Opinion: Behave yourself, woman

When we woke up this morning, we saw that Alex Salmond had used some choice words in the House of Commons yesterday during a debate. A marvellous orator he may be, but he also appears to be fond of sexist language.

Salmond told Junior Minister Anna Soubry that she was ‘demented’ and to ‘behave yourself, woman.’ This type of language is unacceptable, and without excuse. Yet many of his supporters are attempting to excuse his behaviour on Twitter, with the main theme being that what he said is not real sexism and that I should perhaps save my ‘outrage’ for real sexism. What is real sexism though? Is it the murder and gender based violence statistics? Is it the gender pay gap? Or is it putting down women through language use? Or perhaps, it is all of the above and more. It is simply a different expression of the same underlying problem.

Many of his supporters have pointed out on Twitter that what he said is a common turn of phrase. Another excuse we have seen is that Mr. Salmond could have quite easily said ‘behave yourself, man’ (in what we can only imagine would be a Californian surfer dude accent). If you look at the language he uses surrounding this phrase, however, he also calls her ‘demented’ and said she was ‘cavorting’ – does anyone seriously think that he would have used this language if addressing a male opponent? There is a long history of calling women demented, crazy or hysterical. In fact, the word hysteria comes from the Greek word hystera –meaning uterus. It is a gendered trait, prevalent in western culture for thousands of years. The use of the word ‘cavorting’ suggests that Mr. Salmond sees Ms. Soubry’s place in Westminster as frivolous, that perhaps she is not capable of being a real politician, and by real I mean ‘pale, male and stale’.

Many of you will read this and think that we have analysed this to the extreme, but language is used often as an expression of the sexist culture in the United Kingdom and it contributes towards continued sexism. But this does not mean it needs to continue. We have a great opportunity to call out sexist behaviour and let people know it is not acceptable. It is not acceptable in the home, in the bedroom, or in the office, and it is most certainly not acceptable in the House of Commons. Language is a powerful tool and whilst sometimes people use it in the wrong way, mistakes can be corrected and I hope Mr. Salmond uses his words to apologise to Ms. Soubry and admit that there is no place for sexist language anywhere.

* Jenny is a Liberal Democrat activist in the North East of Scotland, and Linnea is a Liberal Democrat member currently residing in Sweden.

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47 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '15 - 7:15pm

    For me the big problem is if someone said it to Nicola Sturgeon there would be uproar. The phrase is not one that I would like to use, but nearly every joke can offend someone, so I’m weary of complaining too much about it.

  • Well said. Well articulated. Fed up with sexism being written off as ‘a joke’ or a ‘turn of phrase’. It’s not acceptable in any of its forms.

  • Sammy O'Neill 4th Jun '15 - 7:47pm

    Sadly casual sexism is rampant throughout politics. Our party is no exception- I have had the odd comment in my 2 years which really has been eyeball raising.

  • Samuel Griffiths 4th Jun '15 - 7:55pm

    Was the language itself sexist? – Oh absolutely! But Salmond is known for using belittling and insulting language, regardless of who he is talking to. In this case, he wanted to insult and belittle her, not because she was female, but because she was a Tory. I don’t disagree with the article at all, but people should keep in mind the intent here when calling him out.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '15 - 7:58pm

    Labour are guilty of this too, I remember Esther McVey being subject to sexism and being surprised by the leniency the offenders were treated. Esther was subjected to combined sexism and hate, just like Thatcher.

    From what I can see Lib Dems seem to campaign against sexism wherever it occurs, but all parties need to abide by the same standards that they set others.

    Of course, party processes need to be improved, which they are being.

  • The same people defending Salmond were almost certainly aghast when David Cameron told Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear”.

  • Cllr David Beckett
    You wrote ‘this man’, would you write ‘this woman’? Would that be sexist but not if you use the word man? Has no man ever had the word used at the end of a sentence when being spoken to? Quite common in many areas but perhaps not with the middle classes. I have come across sexism and battled it but this is just being ridiculous. It appears that now we should be offended to be called a woman. Now THAT is sexism.

