Gina Davidson: Between a Brick and a hard place

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PHEW! What a week it’s been – and I don’t just mean the weather. No, it’s been a right old fandango for feminists, and keeping with a meteorological metaphor the isobar charts showed sweeping highs and lows for sisterhood all over the place.

On the scorchio side there was the election of Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has finally brought democracy to a country ruled by military junta. Then an icy chill swept in from France, where a former UK TV presenter Samantha Brick (no, I hadn’t heard of her either) wrote about her terrible life as a beautiful woman and in the process broke the one major bond of womanhood – that you never, ever boast about your attractiveness it’s just not, well . . . attractive. Unsurprisingly she’s now the centre of a tornado of Twitter abuse.

Sometimes it is indeed hard to be a woman – whether you’re under house arrest for years because a dictatorship fears your words could bring their regime of terror tumbling down, or you’re scared to show your exquisite face at your front door because your “dowdier and dumpier” female friends will be waiting to stone you.

Perhaps Ms Brick should have gone into politics rather than television. After all, narcissism and a good line in braggadocio seems to be pre-requisites for the job – at least in the Western world.

Let’s face it, no-one in their right minds would want to run for political office. You have to have a deep-seated belief that you know what’s best for everyone else. That your thoughts are on nationalism or internationalism, privatisation or nationalisation, or even on how best to repair the potholes in the roads are the correct ones.

Furthermore you have to be willing to put yourself in front of a cynical, mistrustful public every five years and beg them to vote for you. Self-confidence is a must – self-delusion even better. (It’s the same for columnists – but no-one cares that I write this in my dressing gown, with mad hair and without a scrap of make-up on.)

For women going into politics, it’s even worse. While men can get away with being bald and obese or chinless with a receding hairline or even just sporting some dodgy facial hair, it’s not the same for women. Every grey hair, wrinkle, ounce of fat, bad shoes, worse hair, and facial expression is scrutinised and picked apart. Who would want to face that every day?

Which is the real reason for the Electoral Reform Commission’s complaints about a lack of female candidates in next month’s council elections. There are just 27 women putting themselves up for election in Edinburgh – and 100 men.

There will of course be many women who are put off from pursuing a career in politics because they don’t have enough time with juggling work and family, but ultimately, at the root of it all the problem lies in the shallowness of the voting public.

There are plenty of women interested and active in politics, but those who are likely the most capable, cannot be bothered with the fact that every time they open their mouths, all people are taking in is whether they suit what they’re wearing, if they’ve got lipstick on their teeth or if their roots are needing retouched.

It’s hard enough to take that kind of criticism from your kids, but from complete strangers who feel they can judge because you want their vote – well what normal woman would willingly put herself through that? Better off licking envelopes and delivering leaflets.

Just look at what happens to women who do make it in Edinburgh? Jenny Dawe, for all her apparent intelligence and general all-round niceness, has never been taken seriously as a leader by many in this city because she can look like something from a Miss Marple television movie – when they were filmed in black and white.

Marilyne MacLaren’s many flaws as a politician have not been helped by being completely unphotogenic. The many unpleasant comments directed her way are more about how she’s pictured, than what she’s said. But it was never the case when Ewan Aitken was education convener – and he had a beard and an earring!

Remember the vitriol in Holyrood directed at Wendy Alexander when she was leader of Scottish Labour? In my humble opinion she was pretty good at her job, but came under constant attack, not so much for her politics, but because she was a woman with a voice which some said could curdle milk and a mouth which should have been sponsored by Lycra.

For similar reasons it’s taken Nicola Sturgeon a long time to be accepted as a serious politician and even Margaret Thatcher had to tone down her shrillness and sort out her dress sense when addressing parliament.

Of course, the feminist in me agrees that women should be proud of any female who makes it in politics because they’re showing just how confident in themselves they are – that they couldn’t give two hoots about appearance, it’s their actions which are more important. But instead, like most, I’m too busy wondering if they’ve had Botox like Louise Mensch – or if they need it.

Politics is biased towards men, because their looks just don’t come into it. And I’m not quite sure what the Electoral Reform Society can do about changing that.