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1 April 2017

The unvarnished truth about women in power

A Daily Mail front page that declared ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!’ next to a photograph of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Prime Minister Theresa May almost broke the internet this week. But was it offensive, sexist rubbish, or just a light-hearted joke? Two Belfast Telegraph writers go head-to-head

Skirting isse: the image of Prime Minister Theresa May (right) and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that caused a furore after the Daily Mail featured it on its front page. Photo: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire
Skirting isse: the image of Prime Minister Theresa May (right) and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that caused a furore after the Daily Mail featured it on its front page. Photo: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire

Ruth Dudley Edwards: Legs-it story became a fuss about nothing

It’s a tough world in the public eye and, yes, when it comes to appearance, it’s usually tougher for women. That’s life and I don’t think we should get too het up about it, but I admit I envy men when I’m dithering about what to wear for a television appearance, or a speaking engagement.

All a man has to do is wear a suit and carry a tie in his pocket in case the event turns out to be more formal than he’d expected.

But, like any other woman, I have choices.

Fashion doesn’t interest me, so my role model is much closer to being Angela Merkel than Theresa May, or Nicola Sturgeon.

Had I the misfortune to be Prime Minister, the tabloids would long ago have given up commenting on my unruly hair, or my penchant for black trousers and bright jackets.

But Mrs May and Mrs Sturgeon are from the Margaret Thatcher school of presentation and, like her, take a great interest in clothes and use them for reasons of power-play.

That makes them fair game.

It baffles me how commenting on how two women who take enormous care with their wardrobe and have each been photographed by Vogue should be off-limits for comments on the amount of leg they both like to flash.

Clothes matter. Remember when Sinn Fein ceased dressing like geography teachers and acquired what the journalist Fionnan Sheahan described as “an arsenal of sharp suits”?

In 2005, a few days after the IRA stated that its “armed struggle was over” and the year after the IRA robbed £26.4m from the Northern Bank, Mr Sheahan wrote: “Following on from the republican movement’s high-profile withdrawal from a well-known financial institution in Belfast late last year, the Sinn Fein front ranks are now dressing up like bank managers.”

“Forget about Tiocfaidh Ar La,” he concluded, “nowadays it’s about Tiocfaidh Armani.”

Knowing that Sinn Fein elected representatives were allowed to keep only the average industrial wage, people marvelled that the women were able to afford their smart jackets and statement jewellery.

(Google explains: “Statement pieces of jewellery allow women to step out of the mundane and define themselves as unique, confident, passionate, and interesting people.”)

Mrs Thatcher (left)dressed to impress whether she was off to dominate the House of Commons, charm the US president, drive a tank, or wow the Soviet Union.

A couple of years ago, it emerged that, some time previously, her children had informally offered a gift of some of her clothes to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design. It had been “politely declined”, explained a spokesperson contemptuously, as “the museum is responsible for chronicling fashionable dress and its collecting policy tends to focus on acquiring examples of outstanding aesthetic or technical quality.”

“Was her taste really any worse than Kylie Minogue’s, whose gold hot pants the museum put on display in 2007?” wondered an American journalist.

The V&A later performed a U-turn, explaining that “Baroness Thatcher was an internationally recognised political figure, who used her wardrobe as a strategic tool to project power and inspire confidence.”

But, of course, what was going on here was fashionable people’s snobbery and loathing of Thatcher and the Right.

Jonathan Miller, the director and writer, spoke of her “odious suburban gentility”; Baroness Warner, an Oxford philosopher, considered that “her neat, well-groomed clothes and hair” embodied “the worst of the lower middle-class.”

A Guardian journalist fretted that “she has become the patron saint of ‘power dressing’, an example of how to dress with strategic and political intent. But, by celebrating her style, we are in some sense condoning her politics”.

The furore over the Daily Mail’s front-page picture of the attractive legs so generously displayed by both Mrs May and Mrs Sturgeon and the article by Sarah Vine light-heartedly analysing their posture was ludicrous.

Like many other papers, they mock prominent men over their paunches, thinning hair, and, in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, shabbiness.

A comedian on the BBC once described Ms Vine’s husband, Michael Gove, as having a face like “a foetus in a jar”.

It was, as one might have expected, the virtue-signalling Left who led the denunciations: Alastair Campbell (of dodgy-dossier fame) said the Mail was “utter scum” and should be “ripped up”.

Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist, explains that this “stench” from “an open sewer” was evidence that, post-Brexit, the sexist bigots were on the rampage.

