Politics, everyday sexism and why I won’t be smiling politely anymore

I’ve always been a feminist. I just never realised it ’til I started working in politics.

I was brought up with an older brother and sister, by gender/label blind parents. I’m proud of our working class roots (Fife, Bannockburn, mining). It gave us our unfaltering work ethic. A work ethic that keeps my brother in full time employment despite a rare condition that will eventually mean a liver transplant. A work ethic that keeps my sister in full time employment as a single mother of three. A work ethic that stops my parents surrendering to electric armchairs in retirement. Point being, I come from a family of strong willed, free thinking men and women. So the notion that I was a feminist never actually occurred to me because the equality I saw growing up was just a reflection of wider society, right? Wrong! Something I realised 16 years ago when I first became an MSP researcher. “Young filly” was how Middle Aged Male described me as he blithely enquired of my employer, “how do I get one?”.

I was 23. And appalled. But had to smile politely.

This autumn saw one of the best attended Scottish conferences, with a record number of new members sprinting through the doors. Far from nursing our scars from The Coalition Years, the mood was jubilant and spirits high. A welcome morale boost for us staffers at the coalface, and fantastic to see the #LibDemFightBack on my home turf. I was happily assigned to front of house alongside my talented workmates; a diverse bunch, each with a unique story to tell. So already at a bleary eyed 8.30am, the day was set to be a right guid craic and a wonderful chance to steal a quick hello with the many well kent faces as they trooped in. After much laughter from sharing jolly memories of our various Tales From Campaigning and without realising it, we were moments from Tim Farron’s arrival. Tempus fugit when you’re in delightful company. Young Male Delegate approached the desk and the conversation went, awkwardly, something like this:

YMD: Hi, what are all your job titles here?

Me (slightly confused): Er, we’re all just helpers for the day.

YMD: Are you all members?

Me (more confused): Um, well, I’m a member but I can’t talk for colleagues, although of course it’s not obligatory to be a member.

YMD: It’s just I noticed that the front desk has mainly been females all day.  Was it a decision specifically made to have the front desk staffed by pretty young women?

I’ve grown wearily appalled at this normalised “low level” sexism within the party and wider politics. It doesn’t surprise me anymore. I expect it. Indeed, I could reel off a list of similar examples with ease.

It infuriates and saddens me in equal measure that women still have to educate grown men on what constitutes inappropriate behaviour and thereafter justify why it isn’t acceptable. I’m sick of having to smile politely lest we offend the menfolk by calling them out on their offensive attitudes and be labelled trouble makers into the bargain; a subtle, but sinister creep towards keeping woman in her place in an alpha male dominated sector.

I’ve always been a feminist. I’m just sad that working in politics has made me realise it.

* Fiona Milne is a member in Kinross

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7 Comments

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 26th Oct '15 - 8:56pm

    Fee, this is such a well written piece to describe the sort of thing that happens all too often in this party. I do so hope that YMD reads this, thinks about his behaviour and changes his attitude in the future. Thanks.

  • Such a fair and clear piece.

  • Erlen Watson 26th Oct '15 - 11:29pm

    Obviously the author heard the YMD’s tone. In print I could have taken it that he was actually critcicising the party organisation for putting an all female team on the desk.

    Actually I might ask why none of the men were volunteering. A criticism of my gender. Not of the conference organisation.

  • @Caron: Surely this can’t still happen in the lib dems today. Happens or happened?

    if the lib dems are so disgustingly sexist why are so many feminists party members?

  • peter tyzack 27th Oct '15 - 10:09am

    I am with Erlen, that’s how I read it, but if that was his case he should have made it to the organisers, not the volunteers. But at Federal Conference the Stewards are a good mixed team, it would never occur to me that FCC might have arranged quotas, surely volunteers are all welcome and all equal.

  • Thank you, Caron and Ruth.

    Hi Erlen and Peter – thx for your comment. I think the guy was attempting to make a point about gender balance, but that doesn’t mitigate his offensive/incorrect approach. The particular phrase he used was offensive, but actually for me what was potentially more offensive was that his enquiry was loaded with all sorts of presumptions about the women on that desk based purely on our gender and his own perception that we must surely only be there cos we’re female. In point of fact, there were also male colleagues there throughout the day (3 at one point, a fact he chose to ignore or did not see). The women on the desk weren’t strategically installed, we weren’t “put there” like brainless goons, if I may be bold enough to say. We were allocated front desk duties because we each know a lot of the members by face, which meant we were able to get people through the doors and into the main conference area in a reasonably speedy manner. We were there alongside male colleagues having a right good laugh, so no criticism is needed of the male population for what on this occasion is someone’s misplaced and skewed perception of a situation.

    DavidW – thx for your comment. I’m not calling the party ‘disgustingly sexist’ as you put it. I’m saying that sadly even in this day and age, there still exists *some* men who consider it entirely their right to not only use sexist language, but to make presumptions about women based on their gender. If we pretend it doesn’t happen, then it allows the behaviour to continue. I’m afraid that, yes, casual sexism does exist (across all politics). Some of it subtle, some of it not. Why are there so many feminists in the party? Because all of politics need them!

  • ‘What are you job titles’? Pardon? One wonders how long he had been a Lib Dem!
    He sounds like one of those classical liberal SpAds we acquired… (Or someone who aspires to be one?) I recall once being asked by young Conservative local agent how much the Lib Dems paid, as he was thinking of defecting…
    Thanks for the clarifying additional comment by the way, Fiona. Most Liberals tend to assume the best of people, unless their is good evidence to the contrary, and the OP was perhaps a liitle open to misinterpretation. But you are right to draw attention to low level ( but still insidiously damaging) gender discrimination. (Though I think being called a ‘ young filly’ in c. 1999 counts as at least medium-level, personally.)

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