Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Calm down, dear

This post first appeared on The Fresh Outlook:

Last week, in the juvenile bear pit that is the House of Commons, David Cameron responded to Labour MP Angela Eagle's questions about the NHS by asking her to “calm down dear” in the style of Michael Winner's memorable turn as an insurance flogger for the eSure ads.

The ensuing row raised questions about just how 'in touch' our PM is, telling a 'joke' that wasn't even funny when it aired early in the noughties. It also has caused rather a sexism row, as people debate the appropriateness of calling a woman MP “dear” and telling her to “calm down” whilst doing her job. Whilst some commentators have criticised the row as being a storm in a teacup, I think we need to consider how language matters, and how language can still be used to put women in their place, make women feel unwelcome and emphasise negative stereotypes that disrespect women's place in the public sphere.

First of all, we need to look at the context in which these words were uttered. Parliament has a dismal representation of women in its houses. Only 21% (139) of MPs are women, making us lag slowly behind many countries across the world when it comes to equal representation in parliament. Analysts have predicted that in the next election, we may lose women MPs from the Lib Dems altogether, as (typically) all the safe seats are held by men, whereas the more risky seats are held by women. To encourage equality in parliament, to encourage women to believe they can be taken seriously in parliament, it is vital that sexist language, stereotyping and behaviour are wiped out. For many young women, the House of Commons has not lost its 'old boy's club' look and feel; in fact the last election arguably made this worse, with a cabinet full of 'old boys' of Eton and Oxbridge and Bullingdon. We also need to take a look at how the current government has behaved towards women, with the budget cuts hitting women's purses hardest, cuts hitting services that primarily effect women, discussions about cuts to maternity leave, cuts to services that protect vulnerable women, proposals to scrap the equalities act – this government is working its hardest to push women back out of the public and into the private, domestic sphere. So when David Cameron tells a woman colleague to “calm down dear”, there is a lot more going on than a throwaway 'joke'.

Historically, women had been pushed out of the public sphere because they were believed to be irrational, emotional and 'hysterical'. Our pesky wombs roamed around our bodies, making us upset and emotional (which, by the way, isn't the opposite of 'rational') and incapable of responsibility or decision-making. Of course, science has moved on and we now know that hysteria wasn't caused by a wandering womb so much as it was caused by repression and oppression, but a lingering stereotype of the unreasonable, irrational woman remains, and usually manifests itself when a woman questions, argues with and disagrees with a man. So telling a woman to 'calm down' is an effective way of shutting down the argument, making out that her questions and points are not made 'calmly' and 'rationally' and therefore must be being made 'irrationally' and 'hysterically'. And an irrational point does not require listening to, or responding to.

As a feminist writer, I have had experience of this myself. When writing about international violence against women, I was accused of writing a “hysterical rant” (I hadn't, I had listed statistics from a range of sources to show the extent of violence against women across the world). When the editor of the site warned that the use of 'hysterical rant' was sexist, the writer of the comment became immediately defensive and denied he was being sexist. It seems that he, and David Cameron, may not have realised the intent behind the words, but within the historical context of how hysteria was used to silence women, telling a woman to "calm down" when she was merely doing her job of questioning the PM (it isn't like the men MPs in PMQs are particularly 'calm' or solemn is it?), or writing an article about violence against women is a way to undermine her and to shut her up.

Moving on to 'dear' then. I have been surprised to read many responses to this debate arguing that 'dear' isn't a gendered word, and therefore Cameron couldn't have meant it in a sexist way. I can only assume these responses have been written by men. Again, it depends heavily on context. In a relationship – be that familial, friendly or as a couple, use of words such as 'dear'; 'darling' and 'love' are not necessarily gendered. I could call my boyfriend 'darling' and vice versa. Move into a workplace setting and I would be surprised if many male bosses called their male colleagues 'dear' or 'darling' or 'love'. But a woman? Maybe. Because again, these words have historically been used in workplace settings to undermine, silence and disrespect women. They say that women don't have names. The word 'dear' can treat a woman like a child, or an object, or as an 'old dear'. We still live in a world where sexism exists. Words like 'dear' are used to put women in their place, to say they should not be speaking out, to say their points are not worthy of being listened to.

In a post-feminist, post-sexist, post-patriarchal world, telling a woman to “calm down dear” in parliament wouldn't matter. Actually, scrap that, in that world, it simply wouldn't happen. But in a world where women are under-represented in parliament, where sexist mutterings about the suitability of women as MPs still exist, where women are being hit by decisions made without their consultation because there are so few women in cabinet, where women are being regularly silenced and pushed out of the public sphere – well, with all this going on, I am not going to calm down, dear. I'm going to stay angry.

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