  • Jeremy Morfey 4th Jun '15 - 9:37pm

    Is this really the sort of burning issue that must define the Liberal revival?

    This is quite ridiculous to get worked up about. That language is no different to the irreverent way John Brown addressed his sovereign. Maybe Alex Salmond does address his party leader in the same manner? If so, she surely takes it in her stride, and gets on with the job of being a better leader than he ever was, woman or no woman. It is no worse than a Cockney tealady addressing me as “ducks” (which might be rhyming slang, but I don’t think I want to go any further exploring that piece of traditional sexism). Didn’t Rumpole (based on a real life QC) routinely address judges as “Old Darling”? I always refer to one former Tory leader as “Dracula” because his family came from Transylvania, and he smiled like Hannibal Lecter. Does that make me vampirist?

    Any politician worth her salt, and worried about it, has a witty putdown up her sleeve, so he won’t try it again. Most wouldn’t even bother, gleefully letting the dinosaur hang himself on his own rope.

  • smacks of phoney outrage – I could equally see Salmond saying ‘calm down mon’ to a male mp.
    Anna Soubrey is a lively MP and I think too a decent Tory – but I think she is also a
    woman?

  • Dan’s comments: a study in defending the indefensible. No, I’m afraid Alex Salmond’s comments amount to old-fashioned and unpleasant sexism. He has let himself and his party down.

  • Christine Headley 5th Jun '15 - 12:09am

    @Dan – it is sexist, and indeed lacks respect towards the mentally ill. It is a long time since I was an undergraduate, and I take considerable exception to this sort of language. I wouldn’t take it from Alex Salmond, and I would be angry with a LibDem with that turn of phrase too. If you disagree with someone, go for the real reason – which is not revealed in the article – rather than pussyfooting around with gratuitous insults.
    If this isn’t sexist, what is? Or, do you rejoice in a parliamentary party which is 100% male? Should the other 52% of the population stay out of boys’ games?

  • G. Campbell 5th Jun '15 - 12:59am

    “Another excuse we have seen is that Mr. Salmond could have quite easily said ‘behave yourself, man’ (in what we can only imagine would be a Californian surfer dude accent)”

    House of Commons Hansard Debates for 05 Feb 2014

    Mr Speaker: Order. Mr Ruane, you are an incorrigible delinquent at times. Behave yourself man.

  • I have to agree with the conclusions of this article. Why use gender based terminology at all? Would people be excusing his comments of they were a racial slur against someone from an ethnic minority? Why not just argue against the position of her aguement rather than on a physical characteristic? If she was very overweight and he said ‘Calm down tubby’ there would be an uproar. I’m not even doing to get started on the derogatory comments about the state of her mental health…

  • Jeremy Morfey 4th Jun ’15 – 9:37pm ……..Is this really the sort of burning issue that must define the Liberal revival? This is is quite ridiculous to get worked up about……………

    My thoughts exactly……A dig at the nasty SNP rather than at Osborne’s misleading statements on his ‘savings’….

    “Actually, I think it’s quite sensible not to take yourself too seriously”………Charles Kennedy

  • The idea that this was intended as a colloquial expression with no malice in it would only work if Salmond and Soubry were friends, or at least acquaintances on the same side. They are not.

    Salmond is often rude to people he doesn’t like in public, male or female, nationalist or unionist, senior or junior, it doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t like them, he will humiliate them in public (see also his disgraceful dismissal of Christine Jardine’s handshake at the constituency count). He is not a very nice man.

    I imagine Nicola Sturgeon is less than impressed, unlike him, she is widely liked across political divides. But will he restrain himself in the future?

  • Peter Watson 5th Jun '15 - 8:19am

    “Mr. Salmond sees Ms. Soubry’s place in Westminster as frivolous, that perhaps she is not capable of being a real politician, and by real I mean ‘pale, male and stale’.”
    Hmmm. Sadly, pale, male and stale is an apt description of the Lib Dem parliamentary party. And even before the wipe out on May 7, Lib Dems appeared to be less diverse than other parties.

