Monday, 9 March 2009

Get ahead - get a skirt

Hazel Blears has red hair. This is one of the things that most people remember about her - not her cabinet post, but her hair. 
As a joke at a regional conference question time session I asked her whether she thought being a red head was a help or a hindrance. I have a vested interest in the answer - being a red head myself, though with the assistance of dye. She felt that being memorable was always an advantage for a politician. But the serious point behind this is that women politicians are still judged in part on their appearances. In fact, I would argue that appearance is even more important now than in the old days. (As an aside, it became even more important when I had my photo taken with her. Being about a foot taller than her I looked like an amazon, and not in a good way, so we did the photo with both of us sitting down to avoid looking stupid)
I went to a briefing session for women interested in standing for parliament (I know, I have no chance, but one can dream) and one of the most memorable things I brought away from that was the notion that how you dress, how you look, can be a decisive factor. That wasn't the party reinforcing outmoded notions of acceptable female behaviour, that was the voice of experience. What we were told was that to get selected you need to win over party members. Party members are more likely to be older. Older people have ideas about what is acceptable and what isn't as far as women are concerned. And the outcome is they expect women to wear skirts, not trousers. Of course it was slightly more complicated than that, but I won't bore you with excessive details. 
But the right to wear trousers is something I hold very dear. It was one of my very first campaigns - arguing that school uniform should have an option so that girls could wear trousers instead of skirts. They relented first with the sixth form, then when I got into the sixth form they caved totally and allowed us to wear jeans, which till then had been banned. And did this bring about the downfall of civilisation? It did not. Or maybe it did and I missed it. 
In fact if I was in charge of school uniforms, everyone would be in trousers and parents would have to make a special case for their daughters to wear a skirt. Or their sons, I'm all in favour of equality when it comes to frozen knees. Let's face it, you're hardly going to join in casual games of football, or whatever, if you're worrying about showing your knickers to the world. Trousers are so much more practical. Someone should do research into whether skirts are linked to the greater incidence of obesity in young women. 
Anyway, back to politics. 
Women are still judged by their appearance. Sad but true. If you want to get on in politics, it's a lesson that needs to be learnt. Men can come in all shapes and sizes, though to be fair the beer belly is falling out of favour. Women need to conform to the stereotype to get on. There will be the odd exception but they are increasingly rare. The idea of what a female politician should look like may have changed - the matron look a la Thatcher, Boothroyd, et al -  is out. Thinner and younger is in, with skirts needed to get you elected, avoiding frills and flounces, low cut blouses, and anything smacking of hippies and social worker chic, but keeping in feminine touches such as a scarf, brooch. And grey hair is for grannies, so keep up the carcinogens and hit the dye. 

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