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28th Mar 2017

COMMENT Legs-It… and the problem with women and politics

Gillian Fitzpatrick

Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May met yesterday at a Glasgow hotel.

Summing up the meeting for today’s edition, the Daily Mail (which shifts 1.5m copies in the UK on a good day of sales), was absolute in its coverage of their pivotal get-together: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it?” screams the front page.

In the aftermath plenty of reasonably-minded folk – both male and female – recoiled in cringe-induced horror.

Downing Street was asked to comment (it hasn’t) and the Daily Mail was asked to apologise (it most certainly hasn’t).

Two powerful, influential, and successful politicians discussing matters of significance (namely, ya know, the likes of Brexit and Scottish independence) and one of the UK’s best-selling publications focused on their limbs.

So it’s an understandably pretty uncomfortable front page for an awful lot of people.

Here are the ladies in question in a nutshell: Ms May is one of the most important leaders in the world. She will, for example, this week steer Britain out of the European Union – a move which will have global impact.

Meanwhile Ms Sturgeon is, of course, First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish National Party.

Last year Forbes named both women as the most powerful in the UK – and among the most powerful women globally.

We’d sum Theresa and Nicola up as ‘knowing their shit…’

Plenty of people love the opportunity to criticise the Daily Mail (as a quick glance at a fuming Twitter today will atest). We can assume it’s a position that the publication is happy to embrace, relishing as it does its teetering-on-the-edge-of-controversy stance on a whole host of different issues.

But even acknowledging that, it has to be said that the newspaper’s coverage of Ms May and Ms Sturgeon’s meeting is not the matter that should have the Twitterati up in arms today.

The problem is that fundamentally there remains huge discomfort with women being in politics; there lingers an awkwardness about women in power.

It’s something that Donald Trump capitalised on during last year’s US presidential election, infamously criticising his rival Hillary Clinton for playing the ‘woman’s card’.

A year ago during Ireland’s most recent general elections, there was a constant, angry undercurrent about gender quotas (despite just 30 percent of candidates on the ballot paper having to be female).

During her White House residency, Michelle Obama weathered plenty of conservative tut-tutting over her bare arms.

Public representation compels women to loud, outspoken, bullish, and confident – and when they are those things it’s criticised.

Interestingly, it has repeatedly been highlighted that Ms May and Ms Sturgeon don’t have children. Nor does formidable German Chancellor Angela Merkel (though she does have two stepchildren). ‘Oh sure they’re women… but they’re NOT mothers,’ as if the latter position devalues their femininity.

So let the Daily Mail have its outrageous front page (and it is totally, laughably outrageous). We have more important matters to address than tomorrow’s chip paper.

Namely that more voices need to champion the rise of women in politics.

Then, and pretty soon, when two female leaders get together to discuss matters of international importance, the go-to comfort blanket will not be to discuss what they’re wearing… or indeed the presence of their legs.