British Politics: A System Shaped By Masculinity
According to the UK Parliament website, when women over the age of 21 were granted the vote in 1928, ‘full equality’ with men was achieved. However, that achievement is only one facet of women’s involvement in British politics; the reality is more complex. Patterns of exclusion have evolved within the political system over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Contrary to popular belief, equal enfranchisement was not synonymous with equal participation in the political system. Modern British political history does not tell a story of ‘full equality’, but of a political system which was, and largely still is, shaped by notions of masculinity.
The Suffragettes: Challenging the One-Dimensional Narrative
Whilst it may seem odd to begin a discussion of women’s political history with the suffragettes, it is important to challenge the dominant narrative of militancy in enfranchisement history. Representations of the suffragettes in popular culture, as well as the skew towards the Pankhursts in academic curriculum, oversimplifies the narrative of enfranchisement. Popular obsession with the suffragettes implies that women’s political activity is only valuable when it defies the accepted norms of ‘feminine’ behaviour. The perpetuation of this narrative in modern-day Britain illustrates how masculinity continues to shape the political system; female participation in the sphere of politics is viewed as abnormal, operating within the framework of male-dominated politics. If we do not assess the movement for what it was, we cannot take a critical look at women’s political involvement in the modern political sphere.
In order to address this narrative of militancy, it is important to first give greater attention to the work of the suffragists. It was the success of the non-militants, in building a broad base of working-class support in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which made the most significant contribution to the achievement of the franchise. Their non-militant, political methods forced the issue of female enfranchisement onto the political agenda. Whilst the suffragettes circumvented the political establishment, the suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies successfully worked within its confines, culminating in the creation of the Electoral Fighting Fund to support the Labour party in 1912. The group’s activities are an example of the productive involvement of women in the political sphere – something which threatened to overturn male-dominated politics.
A focus on the white, middle class suffragettes not only perpetuates masculine narratives of militancy around politics, but excludes the work of women of Black Minority Ethnic (BME) origin. It is of great importance to recognize how other systems of exclusion intersect with gender. This intersection places certain groups even further outside the parameters of the male, white political culture. Anna Leszkiewicz criticised the recent film ‘Suffragette’ for its omission of the role of Indian suffragettes. Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess, played a prominent role in the Women’s Social and Political Union as well as in the suffrage campaign in India. She is omitted from most narratives of suffrage. Issues of intersectionality that arise in the study of women’s history, particularly with regards to race, have not been given enough attention. The representation of BME women in politics is still an issue in modern British politics. In February 2015, a parliamentary report found that there were a mere 10 minority ethnic female MPs. Whilst currently, lists from Operation Black Vote indicate that there are 20 female BME MPs after the May 2015 elections – suggesting a level of relative progress – the political culture of Britain remains hostile to ethnic minorities, as well as women.
The Thatcher Years in Perspective
The continued underrepresentation of BME women in British politics underscores the discrepancies in perceptions of progress in women’s involvement in politics. For some, Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister was a breakthrough. Seeing as masculinity had shaped British politics rather explicitly, it is surprising that the first and only female prime minister made little effort to permanently change that political culture. The election of Margaret Thatcher may be remembered as an important victory in women’s political history, but her power was still defined in masculine terms. Thatcher consciously lowered the tone of her voice, only ever appointed one female cabinet member, embraced the masculine connotations of the ‘Iron lady’, and would often draw on ideas of ‘separate spheres’ by referencing the role of the housewife. Five decades after the achievement of an equal franchise, women were still operating within an overtly masculine political system– a system which even the female Prime Minister didn’t dare to challenge.
As well as shaping women’s political activity, notions of masculinity have influenced the behaviour of male politicians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Anthony Eden was perceived to be incompetent as a leader, in comparison with Harold Macmillan. He was prone to ‘feminine’ fits of emotion, whilst Macmillan’s manner was calm and collected. In the mid-20th century, ‘masculinity’ was still synonymous with the effective exercise of political power and authority. Indeed, conceptions of masculinity restricted the behaviour of male politicians by determining the parameters of acceptable political activity.
Even today, we can see how British politics are defined by masculinity. Research has suggested that the constitutional convention of ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ makes the political system intimidating and hostile to women. Professor Joni Luvenduski has suggested that PMQs ‘supports a paradigm of politics which is internalized by MPs and accepted and internalized by the public. The ritual sustains the traditional masculine culture by continually repeating performances of adversarial confrontation’. Politicians use insults with misogynistic undertones, such as ‘calm down dear’, and resort to jeering. PMQs therefore acts as an informal barrier to female participation in politics, a discouraging force which suggests that politics is something best performed by male actors displaying masculine qualities. PMQs also acts as a barrier to certain manifestations of ‘manliness’. This goes some way to explaining the vilification of Jeremy Corbyn for his reluctance to engage in ‘adversarial confrontation’ with David Cameron, perhaps coming under similar scrutiny to that which Anthony Eden endured for refusing to conform to the ‘rules’ of masculine conduct in the office of Prime Minister. The British political system remains defined by notions of masculinity and therefore inherently hostile towards both female involvement and the inclusion of so-called deviant males.
A New Narrative?
The work of the suffragettes should not be undervalued, of course. Its importance in bringing women’s issues to the forefront of British politics in the 19th and 20th centuries deserves recognition. However, it is emphasised in the popular historical imagination because it fits neatly with the narrative of British politics shaped by notions of masculinity. Instead of the suffragettes being held up as exemplary and used to inspire women to engage with politics, it is used to tell them to stop their whining.
The argument seems to be that the suffragettes did their bit, threw themselves under some horses and now women are equal. Women are allowed to participate in the political system, but on the terms defined by their male counterparts. This dominant historical narrative therefore discourages change and perpetuates the masculine nature of the British political system.
There is no denying that the involvement of women in British politics has made progress. However, to accept the conventional narrative of women’s involvement in British politics is to preserve the ‘masculine’ politics that is the norm in Britain. Issues of intersectionality also deserve far more attention, both in academia and public memory. Aside from race, sexuality and socio-economic background also act as barriers to entry. Parliament remains a masculine institution, something we can only challenge by addressing the role of women in British political history – in ways that deviate from conventional historical narratives.