On Caroline Flint and “the stiletto in the heart of Gordon Brown”

// 7 June 2009

“Revenge of the woman scorned” screamed the Daily Mail headline.

“Caroline Flint launches ‘stiletto in the heart’ of Gordon Brown” was The Telegraph’s take.

And that’s just the beginning – headline writers have lept on Flint’s resignation as an excuse to indulge in their usual sexist belittling of female politicians.

Today’s Observer has a good take-down of how female politicians are represented in the media and have to play by different rules to their male peers, and considers whether Brown has represented a step back for representation of women in the highest positions in Cabinet. (Hiring Alan Sugar – who believes employers should be able to ask women if they plan to have children in interviews – doesn’t help Brown’s case). . (Although this might be considered somewhat ironic, given how the same newspaper chose to photograph the former Minister for Europe.)

Carole Cadwalladr interviewed Flint:

“I don’t even know what the male equivalent of a stiletto heel would be,” says Caroline Flint. “What is it? I don’t think there is one, is there? It’s just this same old thing about how women are portrayed. That when a man speaks out he’s assertive, and when a woman does it she’s aggressive.”


“I think you can talk the talk, but it’s about actions,” says Flint. “You’ve only got to look and see at where women are in cabinet and where they aren’t, and they aren’t in positions of power, they aren’t running spending departments. There’s only Yvette now who’s actually running a spending department.”

The problem, according to a former cabinet minister who didn’t want to be named, is that Brown simply doesn’t feel comfortable around women. “He just doesn’t trust them in the way he trusts men. The power players within his inner circle are almost without exception men.”

Oona King, the former member for Bethnal Green, disputes this. “It’s just absolute nonsense. I know that for a fact because, up until three months ago, I was working in his office as a special adviser. I’ve spent a fair bit of time and it’s just not something I recognise at all.

“I remember one meeting I had a problem with childcare and I had no choice but to bring my 14-month-old son with me and I said, ‘God, Gordon, I’m so sorry.’ I was so embarrassed, but he disappeared behind his desk and reappeared with a little railway and set it up on his hands and knees and played with him for 10 minutes. And then we had our meeting. I just don’t believe he would do that if he wasn’t comfortable around women.”

King also voiced what many women both inside and outside the Labour party were thinking when she said that it was difficult for Caroline Flint to make accusations of sexism when she had been seen by some to be exploiting her sexuality.

“She shocked a lot of women in the party by often posing in a fashion photoshoot that implies she’s more interested in the way she looks than the policies she presents. You have to be very careful about doing photoshoots. I’ve done them and they will want to take your hemline higher and your cleavage lower and your lipstick redder. And if you do you will be judged and ridiculed, as I think Caroline has found.

“I find it very sad that 100 of the 101 MPs who came into parliament with Blair haven’t taken this route, but all are now going to be tarred with that brush. It holds us all up to ridicule and contempt.”


Claire Curtis-Thomas, the Labour MP for Crosby who took her seat in 1997 among the wave of a new generation of women entering parliament, tells me that she used to work as an engineer, so was used to working in a male-dominated environment, but the Commons was beyond anything she’d ever experienced.

“When I started work I was one woman among 30,000 men in a dockyard and let me tell you that was easier. Take my word for it. Politics is a very hard game. I find it such a tragedy that this first tranche of women to occupy the most senior roles have had to pay such a high price for it. “I mean, Jacqui Smith has basically been depicted as Miss Piggy, hasn’t she? Miss Piggy with tits.”

Comments From You

Madeleine // Posted 7 June 2009 at 1:56 pm

I so knew the “woman scorned” and other worn out sterotype cliche stickers would get stuck on Carole Flint. And I agree with what she said in the interview and in her resignation letter. Having said that, wasn’t she promised promotion but didn’t get it? If she had I feel she’d be singing a very different tune now.

That’s politicians.

Jo Wheway // Posted 7 June 2009 at 2:37 pm

It is a bit worrying that ‘many other women’ think that it Caroline Flint cannot challenge sexism because they feel she has ‘exploited her sexuality’. It implies that any sexism she has experience is her own fault and she deserves. Not very helpful. Neither were MP Geraldine Smith’s description of Flint as having ‘a bit of a strop’. I somehow can’t see her using those words to describe a male MP’s actions.

