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Why women in politics may not escape gender stereotypes anytime soon

Lego women stereotypes

In recent weeks, Teresa May has appeared in a fashion magazine and a national newspaper has commented on the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland’s legs. If you are a female politician, it seems there is no escape from scrutiny – not only on your political record but also your behavior and appearance. Women are judged on the ‘type’ of woman they are and it turns out this can be generally boiled down to three – butch, a bitch, or a mummy. If these stereotypes aren’t going anywhere, how can women in leadership positions get the job done?

A group of experts in the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick has been looking at how women political figures across the world are portrayed, the broad-brush ‘types’ that seem to arise and how the women themselves interact with these stereotypes.

“Butch, bitch and mummy are three particularly prevalent stereotypes that many women in political leadership are faced with,” says Dr Stephanie Schnurr, associate professor of applied linguistics at Warwick. “And all these ‘types’ play on the same double bind: if a woman leader is too masculine she is criticised for being denatured, and if she is too “feminine” she is criticised for being manipulative and/or weak. This seems to be the story worldwide.”

Dr Schnurr is a member of the Professional and Academic Discourse (PAD) research group at Warwick –a group of academic staff and doctoral students representing 13 nationalities and speaking over 20 languages between them, who have a common interest in the way language works in social settings. Members of the PAD group have been looking in detail at the portrayal of women leaders in politics, past and present, and studying the use of language surrounding some of the most internationally-recognized.

Dr Sue Wharton, convener of the group, explains: “Because we are an international group, we didn’t want to just look at the women leaders who are often in the UK news – we wanted to explore more widely. And it does seem that the three labels which we found are recurrent across the world’s media when talking about women political figures.

“Typically, the ‘butch’ image criticizes women leaders for espousing behaviours more traditionally associated with men,” continues Dr Wharton. “Whether this be a plain style of dress or forthright, aggressive speaking. The ‘bitch’ label critiques women for being strong and ruthless yet making use of ‘women’s weapons’ like glamourous dress and sexuality – and we saw this in the way one English newspaper chose to present Teresa May and Nicola Sturgeon’s meeting this week. The ‘mummy’ character condemns women leaders for being over-nurturing and thus controlling, yet also powerless and subordinate (for example in relation to a stronger father figure).

“These three labels do not correspond to any real essence though. Rather, they could be described as constructed ‘types’ that allow us to put female political leaders into boxes as we like.”

Three times a label

The PAD group has found that the three ‘types’ are context dependent and under constant change. One woman can be any of the different types – in fact the woman in question could seemingly tick a different ‘type’ box on any given day of the week. For example, a woman leader may have a photocall with the armed forces on Monday, attend a ‘glamourous’ social event on Wednesday and visit a new children’s hospital on Friday. Each of these three appointments could throw a spotlight on ‘what kind of woman’ she is.

Despite their fleeting nature, these labels for women can gather momentum and acquire symbolic significance. They can eventually act as powerful resources which people draw on to build images and influence public opinion.

“This kind of labelling does not happen to men in power,” says Dr Schnurr. “When male politicians are criticized or satirised, it’s not usually for their masculine characteristics and it’s usually on an individual level – so the caricature of Boris Johnson is the buffoon; Donald Trump is self-serving; Jeremy Corbyn is ineffective; David Cameron is privileged. But these caricatures don’t relate to an ideal of what a man should be. Male politicians are not generally judged on being a good man as well as a good leader.”

So, when this happens, how do the women leaders themselves interact with stereotypes? Are they are trapped into a simple choice between arguing against the stereotype or putting up with it, or are they rather more creative in how they engage with or subvert the label?

Butch, adjective: Having an appearance or other qualities of a type traditionally seen as masculine

Women who have been condemned via the ‘butch’ stereotype include Helen Clark (New Zealand), Julia Gillard (Australia), Angela Merkel (Germany), Azalina Othman Said (Malaysia), Dilma Roussef (Brazil) and Beata Szydło (Poland).

Dr Schnurr explains: “A common theme in commentary, is to pick up on their plain, sober dress style and haircuts – especially if they adopt accessories more usually associated with men, such as Szydło’s ubiquitous high-collared white shirt or Othman Said’s ring. For women identifying as lesbian – such as Ruth Davidson and Angela Eagle in the UK – language relating to the 'butch' stereotype has been used as direct homophobic abuse.

“Spoken interaction styles also come up for discussion: all of these women have been labelled as strict, tough, and overly direct in their interactions in their respective parliaments. Merkel was called cold and emotionless over the way she spoke to a young refugee, and Gillard’s broad, working class Australian accent was labelled as unattractive – which is not something that happens to male politicians with the same accent.”

Bitch, noun: A spiteful or unpleasant woman

If women leaders who play down a feminized appearance are criticized as butch, those who dress in a more glamourous style risk being labelled as bitch – taking an assertive, non-maternal femininity into the public realm.

“As well as this week’s comments on their skirts, recurring comments on Nicola Sturgeon’s high heels and the argument over Theresa May’s expensive leather trousers, all fall into this area. As well as Donald Trump famously calling Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’,” says Dr Wharton.

