From Westminster to Washington, an ‘Old Boys Club’ is Silencing Female Politicians

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Kristina Flour/Uplash

Incorporating the voices of future generations into our debates is a hallmark of democracy. But in many national governments, antiquated customs are dissuading desperately-needed newcomers from storming the barricades of the “old boys” who hold the reins.

In the U.K., female and non-white Members of Parliament (MPs) often face racist and sexist abuse from the public, unlike their white, male counterparts: the torrent of online abuse directed at Diane Abbott, the first black woman in Parliament, is a case in point. But these politicians consistently report feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome among their colleagues, too. The atmosphere within the Houses of Parliament is often evocative of that found at expensive, elite all-boys schools, generally filled with the white and wealthy. This culture, which tends to privilege traditional masculine behaviors, often alienates female and ethnic minority MPs.

Diversification along the lines of gender, ethnicity and sexuality will hopefully erode complacent and conservative attitudes in Parliament. But this process has been slow, in part because those outside of the “club” don’t see a career in Westminster as an attractive prospect. For instance, after becoming the youngest British MP in centuries, Mhairi Black made her disappointment clear, declaring Westminster “a total world unto itself,” rife with a “subtle sexism.”

And often, subtle is a misnomer. In early September, another female MP, Layla Moran, addressed Theresa May during Prime Minister’s Question Time. She was jeered and shouted down, until the Speaker called on the hecklers to allow her to continue, as she was “a new member” and “highly articulate.” While intervention was clearly necessary, the Speaker’s choice of words was revealing: he suggested that the onus was on Moran to prove she was worth listening to because of her ability to articulate rather than her status as an elected representative like everybody else in the chamber.

Many will defend this behavior as commonplace: male MPs are also often jeered and this is permitted under parliamentary rules. And yet, rather than addressing the intimidating tactics that enable old white men to prevent female MPs from speaking, our chambers are more concerned with trivial matters like barring members who aren’t wearing ties. The priorities of Westminster regulations hark back to another era and have not evolved with a diversifying Parliament.

Like the schoolyard tactics that suppressed Moran in Parliament, certain strategies in the U.S. Senate have also been used to silence and exclude female politicians. In February, Senator Elizabeth Warren was banned from speaking during the debate over Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General after reading from a letter written by Coretta King pertaining to Sessions’ political record and character. To silence Warren, Republicans invoked Rule XIX, which states that senators cannot “impute to another Senator… any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” But this rule was applied to Warren specifically and selectively—and not along party lines. Male democratic senators including Jeff Merkley, Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders were permitted to read from the same letter without reprimand, unlike their female colleague.

It is not a coincidence that the same arguments about technicality surfaced in response to a similar case involving Senator Kamala Harris. At two separate Senate Intelligence Committee hearings in June, Harris was interrupted by her male colleagues when she pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for concrete answers. Rather than acknowledging their inability to directly answer Harris’s questions, the Chair ruled that Harris was not allowing the witnesses to answer. Here, the U.S. Senate seems no different from the fossilized “old boys’ club” Black found in the chambers of Westminster. Harris and Warren may espouse exceptional political knowledge and experience, yet they still fall foul of rules that serve only to silence them.

A different but connected incident involved Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who accidentally collided with female MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau while forcibly escorting the Opposition Whip to his seat. Trudeau did not purposefully elbow Brosseau in her breast as he swore and moved through the crowd aggressively. But why are physical altercations in our democratic institutions tolerated while Brosseau’s complaint of injury was treated with skepticism?

Brosseau’s criticism of Trudeau’s actions resulted in calls for her to apologize and resign. Trudeau’s excessively conditional apology, on the other hand, was met with a standing ovation. Such shockingly disproportionate criticism is concerning, as it normalizes and even condones physical aggression in democratic politics. Moreover, calls for her resignation suggest that if Brosseau is too sensitive to be accidentally struck in the breast while doing her job, it seems she had better give up her elected seat altogether.

In the wake of the somewhat startling democratic events in the last 18 months, younger people—particularly women—have demonstrated renewed political interest and activism. Publications like Teen Vogue are providing more illuminative political commentary than most mainstream media, while magazines like Marie Claire are championing female Senators to young readers. But with how much optimism can we celebrate these publications when the women who manage to reach our democratic spaces are silenced and intimidated by outdated traditions?

Houses of representation owe it to future generations to inspect the rules and behavior that maintain status quo politics as a masculine and often aggressive domain. The incidents outlined above are not coincidental or singular; they reflect a pervasive political culture that undermines the voices, experiences and presence of women, especially women of color. To ignore these patterns is to condone them.


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