Patriarchy and misogyny faced by women in power and politics

A lot of things scare me. Insects. Clowns. But what scares some are women in power. Not power as in occupying CEO or presidential positions, but rather power in their speeches. That what their saying has truth and reason and should be addressed.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg pleaded with the world officials at the United Nations Climate Action Summit to address the ongoing critical climate change crisis. Here is an excerpt of her speech: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 per cent chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.”

Her speech comes from knowledge and extensive research of learning about climate change and providing solutions to attempt to solve this global epidemic. But what is disturbing is the response from middle-age men. Rather than address the climate change crisis and discuss the flaws within her argument, these men chose to divert the focus from her message by taunting and mocking her with personal stereotypical labels. For instance:

  • In Australia, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has called Thunberg “freakishly influential … with many mental disorders”. 
  • Sky News commentator Chris Kenny described her as a “hysterical teenager” who needs to be cared for.
  • Michael Knowles a rightwing commentator who appeared on Fox News compared Thunberg and the other young climate activists to characters in Stephen King’s horror story, Children of the Corn and called her a ‘mentally ill Swedish child’.
  • Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked and the host of the spiked podcast, said she ‘looks and sounds like a cult member’. 

Greta has Aspergers, an autism spectrum disorder, which she describes is her ‘superpower’ because she is ‘different’. She tweeted ‘When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!’. 

Greta attacked the ethos of politics and climate denialism. But the men interpreted it as Thunberg attacking the way in which they tackle crises and the core beliefs, making their masculine self-worth vulnerable. Thunberg cut through all the emotive language rather than displaying it. Many politicians couldn’t handle these questions and assumptions that they launched this brown personal counter-attacks or received help from their political allies. But these politicians and news reporters have reinforced the societal label that has stigmatised those with a mental illness. Keep in mind that most of them are over the age of 30 whereas Thunberg is 16. 

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These broadcasters have diagnosed her autism as a mental illness and as anxiety. By doing so, they are pathologising her concern about the environment and dismissing her fears as faceless and baseless. Is it really an insult if a 16-year-old girl is telling you to focus your attention on climate change that you have to insult her back? This is not a middle-school classroom or playground where you mock, insult and bully one another. This is politics – it is so silly that the world is focusing more on Thunberg’s use of language and emotions in her speech than the actual facts she mentioned. Why is it that there are thousands of articles about how she is ‘crazy’ but none about her being passionate and vocal and how her speech is filled with facts?

This is no surprise though. History is filled with women in power being downgraded and disrespected by men. Attorney-General George Brandis accused Senator Penny Wong of ‘becoming hysterical’ before telling her to ‘just calm yourself’ after she interjected during his Senate address. Or how Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read from a letter to oppose Jeff Simmons on becoming a federal judge, Senate Mitch McConnell called for a vote saying ‘The senator will take her seat, preventing Warren from continuing. This lead to a massive wave of the rallying cry of the three-word sentence, “Nevertheless, she persisted”. It has been called a hashtag ready motto for women at the ready to break barriers. Or how Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’ in a brief, vicious aside at the end of the presidential debate. Or how Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr shut down a line of questioning from Senator Kamala Harris for not being “courteous” enough. 

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There’s more:

  • In 2011, David Cameron told Treasury secretary Angela Eagle told her to “Calm down dear”.
  • Lindiwe Mazibuko was criticised during a budget debate by two ANC MPs, with one, John Jeffrey, saying “while the Honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable”.
  • Cecile Duflot, French housing minister, endured wolf-whistles as she delivered a speech in the national assembly. Politician Nicolas Sarkozy said she had chosen the dress she was wearing, a fairly conservative floral dress, so “we wouldn’t listen to what she was saying”.
  • When Louise Mensch resigned her Corby seat, her husband suggested she had also been worried about losing her seat. Labour MP Austin Mitchell tweeted “Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics.”
  • Linguist Nic Subtirelu estimates that media outlets are more than twice as likely to describe women (as opposed to men) as “screeching” or “shrill,” and more than three times as likely to say a woman was “shrieking.”

As of October 2019, only 9% of Member States had a female Head of State or Government and only 24% of parliamentarians were women, according to the UN. Moreover, in 31 States, women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, with four chambers lacking any women members at all. And among the 2018 “Fortune 500” rankings of leading US businesses, only 24 have women CEOs and 12 companies have no women at all on their board. “Without women in politics, sustainable development, human rights and peace, will be seriously jeopardized,” stated UN chief Antonio Guterres. We need more women in politics”.

Aside from politics, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel gives up her voice to win over a man, heralds a trend: In the next five Disney princess films, male characters have three times as many lines as females do.

All these examples reveal how women are too commonly shushed or ignored when men feel their self-worth and knowledge is a compromise. This, in turn, conjures the age-old idea that women were hysterical creatures incapable of rational thought. Women are smart. Powerful. Capable of being presidents. Yet, they are still treated as inferior to their male counterparts. Powerful women like Greta Thunberg and Hillary Clinton provide a necessary examples for all women who must resist being vacuumed into a male template.

If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine?

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