Over recent weeks the British press have been almost ecstatically condemnatory of the chauvanistic nature of French politics, talking loudly of how dreadful it must be to be a woman in politics in France.
Indeed, recent revelations along with what we have always known about French political culture would offer no evidence to the contrary. What is remarkable, however, is the self-righteousness with which news of the DSK affair (among others) have been received in Britain. There has been an overwhelming smugness displayed by both the media and British politicians that Britain does not have France’s chauvinism problem.
However, today I read in the Times an interview piece on Rachida Dati who the Times itself described as one of the most prominent victims of France’s overtly sexist political culture. Yet, the first paragraph of the piece reads:
“After the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, at a time when France is fretting over sexism and the limits of seduction, it seemed fitting to be talking to Rachida Dati. The most glamorous of the mould-breaking women whom Nicolas Sarkozy took to power with him in 2007, Dati was sacked and banished from the Elysée Palace two years ago, but she remains a symbol of how French women have it both ways. They can wield power and high-octane sex appeal at the same time, using the latter to enhance the former”
Firstly, why on earth is her “high-octane” sex appeal and her glamour the most important things to mention about her? If this was a biopic on any male politician there is no way that the first paragraph would mention any octane of sex appeal, nor would it then go on to talk about what they were wearing, yet we are made aware that Dati looked “impeccable in couture trouser-suit and heels” and has both “big dark eyes and perfect make-up”.
Dati is not the only example of how female politicians are judged and evaluated by their appearance. Much as I am not the biggest fan of Theresa May, I find it abhorrent that she is judged by the British press on what kind of shoes she wears or how often she wears the same jacket. I have also blogged before about by what criteria women are judged to be powerful – overwhelmingly as a result of their husband’s status or through their effect upon popular culture rather than politics or business.
The most shocking statement made in the article however is that which states that French women use their sex-appeal to obtain and enhance their power. This appalling argument is one that has formed a cornerstone of the cultural myth surrounding powerful women: That their power is reliant first and foremost upon their sex appeal and therefore dependent upon manipulation of men.
Not only does this have the implicit effect of pitting women against women (since power is dependent upon men’s favour it must be obtained in precedence of other women) but also renders a the power a woman holds illegitimate in the eyes of the masses. A female politician perceived to have got where she is by seduction can never be thought as worthy as a man who has got there by hard work and genius.
This myth is not only damaging but overwhelmingly false. The most powerful women today and in recent history, for example Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher or Dimla Rousseff, did not make it to power based upon their sex appeal or sexual manipulation of male politicians. Such women are also examples of the real change enacted by women upon the world stage and just how effective they can be as politicians.
What is actually most dangerous about this treatment of powerful women in the media is that all of this intrusive and irrelevant fluff about their appearance or personal life is given precedence over any discussion of policy, ideas or achievements. Nowhere in the Times article is there any mention of anything Dati actually did as Minister of Justice. This attitude is a problem for all female politicians, not just the most “glamorous”. If women in politics are only evaluated by the press for their appearance and their personal or family life, how are we meant to convince men in politics and the wider public as a whole to take us or our ideas seriously?
This is an issue so insidious that many simply fail to recognise it, or accept it as normal, but until we confront it and, as female politicians, demand to be judged on the criteria of policy, accountability and deed neither we nor the rest of the women of Britain will achieve equality.