Politicians can maintain the mask when talking about tax. But on matters between men and women, they reveal their true selves
What trouble beckons for men when they talk to women. Not all men, of course. But for a certain breed of male politician, it seems the territory marked “women’s issues” is a minefield.
That did not stop three of them wading in with clumsy boots this week, one cretinously, another creepily and the third recklessly. The cretin was Todd Akin, would-be Republican senator for Missouri, author of the novel idea that a woman’s body automatically prevents itself from becoming pregnant through rape – but only if the rape is “legitimate”. It was an absurd word to use, as he tried to distinguish between sex involving a violent stranger and other forms of coercive, non-consensual sex – all of them rape – but he was not the first to do it. His party’s vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, co-sponsored legislation last year to deny federal funding for all abortions, with an exception for pregnancies resulting from incest and “forcible rape” – implying this was the only form of rape that matters. Our very own Ken Clarke made a similar distinction when he spoke last year of “serious rape”, as if there were any other kind.
With Ryan for company, Akin might have got away with it. But his middle ages notion that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” was too much for his party leadership. Apparently too much for the voters too. Last week Akin led by nine points, now he trails by 10.
The creepy intervention came with George Galloway’s video defence of Julian Assange. In language that made the flesh crawl, Galloway offered this dissertation on sexual consent: “I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion,” adding that Assange’s accusers could fault him at most for “bad sexual etiquette”. The name of the Bradford MP’s weekly online broadcast – Good Night with George Galloway – suddenly acquired a whole new meaning.
At least the Respect MP refrained from naming Assange’s alleged victims. No such restraint for Craig Murray, a former British diplomat, who denounced one of them by name on Newsnight, violating the British legal scruple that holds that a woman who may have suffered the trauma of rape should at least be granted basic privacy.
What these three episodes have in common is how much they seem to reveal about the speaker. It’s easy enough for politicians to maintain the mask when speaking about, say, tax or industrial policy. But get them on to these fundamental matters of how men and women relate to each other and their character starts showing.
Usually it’s more subtle. David Cameron had done well to position himself as a different kind of Conservative, a modern husband and conscientious father. But when he told Labour’s Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear” or, worse, when he joked that his backbench Tory critic Nadine Dorries was “frustrated”, he let slip the persona his aides have worked so hard to conceal: Flashman, public school bully. Similarly, George W Bush could not hide his inner frat boy when he ambushed Angela Merkel at a summit and gave her what was clearly an unwanted shoulder massage.
Such things matter in politics, if only because women – so under-represented among politicians – account for too large a share of the electorate to offend without cost. As one US observer quipped, “Could Akin win a senate seat with 0% of the women’s vote?” The answer is no, because no one could. That effect is maximised if a gender gap opens up and, especially, if women become more motivated than men to vote. In the US, 1992 was hailed as the “year of the woman”, because a series of senate elections were swung by an apparent surge in female voters, determined to oust those male incumbents who had revealed dinosaur attitudes when supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of past sexual harassment.
The modest conclusion the male politician would draw from this would be a variation on the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. But beyond avoiding outright offence, what else is a male politician to do? On this, 57 varieties of nonsense are regularly spouted, often framed in the awkward terms of romance, with male politicians seeking to court, seduce or woo the female electorate. Some assume that a male candidate needs to appeal to women the way a potential husband might, as attractive, capable and trustworthy. One ardently feminist colleague notes how women regularly make political choices that “give feminism a bad name”, backing alpha male types who subliminally, she says, signal “they’d be able to bring the bison back to the cave”.
But it might be simpler than that. “It’s all about empathy and understanding expressed through policy rather than conduct,” says one seasoned pollster. Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping position on abortion rights – once for them, now against – matters more than his long, faithful marriage. Women stood by Bill Clinton despite everything, because his record on the issues that mattered to them was solid.
Indeed, Clinton is the exemplar. The Monica Lewinsky episode should have sunk him. But he had passed a Family and Medical Leave Act that addressed the reality of many women’s lives; he acted to “mend, not end” affirmative action; he crafted a neat formula supporting abortion that was “safe, legal and rare”, and appointed a cabinet that, in his words, “looked like America”, with women in senior positions. The substance of all that outweighed the sleaze that was to follow.
If it’s policy that matters, that cuts both ways. It means no one blinked when Barack Obama called a female reporter “sweetie”, but that photos of Cameron pushing a buggy count for nought when set against cuts to public sector jobs that disproportionately affect female workers, and to the tax credits on which many women depend.
There are lessons for the Tories here. One is that if Cameron has a gender problem, the solution lies in policy, not PR. Louise Mensch’s suggestion of a woman at the Ministry of Justice is sensible if that adds not merely a female face, but a voice who gets heard when decisions are taken.
Labour should draw similar conclusions: it’s the substance that counts. But that doesn’t preclude seizing the odd tactical advantage. One might be the more frequent deployment of Yvette Cooper: for there is no quicker way to wrongfoot a man clumsy in these matters than have him face a woman.