Shocking ‘feather duster’ jibe shows sexism still a problem for women in politics – Alex Cole-Hamilton

Why do some newspapers describe Scottish Conservative leadership contender Michelle Ballantyne as a “mum-of-six” but don’t call Jackson Carlaw a “dad-of-two”, asks Alex Cole-Hamilton.

Wednesday, 8th January 2020, 5:00 am
Michelle Ballantyne was the victim of a veiled tabloid dig at her credentials as a potential leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

So, 1951 called. It wants its misogynistic view of women in public life back from the Scottish tabloid press. Over the weekend a story in the Daily Mail went viral about the forthcoming battle to ­succeed Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. “Mum-of-six to take on Carlaw to become Tories’ next leader,” the ­headline blared.

There is nothing materially ­inaccurate about this headline, but it was met with near universal condemnation on social media and rightly so. Critics were quick to point out that there are many qualities that define Michelle Ballantyne, other than her motherhood. She had been a nurse for much of her career, she was a former councillor and Tory group leader and she has served as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for almost four years. I may disagree with Michelle on many issues but I recognise her strength and natural ability.

By putting her maternity front and centre, many felt the paper was trying to belittle Ballantyne’s tilt at the top job. Shouldn’t she know where her priorities lay? How could she manage the strain of leadership with so much going on at home! – the headline seemed to imply.

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Alex Cole-Hamilton is the LIb Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western

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In truth, it’s a baffling choice of words, made all the more so when you reverse it. It would seem wholly incongruous to read “Dad-of-two to take on Ballantyne to become Tories’ next leader” so why does this sort of thing still slip through to the printing press, untroubled by the red pen of the sub-editor?

‘Feather duster’ jibe

If this were a one-off you could excuse it as a clumsy oversight, but it isn’t, it happens all the time. Every other aspect of public life is sense checked and kite-marked against the highest standards of equalities ­legislation, yet the tabloid press always seems to get a pass.

Just before Christmas, days after the General Election, Sun columnist Bill Leckie wrote an analysis of the election defeat of my immediate former leader, Jo Swinson. In it he dissected her leadership qualities (or lack thereof) as he saw them. He also challenged her temerity for suggesting that she (the leader of a party that was fielding candidates in every part of the UK and cresting 23 per cent in the polls) might actually submit her candidacy to be prime minister. How dare she? Amidst a fug of personal attacks and lazy journalism, he submitted this showstopper: “If ever there was someone who brought a feather duster to a knife fight, it was Jo. Still, she can use it to keep the house tidy now she’s unemployed.”

I don’t usually wish ill of anyone but Bill deserves to step on a sharp piece of Lego for that howler. I know that I have skin in the game here. Jo is a good friend and her defeat is still very raw to me but that is an appalling thing to say about any woman.

Against a backdrop of such implied criticism is it any wonder that so few women seek a career in politics. Our tabloid press is constantly celebrating the mediocre achievements of incompetent men in public life and yet women, talented women, face a daily struggle both to be heard and to be taken seriously.

I have to believe that as a modern and progressive society we are better than this, that this kind of ­writing is the fag end of a dying era of machismo-journalism. Yet these two papers, more than most, set the agenda and the tone for so much of our modern society. For as long as they set the narrative like this and do so unchallenged, we will forever lose the struggle for gender equality.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.