Monday, 14 July 2014

‘Swaggering is a Gendered Attribute: it won’t help women get selected as parliamentary candidates’

Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol, discusses the problems of male 'swaggering' in British party politics.

Swagger: walk or behave in a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way: he swaggered along the corridor (New Oxford Dictionary of English)

Mathew Parris, ex-MP, Times Columnist, and Chair of a number of Conservative Party Selection meetings made a simple observation in last week’s Times (8 July 2014): too often women seeking selection as parliamentary candidates ‘lack swagger’. The implication here is however troubling: if you want to get selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate, start to swagger. Yet Parris rightly notes that swagger is a male characteristic.

In the days since Parris’ intervention I’ve tried very hard to come up with the names of women who swagger. I couldn’t think of any British ones, politicians or otherwise. Perhaps Katie Hopkins (the former reality TV star). But she invites vitriolic criticism for what she says and how she says it. American ones? Hilary Clinton? She wasn’t swaggering on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week. Nor Microsoft/Google’s Sheryl Sandberg – her book Lean In is a paean to women’s inability to swagger. And her campaign with Beyonce to ban the term ‘bossy’ reveals the gendered risks for women.[1]  Madonna is the best my friends and I could come up with. But then again, she’s not always exactly admired for how she represents herself: too transgressive; too ‘in your face’; too ‘sassy’.

Right at the end of his piece Parris puts forward a radical conclusion: preconceptions of what the good politician should be like must change. But I’d take issue with his related claim that ‘the prejudice we need to confront is therefore subtler than sexism’. Swagger has everything to do with gender. Recognizing that swagger is a valuable political resource and implying that success will follow the adoption of this male characteristic, is another example of the daily double bind women face. It’s a modern version of the Wollstonecraft dilemma – behave like a man to succeed; or behave like a woman and fail.

With this problem of the ‘male- politician-norm/‘female- politician-pretender’ in mind I’ve been trying to imagine a candidate selection committee faced with such a swaggering woman.  Do we really think that she’ll be embraced rather than considered a ‘ball breaker’ (Read: Hilary Clinton)? When it comes down to the final choice, will the selectorate not find her gender transgressions at little too uncomfortable; a little too atypical of her sex?

Analysis of the resignations of the Labour Ministers Clare Short and Estelle Morris revealed how these two women’s personalities were regarded by the press.[2] Gendered criticism was never very far away. Short was depicted as a ‘bad minister and a bad woman’; Morris at least remained a ‘good woman’. She was ‘honest’, ‘straight’ and ‘unspun’, ‘decent’ and ‘honourable’ even as she lacked ‘authority’; ‘hopeless’, ‘hapless’ and ‘accident prone’. Short, in contrast, was ‘bossy’ and ‘mouthy’, ‘proud’ and ‘flamboyant’ and ‘terryfying’: a ‘bully’ and ‘arrogant’. So much for the ‘arrogance’ required of the swaggerer...

When there is only a single and masculinized model of the ‘good MP’ women will invariably struggle to be regarded as MP material. This is what the academic literature terms indirect discrimination (Childs 2008; Norris and Lovenduski 1995). It is not direct – where individual women are judged on the basis of characteristics seen as common to their group. Its indirectness comes from the fact that it valorizes resources and characteristics primarily associated with (some) men and (certain types of) masculinity.

Contemporary MPs engage in a wide variety of representational and governing activities. Not all MPs have to be excellent at all that MPs collectively undertake. Some may excel at public speaking in the House; others at the detail of legislative scrutiny and holding government to account; yet others responding to the needs of constituents or interests of pressure groups. How important is ‘swaggering’ in much of what an MP does? It might help in the macho moment that is PMQs or on certain radio and TV programmes, but that says rather more about the hyper masculinity of those institutions.

The limitation of privileging a singular model for the ‘good MP’ has been accepted by the political parties over the last decade or so.  Isn’t this why the political parties have diversified the criteria and tasks that make up their selection procedures? Under these procedures wouldn’t women’s merits be better noticed when they are being judged against tasks rather than against a particular masculinized personality?  Parris' remarks suggest that despite these reforms the Conservatives are still struggling to select women. The latest parliamentary selection data for the 2015 general election are telling. Looking just at the Conservatives and the Labour:

In retirement seats Conservatives have selected 6 men (67%) and 3 women (33%), Labour 4 men (24%) and 13 women (76%).
In target seats the Conservatives have selected 9 men (82%) and 2 women (18%), Labour 14 men (47%) and 16 women (53%).
In the seats where the parties came second in 2010 Labour has selected 22 women out of 38 new candidates (58%), and the Conservatives have selected 4 women out of 20 (20%).[3]

It is interesting that Parris does not mention All Women Shortlists. Some Conservative women are beginning to acknowledge that this may well need to be on the table after the General Election.[4] Conservatives may not like this approach but it is a strategy that has worked for Labour since it was first used in 1997 when it returned 101 women MPs; it is clearly working for them again for 2015. When only selecting from women the selectorate cannot be basing their decision on which candidate had the best swagger.  

Sarah Childs researches politics and gender at the University of Bristol.

[2] Childs, S. (2008) Women and British Party Politics (London: Routledge).
[3] Campbell (2014) “Women Candidates. Parliamentary Candidates UK” [Online] Available from: [Accessed June 2014]


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