On Caroline Flint and “the stiletto in the heart of Gordon Brown”
Jess McCabe // 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.”