Melanie Phillips

11 November 2005

The underpinnings of inequality

Published in: Daily Mail

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Let's try a modest thought experiment. Let's imagine that Margaret Beckett and Patricia Hewitt are being interviewed on BBC2's Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman on what direction they would like the Labour government to take.

To help enlighten the nation, Paxman proceeds to ask both of them whether they wear thongs or big knickers, whether they drink skinny latte or cappucino with chocolate sprinkles and whether their taste in men runs to brooding hunks or pale young men with sensitive fingers.

Can anyone doubt what would ensue? There would be immediate uproar, in the studio and around the nation. Ms Beckett and Ms Hewitt would express outrage and incredulity at being asked such demeaning, intrusive and stupid questions. They would refuse to answer them on the grounds that Paxman was patronising and type-casting them as fluffy airheads, thus diminishing the important work they do in governing the country.

Paxman would never hear the end of it. He would be excoriated in the editorial columns of liberal newspapers as a male chauvinist dinosaur. MPs would ask questions in Parliament about institutional sexism in the BBC. The Director-General would be summoned by the governors for a dressing-down.

Yet now look at what happened on BBC Radio Four's Woman's Hour this week when the two contenders for the Tory crown, David Cameron and David Davis, were interviewed by presenter Martha Kearney, who is also the political editor of Newsnight.

She asked them whether they wore briefs or boxer shorts, whether they drank lager or beer and whether they preferred blondes or brunettes. And on what was doubtless considered to be a higher cultural plane -- Ms Kearney is, after all, also the newly appointed presenter of Newsnight's arty Friday Review -- whether they preferred Jamie or Delia, Scissor Sisters or Coldplay and Strictly Come Dancing or the X-Factor.

Has the cause of female equality really come to this? Questions about underpants? All those pioneering feminists who, down the decades, had battled through ridicule, hostility, obstructionism and worse in order to establish the simple principle that women were not silly, empty-headed, trivia-obsessed decorative objects but were the intellectual equals of men and should accordingly be given equal status in the public sphere, must be turning in their graves.

For here was a woman who had reached the starry heights of political journalism asking two male politicians questions that suggested precisely such a preoccupation with silly, empty-headed trivia -- and which were, moreover, demeaning to the opposite sex in precisely the manner for which men who spoke in this way to women would quite rightly be pilloried.

Worse still was the reaction of women to this sorry encounter. David Davis's answer that he preferred blondes, followed by his joking aside - 'I shouldn't have said that. My wife is brunette' - was deemed to have turned off women voters. Acording to Pamela Parker, president of the Conservative Women's Association, it was in 'bad taste' and patronising to women.

Well yes it was, deplorably so. But surely the real problem lay in the question that he had been asked in the first place -- along with all those other vacuous inquiries -- for diminishing what should have been a political interview to the level of giggling girliness. Yet here was Mr Davis, as a result, being judged in all seriousness for his suitability to become the leader of the Conservative Party and potential Prime Minister of this country on the basis of his answers to a dubious question about his taste in women -- with the propriety of such a question having been asked apparently not even occurring to the women who were thus giving him the female-equality thumbs-down.

Is this not one rule for women and another rule for men? Is this really what feminist solidarity is all about? And -- above all -- is this the dismal level to which British politics has now descended?

But no-one seems to have objected. On the contrary, Ms Kearney has reportedly since been accosted by several male MPs volunteering to disclose to her the details of their own underwear drawer.

No less dismaying was the general approach displayed by both of these contenders. For presented with these preposterous questions, they meekly answered most of them. Mr Cameron managed to sidestep the 'blondes or brunettes' conundrum, but did disclose his taste in underwear. And both men informed a hushed and expectant world of their tastes in drinking, cooking and rock music.

So why didn't they do what women would have done in an equivalent situation and refuse to answer on the grounds that such an approach reduced politics to a level of inanity one does not expect from a serious broadcasting organisation? Wouldn't it have been refreshing -- and a blow for real female equality -- if they'd said that women were surely interested in serious issues and that such questioning was demeaning to the female sex?

The reason why they did not is almost certainly that they were terrified to do so -- because they were being interviewed by a woman in front of an audience of women. To accuse a woman of having a trivialising agenda might expose themselves to the charge of being prejudiced by trying to saddle a woman with the old stereotype of an absence of seriousness.

But there wasjust such an absence of seriousness. So these two men, who are trying to persuade the public of the fearlessnes and robustness of their judgment and other inspiring aspects of their character, could not say what needed to be said because they were paralysed by the women issue.

The irony, of course, is that this was not treating women equally at all, since they were responding to a woman interviewer quite differently to the way in which they would have responded to a man.

There were, it has to be said, other indications of a positively crass or antideluvian attitude to women. Mr Davis dug himself further into a hole when, challenged over having attired his female cheerleaders at the recent Tory Party conference in T-shirts bearing the legend 'It's DD for me', he dismissed the resulting adverse reaction as a 'sense of humour failure'. And even the 'new man' David Cameron turns out to be a member of White's, an exclusive gentlemen's club.

In the light of all this, their proposals to boost the number of Conservative women MPs by an 'A-list' of parliamentary candidates with half of the places going to women (Cameron) or a separate women's manifesto (Davis) seemed to be merely dutiful nods in the direction of gender politics.

For all politicians, the women's vote is crucial -- and it is defined by different issues from those that preoccupy most men. David Cameron appears to have the edge over his rival in winning this vote because he appears to be a hands-on, caring, sharing kind of father. Macho man, for today's women, appears to be a big turn-off.

And yet the Woman's Hour episode demonstrated that both male politicians and their female inquistors still fall into the trap of double standards and muddled atitudes when women are the issue.

Clearly, the cause of real female equality still has some way to go.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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