  • Phil Rimmer 5th Jun '15 - 8:38am

    Our party needs to be very careful when accusing others of sexism. Our record for having women MPs elected and, once elected, helping them to keep their seats, is one that we ought to be ashamed of.

    Maybe we should address the problems at the heart of our own kirk first, before attacking another.

  • Stephen Howse 5th Jun '15 - 8:41am

    “Sadly, pale, male and stale is an apt description of the Lib Dem parliamentary party. ”

    I think you do our Hon. Members a disservice by describing them as ‘stale’!

  • My first reaction to this story was ‘that’s outrageous’. Outrageous because it is the sort of language that men use to patronise and belittle women, in an attempt to ‘put them in their place’.

    I then read the comments under this article and my outrage increased. The men commenting on here who defend Salmond’s language are a sad reflection on why the Lib Dems themselves have ‘a women problem’.

    This has made me reflect a bit deeper and I now wonder why if Salmond is such a sexist, there are more women MPs in the SNP than there have ever been in the Liberal Democrat Party. Indeed their leader is a woman who used to be Salmond’s Deputy. Nick Clegg, even though ( I assume) he would never use the sort of language employed by Salmond, never appointed any of his female MPs to the Cabinet, despite having women of real talent and experience. And of course a group of very talented women, longstanding members and activists, have been lost by internal wrongdoings in recent times.

    It just makes one wonder about the actual practice of sexism in politics, not least in the Lib Dem Party.

    I still think Salmond’s language was unacceptable because it can encourage a culture of casual sexism in public debates. Let’s face it, there is enough sexism already in the Houses of Parliament, we should not be encouraging more of it.

  • George Potter 5th Jun '15 - 11:15am

    @Jeremy Morfey

    I’ve been a member of this party since 2009. The only time I ever feel tempted to leave it is when I read comments like yours.

    The Lib Dem revival must be built on being inclusive and representative of all society. It should not be built on patronising and the same old white, straight, male dominance of the past.

    If you don’t like that idea the party needs to be inclusive and to stand up against the kind of patronising attitudes that epitomise the worst of politics then guess what – the Lib Dem revival doesn’t need you.

  • George Potter “. It should not be built on patronising and the same old white, straight, male dominance of the past.”

    I agree with your comments. However the problem is that Lib Dems are very quick to condemn sexism in other parties but very slow to address the covert sexism in their own Party.

  • George Potter 5th Jun '15 - 12:05pm

    @Phylis

    Unfortunately I’d say that threads like these show that it isn’t especially covert.

  • George Potter, that’s true. I suppose what I meant was that I have yet to see any prominent commentators, never mind an article on LDV, challenging Nick Clegg for not promoting women MPs to the Cabinet. It’s just brushed under the carpet.

  • ‘Behave yourself, woman’ is sexist. But ‘demented’ does not have the same long, misogynistic history as ‘hysterical’ and I fear you weaken your argument by claiming the use of that particular word was sexist or unacceptable.

  • IveSeenTheLight 5th Jun '15 - 1:07pm

    Not defending him of course, but he is guilty of using local language and his something his generation would likely have said.

    I’ve at times said to my mates to “behave yersel min” (behave yourself man) but to be fair, If I was addressing a woman, I would just say “behave yersel”. The woman part in the modern day could be construed as condescending, but for a man, they take it on the chin. Why is that?

    I recall in my youth while working in Yorkshire, getting annoyed when both men and women referred to me as “love”. I kept thinking, I’m not your love, but in the end accepted their localism as opposed to being offended by it.

    I’m just explaining local colloquialism and maybe, people just need to take these things with a pinch of salt as opposed to being offended by them.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 5th Jun '15 - 1:30pm

    Phyllis: You clearly haven’t seen all the times I’ve had a go at him for his failure in that regard.

  • Salmond was just playing his ‘man ‘o the people’ role…..His use of such language reflects more unfavourably on him than on his ‘victim’….However, I’d think there are a lot more important things to get upset about than this….

  • IveSeenTheLight

    Not defending him of course, but he is guilty of using local language and his something his generation would likely have said.