Politicians as diverse as Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Segolène Royal (France) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina) have been labelled as obsessed with a glamourous image. Bhutto and Fernández de Kirchner both managed to soften the criticism by using their clothing to also reference traditional, unthreatening values. Bhutto wore clothes reflecting Pakistani culture and Islam; Kirchner wore black, for three years, in mourning for her dead husband.

Mummy, informal: A child’s word for mother

The last of the three stereotypes is that of Mummy. The role of mother is held in esteem in many cultures and women leaders can use it as a legitimacy claim, saying that it gives them investment in the future.

Women like Hillary Clinton (USA) and Dora Bakoyannis (Greece) have both drawn attention to the fact that that they are not only mothers but grandmothers. And women in power who are not mothers – like Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May – have found it necessary to make it clear that this is not necessarily by choice.

There is a flipside to the positive role of mother though. It can become a negative stereotype when applied to a politician, since it may imply a woman is trying to take too much control and plays into arguments about the role of the state. In the USA, the alt-right calls Clinton ‘Grandma’ as a term of abuse, and in Germany “Mutti Merkel” – Mutti being a German familiar word for Mum – was a term originally coined by political rivals.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, former president of Indonesia, is mocked in the media as a strict mother who refuses to let go of power, and is shown in cartoons in which she is cradling current president Joko Widodo, who was her protégé.

For other leaders, the label of mother is an asset to be deliberately exploited. Benazir Bhutto campaigned while pregnant much to her opponents' surprise, and used her status as mother-to-be to strengthen her case. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) has embraced her nickname of ‘Ma Ellen’ and in an election campaign described herself as someone who would bring ‘motherly sensitivity to the presidency’. In Myanmar/Burma, Aun Sang Suu Kyi embraced the title of “Daw Suu” – Daw meaning mother or elder sister – from a relatively young age. In South Korea, Park Geun-hye, whose father was president, served as first lady at 22, when her mother was assassinated in 1974. Some felt that it was her association with her late father and her experience as first lady that led to her presidential win, so the motherly image of the first lady could have worked to her advantage. She later evoked a maternal presence in her emotional apologies to the nation during the Sewol Ferry disaster, where she expressed shame at not having been able to prevent the accident and protect the children who died, and she continues to fall back on the maternal image since her recent impeachment.

Turning the tables

Given the range of countries and cultures which the PAD group looked at for this piece of research, it’s remarkable that women politicians are faced by largely similar gender stereotypes. It seems that these gender stereotypes are prevalent around the globe, and women leaders cannot ignore them. These labels are still accepted and women leaders have to find ways not to be limited by them and perhaps use them to their advantage.

“Sometimes it is a case of going for the least worst,” says Dr Schnurr. “Certainly Rousseff and Merkel have both found the mummy image a useful alternative strategy to invoke the theme of female strength and aggression. Being tough is more acceptable if it is used in defence of others. Szydło has contested the butch stereotype directly by making a conscious choice to put more feminized self-images into the media, for example, having a soft-focus photoshoot feeding cats on the porch of her house or distributing presents to orphaned children wearing a Christmas jumper. Teresa May chose to appear in American Vogue.

“This is the underlying issue,” says Dr Schnurr. “Should they have to? It seems the notion of leadership in itself is still seen as a male quality. There is still this underlying assumption that leaders are by default male and hence women who want to take on leadership roles often have to justify themselves much more. That is why women face stereotypes as a group – they continue to be held up against society’s long-held view of what men and women should be. Until this changes, these three stereotypes will continue to rear their heads for women leaders worldwide.”

30 March 2017

Stephanie Schnurr Dr Stephanie Schnurr is Associate Professor in the Centre for Applied Linguistics. Her work covers leadership, and the crucial role that communication plays in leadership performance. She has researched and published widely on various aspects of leadership discourse, gender, the multiple functions and strategic uses of humour, politeness and impoliteness, identity construction, the role of culture, decision making and advice giving, and other aspects of workplace discourse in a range of professional and medical contexts.

Sue Wharton

Dr Sue Wharton is Associate Professor in the Centre for Applied Linguistics. A linguistics expert interested in all sorts of written discourse analysis, she studies the extent that this can facilitate understanding, and sometimes change, in the social situation of which it is a part. She is convenor of the Professional and Academic Discourse research group in the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick.

Contributors to the article:
Farhana Abdul-Fatah, Johannes Angermuller, Andrew Barke, Shafiq Hizwari Bin Md Hashim, Eduardo Chávez Herrera, Paul Chilton, Rachel Chimbwete-Phiri, Carolin Debray, Christina Efthymiadou, Kieran File, Jo Gakonga, Thomas Greenaway, Sixian Hah, Tilly Harrison, Attapol Khamkhien, Kyoung-mi Kim, Tony Liddicoat, Polina Mesinioti, Nor Azikin Mohd Omar, Rose Nguye, Sophie Reissner-Roubicek, Stephanie Schnurr, Sue Wharton, Marta Natalia Wróblewska

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