Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May both love shoes, a common ground that the first minister of Scotland hopes is a good starting point for a constructive political partnership. But that doesn’t mean Sturgeon wants to be reduced to what’s on her feet (the same goes for any other female politician, for that matter).
Speaking at the 2017 Women in the World Summit, Sturgeon was asked by Tina Brown about the recent Daily Mail headline that read, “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”
“That’s a vivid illustration of no matter how much progress women have made, and are making … of how much more we still have to achieve,” Sturgeon said. “This tendency to reduce women to body parts, or what they wear, or what their hair looks like is not innocent, and it’s not something that we should just laugh off. It’s a deliberate attempt to demean women, and we should speak out about it.”
Sturgeon is right. And according to Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, there’s more than one way to evaluate the continued stereotyping and objectifying of women in the public eye today.
One take, she says, is to say, “Oh my God — this is still happening.” But another reaction has a crucial subtle difference: “Oh look — this never stopped happening.” In other words, feeling shock at the treatment of women today is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
This is 2017, where only three months in, two female world leaders were reduced by the media to an imagined catfight over who had better legs, a veteran journalist was told by the White House press secretary how she may or may not express emotion (and ask questions), the vice president said he wouldn’t eat alone with a woman who was not his wife, and a longtime congresswoman was mocked for her appearance (and the way her race played into that) by a (white, male) cable news talking head. Shock might not be productive, but it’s hard not to feel that way.
“What produces the surprise, which is this constant, which renews itself over and over again, is the lie that feminism has won and that sexism is over and that gender equality is a reality,” Williams says. “Only if you’ve bought into the first perspective” — that is, one of continued shock at the way that women are treated — would you think “that these headlines would be equally at home in 1950.” Because the reality is, Williams explains, there’s no reason why these headlines should seem in any way “retro” today. And this is perhaps what’s scariest about the current state of gender politics.
But Williams says that just because today’s headlines show a continued diminishment of women and reinforce the notion that women are lesser than men doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.
“One way we can look at it is as this really depressing thing where we have an unapologetic p***y grabber becoming president, but another way of thinking about it is that there has been progress, and every time we step forward for gender equality, there is going to be a reaction that’s going to try to pull us a few steps backwards,” she says.
She points to the controversial “Legs-It” headline as a perfect example. “What gets lost is that it only happened because there were two female heads of state to begin with, and that’s phenomenal. What’s disappointing is that the image reinforces the thrust of sexism into our consciousness,” Williams notes.
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