    I’ve at times said to my mates to “behave yersel min” (behave yourself man) but to be fair, If I was addressing a woman, I would just say “behave yersel”. The woman part in the modern day could be construed as condescending, but for a man, they take it on the chin. Why is that?

    Salmond is from a middle class West Lothian family, not a working class doric speaking Aberdeenshire one.

    His local language would be standard english and people of his generation do not generally demean women in public and formal situations through the use of dialect either.

  • “Caron LindsayCaron Lindsay 5th Jun ’15 – 1:30pm
    Phyllis: You clearly haven’t seen all the times I’ve had a go at him for his failure in that regard.”

    Caron, to be fair I have seen the odd comment from you but I have never seen a response from Nick. How did he justify it when challenged?

  • I’m really torn on this one. It is sexist and given that is it Salmond it is intentionally so, designed to get attention for himself. So yes he should apologise and then everyone should move on, but that will not happen this is not an error it is an intentional use of language that will allow Salmond to have a story all about him.

    He will keep being as “provocative” as he can (including as many niggles to annoy the englisj electorate as possible) and Sturgeon will play the “reasonable one” which will be reinforced by being compared to Salmond all the time.

    Dan Falchikov
    “Why is it without excuse and unacceptable?”

    Well the point is that people should debate the issue not attack the person (including making sexist comments to them), though I would suggest some on here to remember that no party has a great record of ‘playing the ball not the man.’

    “simply regurgitating undergraduate slurs won’t do”

    I’m not sure what about saying something is ‘without excuse and unacceptable’ is ‘undergraduate’ not the choice of words I would use but you chose an odd insult to someone else’s position which could be summed up as ‘politicians shouldn’t be sexist.’

    G. Campbell

    “Mr Speaker [….]”

    Not a great example to choose if someone else’s position is that politicians should debate an issue and not resort to attacking individuals…

  • With threads like this one, I often find it instructive to head for Mumsnet and see what non-politically-obsessed women are saying about it. In this case a large proportion of the posters are Scottish women who say this is perfectly normal dialect in their part of the world and hence not offensive at all (though interestingly some say they would be “livid” if an English politician had said it).

    http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/in_the_news/2395013-behave-yourself-woman-Alex-salmond

    @Alex H: “I have to agree with the conclusions of this article. Why use gender based terminology at all?”

    I’m not defending Salmond (I haven’t seen the clip so have no opinion on it), but as a general point, I think it would be a dull world if we were suddenly not allowed to use gender based terminology. I celebrate the fact that men and women are different.

  • Psi thanks. So there was one article. It’s hardly an avalanche of protest is it?

  • Stuart, in Scotland there are few people who are no political when it comes to the SNP and independence. How do you know these people on mumsnet don’t have views?

    Also, if you haven’t seen the clip, why not? It’s easy to find, very short, and would help inform your position.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Jun '15 - 3:05pm

    Hm. How about some discussion of the way that the appalling Anna Soubrey was behaving? Are women to be allowed to behave in unacceptable ways just because they are women?

    Just wondering.

    Tony Greaves

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 6th Jun '15 - 3:51pm

    Tony,

    Are you saying you think it is acceptable for men to use gendered insults and sexist language in Parliament?

    Sure, men and women behave badly in Parliament. Jacqui Smith once smirked while Willie Rennie was being called a Scottish git by the Tories. The response to women tends to be as described above. That isn’t fair.

  • I agree with Phyllis, this minor slip/turn of phrase by Salmond is small fry compared to things that have happened in the Lib Dems in recent years. Critiquing other parties for their sexism when they have the biggest % of female MPs from the perspective of a party with no female MPs at all seems odd. I’d love us to be able to take the moral high-ground here, we simply don’t have credibility in this area.

    We need to talk about how Lib Dem plans to increase diversity have failed, relative to other parties, and what we’re going to do to deal with that before discussing other parties faux pas. It’s like standing naked in the garden criticising the neighbours for their short skirt!

