The photo was striking: the pose so iconic yet the figures so unaccustomed. Two powerful politicians, arranged side by side, smiling for the cameras. But these two were women — British Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Not just women, but women in skirts, showing their legs — their knees, even. And the Daily Mail could not resist the opportunity to splash the shot at the top of its front page, with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”
Oh, please. As former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband tweeted, “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back.”
If anything, the piece, by columnist Sarah Vine — yes, women can be their own worst enemies — was even more offensive. “There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed,” Vine wrote, deducing political calculation in the rival postures. May was “demurely arranged,” with “knees tightly together . . . ever the vicar’s daughter,” she wrote, while Sturgeon’s “shorter but undeniably more shapely shanks are altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed.”
Vine dismissed the ensuing outrage as the huffing of humorless “snowflakes still stuck in a rut of Seventies-style feminism,” unable to accept that mocking politicians’ looks is an equal-opportunity sport among U.K. tabloids. “I could understand the criticism more if Sturgeon and May were like [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton, determinedly and deliberately frumpy in order to close down any sort of conversation about the way they look.”
There is, it seems, no winning this gender and politics game. Frumpy you win, flirty I lose.
It’s naive to imagine that looks don’t matter in politics, or that female politicians’ appearances — their clothing choices, their hairdos, their weight — don’t matter more than their male counterparts’. Men, with their dark suits, have a uniform that women lack. When that is discarded — think tan-suited Barack Obama holding a news conference — the public is distracted. At least for the foreseeable future, as female leaders remain the exception rather than the norm, their appearance is almost automatically distracting.
Indeed, that was, or could have been, the powerful lesson of the May-Sturgeon photograph. There they were, arguably the two most powerful politicians in Britain, unabashedly female, unapologetically in charge. The familiar arrangement of leaders with an unfamiliar twist. The more the public witnesses women in such roles, the less jarring it becomes. Unless, of course, their joint appearance gets turned into Legs-it, and whose limbs are shapelier, thereby diminishing them as sex objects.
Yet for all the Daily Mail’s unvarnished sexism, the British are in a sense way ahead of us in the United States. They have their second female prime minister, and last year’s Tory race came down to two women. Nearly 30 percent of members in the House of Commons are women, compared with 20 percent in the U.S. House and Senate.
For most of the 2016 campaign, it looked as though this would be the moment when Americans would begin adjusting to the reality of a female president. Not yet. Instead, President Trump has the fewest women in his Cabinet since Jimmy Carter. Besides his daughter, there are few women in the top ranks of his White House. One, Dina Powell, was recently named deputy national security adviser, but another, Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, is leaving. During the pre-inaugural festivities, Trump summoned adviser Kellyanne Conway (“my Kellyanne”) onto the stage to praise her fierceness in disconcerting terms. “When my men are petrified to go on a certain network, I say, ‘Kellyanne, will you do it?’ ” Trump said. “So anyway, thank you, baby.”
Baby? Really? Maybe not such a long way after all. Meanwhile, Vice President Pence, we were just reminded, has a long-standing policy of not eating alone with a woman not his wife. Pause for a moment and imagine how that rule would affect you in your workplace.
And then that notorious photo of the House Freedom Caucus at the White House, a few dozen white men gathered to discuss, among other matters, eliminating maternity care from required health coverage. The only diversity involved the color of their ties. The vice president proudly tweeted it out.
The May-Sturgeon shot is the flip side of the Freedom Caucus photo. The Daily Mail’s editors looked at May-Sturgeon and could see only “Legs-it.” Pence looked at the picture of himself with the Freedom Caucus and saw nothing out of the ordinary. One reaction is overly attuned to gender, the second oblivious to it. Neither is correct, but both are telling.