From ‘Legs-it’ to ‘Calm down, dear’: Six times UK MPs faced sexism | Policy

Women parliamentarians have long endured misogyny and sexism both in the media and at the hands of their fellow politicians. The attack on Angela Rayner is just the latest.


Politicians and the public sharply criticized a 2017 Daily Mail headline accompanied by a picture of then Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sitting together in tough talks, which said Inside, it read: “The best weapons at their disposal? Those pins! while columnist Sarah Vine opined that Sturgeon’s legs were ” altogether more alluring, enticingly crossed… a direct attempt at seduction.”

Labor MP Harriet Harman called the article ‘moron’, while then-Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘This sexism should be consigned to history’. Former Labor leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “The 1950s called and asked for their title.” Her party colleague Yvette Cooper wrote: “It is 2017. Two women’s decisions will determine whether the UK lives on. And the headline news is their lower limbs. Obviously.”

“The Great Divide”

Jacqui Smith’s first Commons statement in 2007 drew comment in many newspapers, not for what she said, but for what she wore. Or, as one post put it, “the amount of cleavage she had on display.” Smith later told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour program that fighting terrorism and crime were her priorities – not her clothes.

Many publications have addressed the topic. The Daily Mail weighed in with ‘The Great Divide’ and pitted Smith against May, then the house’s shadow leader. Maybe May is wearing a “leopard skin bra”? he asked. “Her cleavage display on Wednesday looked like a direct challenge to the bold brow sometimes displayed by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith,” her columnist wrote.

In 2015, the issue was raised again when Shadow Minister Alison McGovern was chastised by a party member for her ‘prominent cleavage’ and ‘attention-grabbing attire’ following a TV debate on Channel 4 News.

‘Calm down, my dear’

David Cameron was heavily criticized in 2011 when, during PMQs, he told shadow Treasury Secretary Angela Eagle to “calm down, sweetie.” Downing Street dismissed it as a mere “humorous remark”. But Harman denounced “his condescending and outdated attitude towards women” and his “contemptuous response”.

Eagle told the BBC: “I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself that way. What I was trying to do was point out that he got some facts wrong. She added: ‘I have been patronized by better people than the Prime Minister.

‘Baroness, whatever…’

Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, was slapped in 2018 for referring to his shadow counterpart, Emily Thornberry, by her husband’s title rather than his name. Responding to Thornberry, whose husband, a High Court judge, is a knight, Johnson called her “Baroness, whatever it is, I don’t remember what it is… Nugee”.

The then Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said: ‘We don’t address people by the title of their spouse. The shadow foreign secretary has a name, and it’s not “Lady something.” We know what her name is. It is inappropriate and frankly sexist to speak in those terms, and I do not have it in this room. Johnson later apologized for his “inadvertent sexism”.

‘Stupid woman’

William Hague came under fire as Foreign Secretary in 2013 after appearing to mutter ‘stupid woman’ twice during PMQ when shadow Treasury minister Cathy Jamieson questioned his ties to Tory donors and private companies .

As Cameron responded, Hague was seen uttering the words, but later said he meant no offense.

Jamieson told the Huffington Post: ‘It would have been better if the prime minister had given home the reassurance I was looking for than to see the foreign secretary muttering insults from the sidelines.’

Labor MP Michael McCann condemned the remarks as “scandalous” while Labor MEP David Martin demanded an apology from The Hague.

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“Extremely frustrated”

In 2011, a laughing Cameron ushered his own backbench MP Nadine Dorries out of the House of Commons as MPs bawled at the slightest insinuation.

Dorries had asked a question during PMQs about the influence on government policy of Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Jokingly, Cameron replied that he knew she was “extremely frustrated”. Hearing laughter from his fellow MPs, he continued: “Maybe I should start all over again.”

Although his aides were later keen to point out that his response was meant to be a “light-hearted joke”, the exchange was seen by some as fueling accusations of sexism in the bedroom.