Was also sorry to see that Peter Mandelson was promoted: the man who ahs successfully fought against Harriet Harman on extensions on parental leave and flexible working is now basically Brown’s deputy. Great.

I am trying to learn not to read comments on main stream news sites as they often seem to be heavily trolled and I tend to end up v angry! Not just the Mail.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 7 June 2009 at 5:47 pm

I too knew the media would as one man (pun intended) swiftly enact the ‘woman scorned stereotype’ and neatly ignore Caroline Flint’s justifed comments regarding the innate sexism which is rife within the cabinet. If Gordon Brown was in favour of promoting women MP’s why then in his cabinet reshuffle did he just add more men but no women to what is now becoming a ‘boys only club’ – girls not allowed. In today’s Sunday Times there is an article on the front page concerning Lord Mandelson who has lost no time in sending an email wherein he too has engaged in ‘scorning and engaging in personal attacks on Gordon Brown.’ Is this too, not a deliberate attempt to demolish Brown as a supposed leader and one who accordingly to Mandleson is insecure and incapable of leadership.

But I forget when men make such vitriolic attacks on other men it is just ‘men engaging in political discussion ‘behaviour whereas when women MP’s express their dissatisfaction it is because of their supposedly innate ‘vicious and small-minded nature.’

Not forgetting of course Parliament remains a boys only club and women are still seen as interlopers. Claire Curtis-Thomas is right in her views – women MPs and women in general for that matter, continue to be viewed as either men’s sexualised toys or else are reduced their reproductive capacities. Men are not commonly asked ‘when you are you going to father a child because this will obviously affect your ability to put 110% commitment into the workplace.

Inequality what inequality?

AnonyMouse // Posted 7 June 2009 at 11:20 pm

Whatever the validity of her criticism of Gordon Brown’s treatment of women ministers vis a vis his inner circle, Flint has not behaved well over this issue.

She professed loyalty to him when Purnell resigned on Thursday and then, the next day, denounced Brown. She resigned not in protest about the “inner circle” but because she did not get the promotion to a Cabinet job that she wanted. Pure opportunism.

polly styrene // Posted 8 June 2009 at 8:47 am

I’m genuinely disappointed in Oona King. Because Caroline Flint is seen as ‘sexy’ and has done a photoshoot wearing high heels does that mean King thinks she deserves to be discriminated against? It’s just classic *slut shaming*.

I’ve no idea what the truth is here, but I do know that the way Flint has been portrayed is incredibly sexist.

HarpyMarx // Posted 8 June 2009 at 10:39 am

But lets be clear, what kind of politics did Flint represent?

Frankly, I am sick to the back teeth of women like Flint who are happy to carry out the neoliberal agenda that attacks working class women yet complain about sexism when it suits their own opportunism.

Why didn’t Flint et al speak out about the sexism in the boys’ club that is known as Parliament before. Why now? It is just plain cynical.

The politics of NL isn’t about principle it is about careerism. They have successfully sucked the politics out of Labour, along with democracy and accountability.

I would take Flint et al more seriously if they had the guts and the spine to stand up to the neoliberal agenda and spoke out against the political attacks that have created a more unequal society where women are on the sharp end. Flint was the one who said that to get a council house you have to get a job. That was her proposal. And would impact on women in society.

Where was her solidarity then with women?

Yes, more women in Parliament but women who are solid and show solidarity. Women who have spoken out and defied the NL line. Where was Flint and co. speaking out against the Welfare Reform Bill? Lynne Jones did an excellent job speaking out. Lone though.

The appalling consequences of the WRB will be experienced by working class women esp. lone parents.

Where were these women like Flint, Blears, Smith and so on? They are self-serving individualists.

They coulda shoulda spoken out about the sexism before ….why now?

Jess McCabe // Posted 8 June 2009 at 10:48 am

But, well, the point is surely that it doesn’t really make much difference how Flint did. It’s not about defending her specifically, or we risk veering into the territory of saying sexism is OK if it’s directed at women MPs whose actions and policies we don’t agree with.

