For some, the incident was a simple case of mask slippage: Cameron’s modern facade cracking under pressure to reveal the Eton-entitled, habitually sexist Bullingdon bully beneath. But, as it became clear that offence had been taken by a constituency bigger than Ed Balls – making easy feminist hay on behalf of the opposition – the debate revealed a response that was, if not polarised, then certainly non-equatorial.
Male sketchwriters and assorted Westminster aficionados either affected bemused indulgence on behalf of their slighted sisters or scented the whiff of political-correctness-gone-mad. The storm was argued back into its teacup. This was just a joke and a gender-blind one at that. The House of Commons is a bearpit and those participating have tacitly accepted that the usual rules of polite discourse need not apply. Edwina Currie was among former female ministers wheeled out to pooh-pooh the notion of “bleating about being a woman”. Ergo, telling a female colleague to “Calm down, dear” is Not That Big A Deal.
To these assorted exculpations I reply: “Do me a favour, love!” (For those whose mental data cloud does not include a section marked Public Wallyfication, this refers to Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys discussing the West Ham vice-chair, Karren Brady, off-air.) Because language really, really matters. It is fundamental to how we construct and convey meaning. And when that meaning is: “I am expressing paternalistic concern at your inability [as a woman] to rein in your emotion” then yes, that is sexist and yes, it is a big deal. To undermine her anger as hysteria, to reference her femaleness, is a particularly male way of putting a woman down.
In her seminal treatise Man Made Language, the feminist theorist Dale Spender makes the argument that language is a system that embodies sexual inequality. She offers evidence of the loss of prestige experienced when men are referred to in female terms (“don’t be such a girl”), and the way that words to describe women are consistently sexualised or imply over-emotion and weakness. (Nick Clegg, since the earliest coalition negotiations, has been described by critics as a “harlot”, a “flirt” and “arm candy”.) Spender noted that, while males have more control over meaning and more control over talk (one study found men were responsible for 98% of interruptions in mixed conversation), women are in a double bind: damned if they do and damned if they don’t talk like a lady.
Language is about inclusion and exclusion. Whether certain men revert to sexist banter when they think they can get away with it, as was the case with Gray and Keys, is beside the point. What matters is that nowadays, in the majority of public spaces and, crucially, workplaces, such behaviour is policed by other men as well as women. What matters is that when women don’t hear this kind of language on a regular basis they get the message that they belong and become more confident about speaking up. That this subtle but fundamental inclusion is not manifest in our own parliament is of profound concern.
To those who would at this point query the existence of my funny bone, I would respectfully suggest that humour is about context as well as content. “Cheer up, darling, it might never happen”? It already has, and here is the context in the spring of 2011. There are just four women cabinet ministers and one of those comes unelected from the Lords. All the decisions about cuts to benefits and services that are affecting women, and especially single mothers, disproportionately are being made with little female input.
Indeed, across the coalition benches as a whole, women are woefully underrepresented, with a recent Fabian analysis forecasting the complete demise of Liberal Democrat women in the house after the next election. And it’s hard not to see this as evidenced directly in the slew of anti-woman proposals that have emanated from the government since last May: be that the bungled child benefit changes, alterations to abortion provision and anonymity in rape trials, or the current assault on equality legislation under the guise of Cameron’s “Red Tape Challenge”.
Meanwhile, David Willetts sees fit to blame feminism for working-class worklessness, the Telegraph posts a “whose boobs are these?” blog alongside a photo of a headless Labour MP, and the most visible woman anywhere near the government remains Samantha Cameron, who could this week be found baking cupcakes for a royal wedding street party. As women’s position in society is weakened by recession, the government’s response to that recession, and their representation within that government, it is frightening to see just how quickly the wider culture takes its cue to move backward. I see no reason to be calm about it.