Our latest guest blog comes from Ann Kristin Glenster an award-winning screenwriter, voting member of BAFTA, on the Board of Directors of Women in Film and Television, and a Fellow at the RSA.
The entry of a slew of female ministers into the new French government has certainly stirred up some noise, but before you get your knickers in an excited twist, thinking it is caused by their opinions on equality legislation (such as the proposed new sexual harassment law) I should warn you that it is, as per usual in politics, not about what a woman says, but what she wears.
In this case, the fuss is all about a rather modest white summer dress with blue flowers worn by incoming minister Cécile Duflot when she presented her new housing policy to the French legislative body in July. As she walked to get the microphone and began her speech, she was greeted with cat whistles and jeers from the assembly, of which 424 of the 577 members are men. Several of the male participants have defended their action to the media, saying they can see nothing wrong in appreciating a woman’s looks. As one conservative opposition MP mused, perhaps she wore a pretty dress deliberately to distract her audience from her message.
His comment takes me back to our own Labour reign, with Blair’s infamous babes, that introduced the practice simply referred to as folletting. In short, it seems we’ve had the opposite problem to the French. Rather than battle sexist attention, our female politicians have, for the most part, been frequently acquainted with being ignored. Thus, according to Westminster legend, Labour politician Barbara Follett used to prep new female ministers by pulling them aside and instructing them that in order to be heard, they would need to wear bright colours, preferably a colourful brooch (I can only assume to avoid acquiring the wardrobe of a clown). Otherwise they would stay invisible.
Many were astounded in June this year when France’s newly elected socialist president François Holland held true to his promise and introduced gender equality in his cabinet. Yet, it does not matter if the women are present, if no one is prepared to listen to what they actually have to say. It seems the French are not quite ready to accept that a woman might have a mind worth a penny. Indeed, in the first few weeks after the new president moved into the Élysée Palace, the French media was in a frenzy over the president girlfriend’s tweet in support of his former wife’s opponent in the local elections. Unwilling to acknowledge that Valérie Trierweiler, (a serious journalist at Paris Match), might actually base her comment on her independent political opinion, the national press decided in unison that the tweet was an expression of pure sexual jealousy directed at the president’s former partner.
No such fun in Britain, though. Here Samantha Cameron doesn’t tweet political opinions. Instead she is photographed as a domestic goddess, baking cupcakes. Which reminds me of how another first lady, Hilary Clinton, a few decades ago during the Clinton administration, was slapped by the US media for decreeing that she was not the sort of woman who “stayed at home and baked cookies.” Forced to eat humble pie, she was subsequently depicted baking enough cookies to put the Girl Scouts out of business. But I think she might have the last laugh as she is now Secretary of State of the earth’s most powerful nation, spending her time, not in the kitchen, but protecting (and arguably disturbing) world peace. I can’t imagine the US Congress breaking into salacious cheers at her appearance, not matter what she would care to don. At least in a few countries, some progress has been made.
Yet discouragingly, if the debacle over Cécile Duflot’s summer dress has proved one thing, it is that women in French politics still have a far way to go. I still have no idea what her housing policy is about. None of the press seems interested to tell us that message. I guess the male MP was right, we all got distracted. In France a woman is still best to look at. As such, there is nothing more to say other than plus ça change, plus ça reste.
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