  • ChrisB

    “We need to talk about how Lib Dem plans to increase diversity have failed, relative to other parties”

    Well if you gain no new MPs and loose all your sitting women then that is easilly understandable. What is more informative would be a discussion of what has a good chance of working in the future.

  • A Social Liberal 7th Jun '15 - 4:32pm

    In order to look at what Salmond said we should seperate the two parts.

    First – the demented bit. Nope, not sexist in my opinion. What it was was an ad hominem designed to belittle and therefore control a fellow member of the Commons. Totally unacceptable and Salmond should have been castigated by the Speaker for it.

    Now – why was the phrase, “behave yourself, woman”, sexist. Let’s take the first two words – behave yourself. A command, infering that the person speaking those words has the right to command the person he is speaking to, that that person is somehow beneath him. He then identifies WHY he believes he has command over the person speaking to. Because she is a woman.

    It is the language of an Edwardian era husband remonstrating with his wife, of whom he has the right of control. Moreover it is a deliberate, bullying tactic which should have been addressed by the speaker.

  • I’m afraid it is very hard not to come to the conclusion that the Liberal Democrat Party is institutionally sexist. That is the nub of the problem and until the new Leader and the membership accept this and make changes, it will remain so.

    It would be very hard to think that the SNP is institutionally sexist, no matter what language its former leader uses. Focussing on the moat in your opponent’s eye whilst ignoring the beam in your own does not augur well for the Lib Dems.

  • A social liberal “Moreover it is a deliberate, bullying tactic which should have been addressed by the speaker.”

    The behaviour in the Commons from all parties is terrible. If the Speaker tried to address every instance of bullying tactics, no-one would have time to be heard. Then again, maybe that would put a stop to those type of tactics.

    What we don’t know is what Anna Soubry did – they didn’t show it on The Sunday Politics this morning. Perhaps the Speaker should have addressed her behaviour too.

  • IveSeenTheLight 9th Jun '15 - 9:49am

    @g
    [quote]
    Salmond is from a middle class West Lothian family, not a working class doric speaking Aberdeenshire one.

    His local language would be standard english and people of his generation do not generally demean women in public and formal situations through the use of dialect either.
    [/quote]

    Like I said, I am not defending him.
    You may be missing a factor in that he has resided in a doric speaking are for quite a number of years.

    Should Mr Speaker in the House of Commons be rebuked and reprimanded over telling Mr Rourke to “Behave yourself man” or do we consider it sexist to be allowable to refer to a man by his gender, but not a woman.

    Time for the PC brigade to toughen up and fight more meaningful debates instead of wasting their efforts on this trivial matter

  • IveSeenTheLight 9th Jun '15 - 9:55am

    @A Social Liberal
    [quote]
    Now – why was the phrase, “behave yourself, woman”, sexist. Let’s take the first two words – behave yourself. A command, infering that the person speaking those words has the right to command the person he is speaking to, that that person is somehow beneath him. He then identifies WHY he believes he has command over the person speaking to. Because she is a woman.

    It is the language of an Edwardian era husband remonstrating with his wife, of whom he has the right of control. Moreover it is a deliberate, bullying tactic which should have been addressed by the speaker.
    [/quote]

    Is it not contradictory to have been addressed by the Speaker, when this is the same terminology the speaker used against Mr Ruane

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140205/debtext/140205-0001.htm

    [quote]
    Mr Speaker: Order. Mr Ruane, you are an incorrigible delinquent at times. Behave yourself man.
    [/quote]

  • I’veseenTheLight “Should Mr Speaker in the House of Commons be rebuked and reprimanded over telling Mr Rourke to “Behave yourself man” or do we consider it sexist to be allowable to refer to a man by his gender, but not a woman.”

    This is the same fallacious argument which is used to question why black people can call each other a certain word and but it is taboo for a white person to use it. The reason is that historically the power balance has been weighted hugely in favour of certain groups. When a man uses disparaging language about a woman, it just is not the same as a man using the same language towards another man. It’s about oppression.

    In this case though, I would say that the Speaker was asserting his greater power over Mr Rourke. He wouldn’t, I bet, address the Prime Minister in the same way.

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