HarpyMarx // Posted 8 June 2009 at 11:31 am

I agree with you Jess but my big problem with all of this is why didn’t Caroline Flint et al speak out against the sexism before, it just seems cynical at this precise moment?

And in speaking out confronting the entrenched sexism in the media such as the Daily Hate etc.

Jess McCabe // Posted 8 June 2009 at 11:37 am

I think it’s unlikely that any minister would openly accuse the cabinet of sexism until she left.

sianmarie // Posted 8 June 2009 at 1:31 pm

obviously we can be annoyed that flint didn’t do more to tackle sexism when she was in the cabinet, and she has come across as a bit hypocritical in defending and then denouncing.

but have you ever worked in a sexist work environment? it can be incredibly hard to stand up for yourself and question it, as doing so opens up a whole barrage of criticism and comment and nastiness. in my last job sexist jokes, referring to women as birds and bitches and various other sexist annoyances were commonplace, but whenever you questioned it you risked being mocked or not taken seriously. it is incredibly difficult to have the strength to shout back and openly criticise when you are in the midst of the situation, without endangering your position. so i can completely understand why caroline flint didn’t complain about it whilst she was in the job. it’s hard to fight against a system you are in the middle of.

also – the post seemed to be more about the media language about her resignation, which relies heavily on sexist stereotyping.

Rose // Posted 8 June 2009 at 1:51 pm

I really don’t think it’s reasonable to complain that she quit after not getting the job she wanted.

If she was told she’d get a job if she came out in Brown’s support, and was then betrayed, she has a right to be angry.

Her letter talked about the PM failing to deliever on his promises – referring to his disrespectful nature and central boys club.

In an interview, the PM’s biographer described the PM as being misogynistic and having a habit of treating women awefully. He also suggested that from Brown’s mentality, he thought that Brown, after offering a job, and having Flint come out publicly in support, would no longer have considered her as a threat, – after all, the media would give her hell for going back on her support.

Therefore, he was free to use her and betray her.

If Flint wanted to be taken seriously in politics, and to be involved in a ‘unified’ cabinet – after being abused, lied to, and betrayed by the leader, and watching women being removed from seats of power, then integrity would require her to ‘kick up a fuss’, and walk out.

Regarding sexuality – just look at the way Smith has been treated… her husband watches porn – so the media draw cartoons of her as a sex object, and consider it central to her ability to perform her role in politics. She became defined by her husbands sexuality. She was a toy- how could she be a leader?

Men must be fertile family men to gain power – women must either lose their sexuality altogether or be mocked as ‘objects for amusement’, suffering from hubris – thinking themselves worthy of mens respect.

You mention Yvette still being in, but was I the only one who noticed her being referred to as ‘the wife of Ed Balls’, as a prefix to her name? (I think thats the one?) As if a women is no longer a concern if shes the possession of a powerful man.

I’ll give you three guesses why I’d never vote labour!

AnonyMouse // Posted 8 June 2009 at 5:12 pm

I agree Jacqui Smith has been treated badly by the press and by the PM.

Flint is a different case and seems to me to be opportunist.

In response to Rose’s point, there is no evidence that Flint was ‘promised’ a bigger job and then betrayed. The only betrayal seems to be by Flint who (a) betrayed their Blairite allies like Purnell by not resigning when they did and then (b) turning on the PM when her first betrayal didn’t work in terms of getting her promoted

Anne Onne // Posted 9 June 2009 at 12:26 pm

…Yeah, media, because when men have complaints, it’s for a legitimate reason, but when women have complaints, it’s because they are PMSing ‘women scorned’ who can’t wait to dig their stilettos in your back, the irrational bitches. Why won’t they just shut up, show us their tits and be happy with whatever the men throw them?

And oh yeah, how could I forget: dress conservatively and you’re a prude who looks bad next to Carla Bruni (what the hell is up with comparing every woman in politics to a model, anyway?), and therefore deserve no respect because you don’t know how to look good, dress remotely ‘sexily’ and you have no agency and deserve no respect because you’re taking some unfair advantage of the fact that society treats women like sexualised commodities to display.

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