Women and Politics. The Odd Couple.
In the past few decades women have become more visible in pursuing and holding high managerial positions. Sadly, social attitudes towards their leadership remain unchallenged despite these advances. Countless studies conducted around the world document the same media frames that have historically formed the bedrock of public exclusion of women, leading to their misrepresentation and suppressing their contributions as professional policymakers. Just a cursory internet search for coverage of the most recent American vice presidency race featuring Senator Kamala Harris, will uncover the full array of stereotypes (‘angry black woman’; ‘insufferable lying bitch’), caricatures (‘mammy’, ‘aunty’) sexual innuendo (‘She slept her way up’; ‘Joe and Hoe’) or double standards (‘aggressive’, ‘masculine’ and ‘unlikeable’).
All of these are applied to Harris in reference to her multi-layered identity as an Indian-American, black woman (Astor, 2020). The media portrayal of Senator Kamala as a power-hungry usurper and interloper does not differ much from other press accounts that women in power are regularly on the receiving end of. In this short article I want to present the common linguistic devices used for discriminating against female politicians, which I recorded in a major study of the political press in Poland. Its findings can be read as representative of similar realities around the world.
1. Semantic derogation
In her famous paper and critique of the English language, the linguist and feminist Muriel Shultz (1975) coined a term ‘semantic derogation’ to describe the process whereby originally neutral or positive terms undergo devaluation once they begin to form associations with women. Consider the assymmetric relationships in the following pairs of words: bachelorspinster; mister-mistress; host-hostess, courtier-courtesan and the list goes on. A similar pattern occurs in designations of ministerial or public sphere positions in the Polish press where positive names for political roles, such as chairperson or minister, acquire a trivialized status once they are used to refer to women. The examples include ‘The Health Carer’ instead of ‘The Minister of Health’; ‘The Minister of Family Promises’ instead of ‘The Minister of Family and Women’s Affairs’; ‘The Female Ball Minister’ instead of ‘The Minister of Sport’ or ‘Girl with a Ball’ instead of ‘The Spokesperson of Football Association’. It is almost as if there was a loss of prestige incurred by the entrance of women into high-ranking posts, even though the positions they asssumed were identical to those occupied by men.
The second pattern of language use observed in media accounts of female politicians deals with a tension between traditionally defined women and the exercise of political responsibilities. The following designations appeared in the titles and main headlines of the political weeklies:
‘The First Vamps’, ‘The Sejm Misses’, ‘The Housewife of the Political Office’ ‘The Hard-liner in Heels’, ‘The Mother of the Nation’, ‘the Stepmother of Europe’, ‘The Female Minister Who Cooks’, ‘The Female Minister Does not Dance’.
The contrast in each description lies in the co-occurence of words which highlight the contradictory nature of women’s public and private roles. For instance, the stereotypical characterization of women works through the articulation of traditionally feminine activities and interests, such as cooking, dancing and mothering or via reference to clothing, as a manifestation of typically female concern with physical appearance.
By contrast, the lexical markers of women’s professional identities correspond to designations of the political domain (eg. Sejm, authorities, hard-liner, nation, power, or political office). The contrastive patterns of collocations are derivatives of the same old double binds which have plagued women across different points of history - such as the assumption that women cannot be both feminine and smart or caring and resolute. The phrases’ power derives from defining women’s identity as incompatible with public sphere roles.
3. Physical identification
The most frequent trope exploited by the Polish press when discriminating against female politicians is ‘physical identification’. Distinguished from ‘functional’ categorization, which activates male politicians by describing them in terms of professional occupation or role performance, the identifying reference represents women by means of their physical attributes. Here are several examples from my data:
‘The internet users admired Mucha’s eyes and Arent in her entirety compared among other things to a cream cake’.
‘Last term [the Sejm guards] had no problem remembering Sandra Lewandowska from the Self-Defence party. According to their ranking these were the prettiest parliamentary legs’.
‘Apart from her hairdo, the gorgeous Julia can show off regular features and a young look. Her figure ranks a bit lower. The Prime Minister of Ukraine is a typical pear, though skillfully masking this imperfection with clothing’.
The women are thus deconstructed and demeaned via exhaustive descriptions of their physical features – their eyes, lips, hair, legs and figures – which exist separately from the rest of their bodies. The evaluation of female policymakers by means of categories customarily employed to measure and assess the properties of ‘things’ consitutes the principal way of encoding sexism in language.
Many of the terms used to identify female ministers illustrate commodified aspects of political processes, as in the following examples which reduce female MPs to the role of aesthetic, or even purchasable objects on which male politicians base their reputations:
‘Joanna Mucha and the new angels will not offer an original product, but maybe this time they will not be its caricatures’.
‘As the party’s flagships three women appeared next to four key politicians’.
‘There [France] the ministerial portfolios were assigned to attractive women who visibly emphasize their virtues’.
‘Will women entering the government reveal themselves as hastily recruited female fillers or a strong team’?
‘Tusk’s angels were given the most difficult assignments’.
‘All of them are the weakest cogs in the machine of PO and PSL’.
The women appear in the accounts as objects of doings and happenings orchestrated by male figures. An important characteristic of these identifications is the frequent attribution of women to the ownership of individual politicians (‘Tusk women’s drive’; ‘Tusks’s angels’) or their political assembly (‘party’s flagship’; ‘cogs in the machine of PO and PSL’ etc.), which symbolically diminishes women’s professional achievements. In linguistics, this is known as possesivation. There appears to be an analogy here with collective terms applied to female politicians in other countries, especially the UK and US (e.g. Blair’s Babes, Gordon’s Gals, Brown Sugars, Dave’s Dolls, Dave’s Divas, Cameron’s Cuties, Nick’s Nymphets and Donald’s Dollies).
As all the examples make evident, gender is the all-important lens through which Polish press views female policymakers. The limited criteria which cast them into stereotypical, private roles or describe them based on physical appearance or type of clothing they wear, discredit their qualifications for statewide offices, causing damage to their professional credibility. Today’s female ministers continue to be treated like pawns in the hands of male leaders: they sweeten, soften, activize, modernize or rejuvenate the ossified image of the masculine parties. They have hardly moved beyond the functions of political fillers or decorative flowers (in Polish ‘paprotka’) or more recently decorative Easter egg (PL: ‘Pis-anka’). Only this time, as Środa (2009) aptly illustrates, they represent the flowers of the new generation: ‘sunbathed, energetic, beautiful, competent with lots of achievement’. These representations are, unfortunately, nothing new; just the same old sexism rehashed and repurposed for the current political landscape.
The article includes pieces of my Ph.D research published by WFW:
Bulawka, H. (2013) Gender Representations in the Polish Press. A Feminist Critical Discourse Study. Warszawa: WFW.
Astor, M. (2020) ‘Kamala Harris and the ‘Double Bind of Racism and Sexism’. < https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/09/us/politics/kamala-harris-racism-sexism.html>
Schultz, M. (1975) ‘The semantic derogation of woman’, in B. Thorne and N. Henley (eds) Language and Sex. Difference and Dominance. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House, 64-75.
Środa, M. (2009) Kobiety i Władza. Warszawa: W.A.B.