Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The kitten heel: progress for women in politics?

Media coverage of the 2002 Conservative Party conference was dominated not by details of particular speeches or political promises, but by a set of leopard-print kitten heels. The shoes in question belonged to Theresa May MP, whose speech at the conference delivered a tough political message – warning the Tories that they needed to bury their image as a narrow, ‘nasty’ party, and denouncing the lack of Conservative women and ethnic minority MPs as a ‘travesty’. But, the resulting commentary focused more on footwear than policy – notably, May’s heels made the front-page of the Daily Telegraph (‘A stiletto in the Tories’ Heart’, the headline read), and sold out at Russell & Bromley shortly thereafter.

The newspaper column inches devoted to May’s heels highlight the fact that male and female politicians are subject to different levels of sartorial scrutiny – with women political figures expected to ‘dress the part’, or face negative commentary. Coverage of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s first Commons statement in 2007, for example, focused largely on her cleavage rather than political issues, with the Daily Telegraph running an extended commentary on her ‘weapons of mass distraction’.  More recently, the July 2014 cabinet reshuffle prompted a full spread from the Daily Mail critiquing the fashion choices of David Cameron’s new female ministers (‘Thigh-flashing Esther and the battle of the Downing Street catwalk’). This unequal treatment can be explained in part by the chronic minority status of women in politics – when male politicians in suits are the norm, any politician who doesn’t look like the status quo is subject to enhanced, and potentially damaging, scrutiny.

We can see this in the example of the House of Commons, where women are currently only 22.6% of MPs, a percentage which puts the UK in 65th place in world league tables. Historically, Westminster has been a masculine institution, built on the foundations of women’s political exclusion and expressed through gendered norms and practices. Consider, for example, that Parliament has provision for members to hang up their swords, but didn’t have a workplace nursery until 2010. The entrance of woman MPs, therefore, disrupts the status quo and may also lead to backlash. Research on women and British politics provides ample evidence of the institutional resistance faced by women politicians in the House of Commons, ranging from negative media coverage to unprofessional behaviour in the chamber, including sexist taunts and gestures.

How can this political culture be challenged? If current trends continue, it will take over 100 years for Westminster to achieve 50:50 representation. More immediate solutions are at hand in the form of special measures such as gender quotas, aimed at increasing the selection and election of female candidates. International and comparative research overwhelmingly shows that well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most efficient way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. In the UK, the use of gender quotas by the Labour Party – in the form of all-women shortlists at Westminster and twinning in Scotland and Wales – has had a considerable impact on headline figures. But, the reluctance of the other major parties to use these measures - as well as the wider trends of stalling, falling or glacial progress in the numbers of women representatives in the House of Commons and at other political levels - raises the question as to whether women’s representation is too important to be left up to political parties. It is increasingly clear that bolder action is needed – including the potential introduction of mandatory legislative gender quotas – to ensure real change. Let’s have a parliament that looks more like the communities that it represents and that draws upon ‘all talents’ – and where a politician’s words and deeds speak louder than their shoes.

Meryl Kenny has written and published on the subject of gender balance in politics, including:

Dr Meryl Kenny

Research interests:

  • Gender politics
  • Party politics
  • Territorial politics
  • Institutional approaches to the study of politics
  • I am especially interested in the role of political parties in enabling or inhibiting women’s access to political office, focusing in particular on the gendered and institutional dynamics of candidate selection and recruitment.

Supervision interests:

  • Gender politics (international, national and local)
  • Party politics
  • Elections and political representation
  • British and comparative politics
  • I would particularly welcome prospective students with interests in feminist and institutionalist approaches to the study of party politics, political recruitment, and/or post-devolution politics in the UK.

Current research

My current research focuses on two main areas: gender and political recruitment, and feminist institutional theory. I also recently completed a two year UNSW-funded postdoctoral fellowship project (2011-2013) researching gender and candidate selection reform in Australia, the United Kingdom and Spain.

I am also involved in collaborative research through the Feminism and Institutionalism International Network (FIIN)

Back to top