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How will women vote?

On the basis of their intuition and concerns about osteoporosis, reckons a panel of leading feminists.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Politicians are hunting high and low for the key to the ‘women’s vote’. Women are more than half the UK population, but are less likely to vote and more likely to be undecided. As a result, political parties have put on a limp parade of women’s issues in an attempt to catch the ladies’ eyes, from hospital cleanliness to breast cancer.

Women are seen as nervous creatures, obsessed with their bodies and babies and turned off by the sparring of parliamentary politics. But if you were looking to feminists to raise the debate, think again. At ‘Election UK – How Will Women Vote?’, a debate at the Foreign Press Association yesterday, a spectrum of speakers reinforced all the prejudices about the female of the species.

Helena Kennedy, barrister and member of the House of Lords, talked about how women are suffering from ‘low self-esteem’ and need to be cajoled into political life. She praised the all-women shortlists introduced by Labour in 1997 as contributing to ‘a very different nature of discourse, by including women’s experiences’. In the past, the idea was that ‘women should up their game [to the level of men]’; now, says Kennedy, ‘the idea is that institutions have to change’. What is it that turns women off? ‘They don’t like the language of politics, the nature of the dynamic, how adversarial it is.’ So what are the gripping new issues that will light women’s fires? ‘Debt, which particularly frightens women’, and other things like osteoporosis.

All this was said in a voice that could be best described as deep, Scottish gravel. Nobody else could get a word in edgeways – least of all the chair, a timid man whom Kennedy dispatched to the sidelines. Britain’s most famous QC became increasingly aggressive as she pleaded the case of the weak women of Britain, referencing the ‘extraordinary levels of violence directed at women’, and the ’14-year-olds performing oral sex, delivering services for men’, which is apparently happening in schools across the land. Evidence for women’s battered, sex-slave predicament was not forthcoming. One thing is for sure: Kennedy herself is exempt.

Some of the other speakers challenged this feeble view of women, only to allow it in through the backdoor. Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge said that she hated ‘women’s issues’: ‘If you have time to spare, spend it in the mainstream, don’t waste it on women’s issues.’ Reflecting on her battles through all-male physics classes and medical school, she said that her attitude was that ‘if you want to do as well as men, you have to beat them’, and asked: ‘How many times do women fall back on their femininity as an excuse for not doing something?’ Yet her bolshie pose was undermined by support for all-women shortlists, which she saw as key to encouraging women into politics. While Tonge had fought her way into parliament, others are apparently not strong enough to do likewise.

Penny Mordaunt, a young Tory candidate for Portsmouth North, was the lone critic of all-women shortlists, arguing that ‘women should be selected on merit alone’ and that ‘positive discrimination undermines their chance of achieving something when they get to parliament’. But she went on to praise women’s special ‘empathy’ and ability to understand important social problems, such as ‘geriatric depression in hospitals’. Then there is the fact that Mordaunt is trying to reach Portsmouth voters via The Times fashion pages. Cameras and fashion advisers will be trailing her for the next couple of days – in the words of The Times fashion editor, ‘seeing if it makes a difference if she wears Jimmy Choo’. Posing for a windy balcony scene, Mordaunt told me that: ‘It is another way to get my message across, to get my face out there.’ Tomorrow Penny wears Jimmy Choo on a Portsmouth battleship.

Shere Hite’s sheer battiness made for a few lighter moments. She started off reasonably enough, criticising political parties’ view that ‘women’s issues are a way to “take care” of them’, but then veered off into the territory of the ‘g-spot idea, which returns to the vaginal viewpoint of what used to be called sex’. Dutch male journalists smiled at the ceiling; smart Italian women looked blank. ‘That’s another story’, Hite trailed off. While it’s certainly not a good thing that women fake orgasms, it is difficult to see what this has to do with the election. In any case, all this sexual lib stuff is out of key with today’s fluffy inclusion of ‘women’s concerns’, what Kennedy calls ‘raising the silence on what women feel’. While Hite at least wanted women to go for it, today’s feminists seem to want them to be treated like therapy cases.

The change is not with women, but with the general cultural climate. Feminists once sought to free themselves from the ties of hearth and home, staging dramatic protests to get the vote in the early twentieth century and demanding free childcare in the 1970s. This came at times when the public world of politics and work was where it was at, and women wanted to be part of it. Today when public life is on the wane, the private world has started to hold an attraction – not just for women, but for men too.

It is a myth that there is a big, bold world of adversarial politics that is isolated from women’s special concerns. The mainstream values of politics today are not reason and argument, but the so-called feminine virtues of emotion and intuition. These are times when the prime minister says that he went to war because he felt instinctively that it was the right thing to do; when the hot general election issues are school meals and the MRSA hospital bug. Day-to-day concerns, once the subject of Women’s Institute meetings, have become the staple of the political diet, and are heralded just as keenly by men as by women.

When politicians chase after the women’s vote – emphasising small-scale domestic issues, making parliament more empathetic – this is not just about getting female crosses on ballot papers. Instead, it’s about pursuing a softer, apologetic brand of politics that involves respecting each other’s views and keeping our concerns small-scale.

Rather than escape from the values of the domestic sphere, now everybody wants to revel in them. If yesterday’s event was anything to go by, today’s leading women are cheering the process on.

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Topics Politics

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