.

Clinton and Sturgeon are ‘dangerous’ because they represent a threat to the political establishment, which continues to be overwhelmingly male and largely conservative.

Yet standards in the media must change, and as female politicians move increasingly into positions of leadership, the media must ensure it responds to these shifts in political culture by actively addressing the gender imbalances and any – or all – overt sexism in its coverage.

  1. Kimbo Andersen says:

    These two women are dangerous. They are dangerous because they now present the populous with a credible choice of leader and not just second rate pickings from candidates who have long ridden on the coat tails of their sex. Well written

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