Female MPs have long endured misogyny and sexism both in the media and at the hands of fellow male politicians. The attack on Angela Rayner is just the latest.
Politicians and the public roundly criticised a 2017 Daily Mail headline alongside a photo of the then prime minster, Theresa May, and the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, sitting together during difficult talks, which read: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” Inside it read: “Finest weapons at their command? Those pins!” while the columnist Sarah Vine opined that Sturgeon’s legs were “altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed … a direct attempt at seduction”.
The Labour MP Harriet Harman labelled the article “moronic”, while the then opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said: “This sexism should be consigned to history”. The former Labour Leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back.” His party colleague Yvette Cooper wrote: “It’s 2017. Two women’s decisions will determine if United Kingdom continues to exist. And the front page news is their lower limbs. Obviously.”
‘The great cleavage divide’
Jacqui Smith’s first Commons statement in 2007 caused comment in many newspapers, not for what she said, but for what she wore. Or, as one publication put it, “the amount of cleavage she had on show”. Smith later told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that combating terrorism and crime were her priorities – not her clothing.
Numerous publications addressed the theme. The Daily Mail weighed in with “The great cleavage divide”, and pitted Smith against May, then the shadow leader of the house. Might May be wearing a “leopard skin bra”? it queried. “Her display of cleavage on Wednesday looked like a direct challenge to the bold front sometimes displayed by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith,” its columnist wrote.
In 2015, the issue was raised again when the shadow minister Alison McGovern was chastised by a party member for her “prominent cleavage” and “attention-seeking outfit” following a TV debate on Channel 4 News.
‘Calm down, dear’
David Cameron was roundly criticised in 2011 when during PMQs he told the shadow Treasury secretary, Angela Eagle, to “calm down, dear”. Downing Street batted it off as just a “humorous remark”. But Harman decried “his patronising and outdated attitude to women” and his “contemptuous response”.
Eagle told the BBC: “I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself in that way. What I was trying to do was point out he had got some facts wrong.” She added: “I have been patronised by better people than the prime minister.”
‘Baroness, whatever it is … ’
Boris Johnson, as foreign secretary, was slapped down in 2018 for referring to his shadow counterpart, Emily Thornberry, by her husband’s title rather than her name. Answering Thornberry, whose high court judge husband is a knight, Johnson referred to her as “Baroness, whatever it is, I cannot remember what it is … Nugee”.
The then Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said: “We do not address people by the title of their spouses. The shadow foreign secretary has a name, and it is not ‘Lady something’. We know what her name is. It is inappropriate and frankly sexist to speak in those terms, and I am not having it in this chamber.” Johnson subsequently apologised for his “inadvertent sexism”.
William Hague came under fire as foreign secretary in 2013 after twice appearing to mutter “stupid woman” during PMQs when the shadow Treasury minister Cathy Jamieson questioned his links with Conservative donors and private companies.
As Cameron responded, Hague was seen to mouth the words, but said later he had intended no offence.
Jamieson told the Huffington Post: “It would have been better for the prime minister to give the house the reassurance I sought than have the foreign secretary muttering insults from the sideline.”
The Labour MP Michael McCann condemned the words as “scandalous” while the Labour MEP David Martin demanded Hague apologise.
In 2011, a laughing Cameron caused his own backbencher Nadine Dorries to storm out of the Commons chamber as MPs brayed at the hint of innuendo.
Dorries had asked a question during PMQs about how much influence on government policy was enjoyed by the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. A joking Cameron replied that he knew she was “extremely frustrated”. On hearing the laughter of fellow MPs, he continued: “Maybe I should start all over again.”
Though his aides were later keen to stress his answer was meant to be a “lighthearted joke”, the exchange was seen by some as fuelling accusations of sexism in the chamber.