Sarah Vine hit back. “If it’s real sexism you want — proper, vicious prejudice of the most misogynistic kind — allow me ... to offer you (this),” she wrote, and then quoted from an article published in the Observer, the Guardian’s sister paper: “As a student, David Cameron is rumoured to have put his penis into a dead pig. To outdo him as an adult, in an act even more bizarre and obscene, Michael Gove put his penis into a Daily Mail journalist.”

Mrs May didn’t complain about the coverage. Mrs Sturgeon did.

To which I repeat President Harry Truman’s wise words many years ago: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

‘Let’s not pretend that this was anything more than silly, crude schoolboy sexism writ large’

It's often said that feminists lack a sense of humour. And it's true that I've met a fair few joyless individuals over the years, who seem to be itching for opportunities to take offence. I think we should save our energy for the social injustices that really matter, not have a fit of the vapours because some bloke wolf-whistles in the street.

But when I saw the Daily Mail's front page asking, "Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it?", with a picture of Theresa May (right) and Nicola Sturgeon at their Brexit meeting, I did groan aloud.

Two powerful political leaders, meeting to discuss an issue of enormous significance to the future of the UK and its devolved regions, not to mention to the rest of Europe. And all the Daily Mail can think about is who has the better legs?

Things got even worse inside the paper. Under the headline, "Finest weapons at their command? Those pins!", columnist Sarah Vine said that "what stands out here are the legs and the vast expanse on show ... There is no doubt that both these women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal."

Getting more and more carried away, Vine described Sturgeon's legs as "altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed ... a direct attempt at seduction." Really? This was all supposed to be a great laugh, of course, and Vine said that the wave of complaints about the Mail's front page and her own article were symptomatic of a "sense of humour failure."

Appearing on the BBC's World at One to defend the decision, Vine pointed out that she didn't just talk about the two leaders' legs, she spoke about elements of their body language, too.

In response, the presenter, Martha Kearney, coolly inquired: "But is that as important as the break-up of the UK?"

Well, exactly. This isn't about being precious and po-faced and refusing to enjoy a harmless bit of banter. Women get judged on their looks in a way that men simply don't. It's wearying, and irritating, and distracting, and yes it is blatantly sexist. Just look at Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill - their appearances are continually scrutinised and regularly commented upon.

If the Mail's front page is a joke, it's a joke with a jag, as we say in these parts. It's not light-hearted fun, it's actually an insidious way of undermining female authority and power, by reducing Sturgeon and May to nothing more than their body parts.

These women may have the future of the UK in their hands, but forget that: look what sexy legs they have! In an all-too-predictable reaction to the criticism, the Mail ran the same picture the next day with the women's legs covered by a banner reading "censored by the Left."

A spokesperson for the paper said: "For goodness sake, get a life! Sarah Vine's piece, which was flagged as light-hearted, was a sidebar alongside a serious political story. Is there a rule that says political coverage must be dull, or has a po-faced BBC and Left-wing commentariat, so obsessed by the Daily Mail, lost all sense of humour ... and proportion?"

It's true that Labour found brief unity in its opposition to the story and Jeremy Corbyn actually woke up from his delusional trance of leadership to denounce the front page. Owen Jones, the preeningly right-on and perpetually excitable Guardian columnist, seemed to think that female politicians being "leered at for having legs" was part of the same reaction against political correctness as "hate crimes surging on our streets."

It was a cheap and nasty stunt, for sure, but let's not lose the run of ourselves here.

And, anyway, it wasn't only the Left that condemned the Mail.

People of all political persuasions and none found the Mail's actions pretty unpleasant. Even the arch-Tory Nicholas Soames rejoiced in Sarah Vine's trouncing on the World at One, marking it as a "dismal defence of a dismal article."

Here's the thing - I'm all for challenging the wilder excesses of political correctness.

PC has become a crude weapon, which illiberal liberals use to slap other people down, telling than they can't say this, they can't do that.

Feminists do themselves no favours when they go all hyper-puritan and sign up to the relentless micro-policing of language and behaviour, then call loudly for daddy - sorry, I mean the authorities - to mete out punishment when somebody infringes their rules.

But what the Daily Mail was doing, in running its Legs-it front page and accompanying nonsense from Sarah Vine, was not striking a blow for the freedom to say and do whatever we like.

No, it was merely recycling some sad old stereotypes, under the pretence of "transgressive" humour - which was actually rather tired, tame and unfunny.

It's totally free to do that, of course, and people are perfectly at their liberty to buy the paper, if they think the shapeliness, or otherwise, of female leaders' legs matters more than political analysis.

Let's not pretend, however, that this was anything more than silly, crude schoolboy - or make that schoolgirl, Ms Vine - sexism writ large.

And there's really nothing to laugh about in that.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards