Personally, I felt that the Mail on Sunday piece about Angela Rayner using her womanly attribute to distract the malignant child clown occupying the role of British Prime Minister was too ludicrous to be taken too seriously. I understand that to the extent that it is symptomatic of entrenched sexism it must be condemned. But it came across to me as something akin to a parody of those afflicted by this cognitive dysfunction. I realise that was not what was intended. It’s just that the allegation was so jaw-droppingly inappropriate I could help but reflect that it was designed to provoke precisely the reaction it has from the likes of Kirsty Strickland. I don’t like to think of the smugness of the author(s) of the article as they survey the success of their ploy.
Not that there is anything to disagree with in Kirsty Strickland’s column in The National today. Some things are better stabbed with the stiletto of satire than clubbed with the cudgel of choler. Ridicule can be a powerful weapon. Being scandalised by a scandal sheet seems like playing into their game.
Another potential weapon against such vile drivel might be forensic scrutiny. The perpetrators anticipate a knee-jerk reaction. They do not expect the allegation to be subjected to any real examination. They suppose their audience will make an instantaneous negative judgement and give the allegation no further consideration. It appears they were right to do so. That is, as far as I can tell, exactly what has happened. A corollary of this unreflective reaction is that commentators have tended to accept the writer’s framing of Angela Rayner’s alleged behaviour as offensive and wrong. I doubt that they considered the possibility that anyone would question this assumption. They reckoned without me.
I question everything. I aim always to ask every relevant question there might be. I doubt that I ever succeed. But the attempt takes me to places not accessed by those who decline or fail to ask any questions at all – particularly of their own prejudices and preconceptions. So it is that I come to question whether it is in fact wrong for a woman to use her feminine attributes to her advantage in the given context of parliamentary debate.
(I realise that even the language in which this question is framed may be offensive to some. But stay with me. I’m trying to make what I consider to be an important point here.)
Suppose the allegation is true. Suppose Angela Rayner did seek to distract Boris Johnson by crossing and uncrossing her legs in what we must assume to have been a discreetly seductive manner. So what? What exactly is wrong with that? Why should a woman not use whatever attributes she has at her disposal to prevail in this or any context?
I have never accepted the notion of women as the ‘weaker sex’. Statistically, women are certainly neither as big nor as physically strong as men. But this is to assess them using very male criteria. There are other kinds of strength. Women are not weaker than men. They are, to borrow a bit of jargon, ‘differently strengthed’. An ugly term. But I think it conveys the idea well enough.
We might assume that being bigger and physically stronger, the male participant in debate has the advantage of having a more powerful voice than his female opponent. Nobody suggests it is wrong for him to utilise this attribute to gain whatever advantage he might. Why then should a woman be criticised for using whatever advantage she may get from being female? If she has the kind of feminine attributes which might distract and confuse her male opponent then why should she not make use of this weapon? Who benefits from her flashing of a bit of shapely leg being deprecated? Who else but the male who has a weakness for shapely female legs that can be exploited?
What I am suggesting is that the most sexist thing about the allegation that Angela Rayner did a Sharon Stone on Boris Johnson is not the allegation itself but the assumption that it is wrong for a woman to use whatever strengths she has. This default handicapping of women may be regarded as part of the entrenched sexism referred to earlier. Perhaps something of the social imbalance occasioned by sexist bigotry will have been redressed when we are outraged as little by Angela Rayner crossing and uncrossing her legs as by Boris Johnson raising his voice to talk over her.