THE DAILY MAIL 'LEGS-IT' FRONT COVER AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR OUR CHILDREN
Lisa Williams on why it matters and what we should do
A recent report found that women were put off leadership roles because of the perception of what leadership would entail. Too frightening, too tiring, too much of a sacrifice. An image search of leaders on newspaper and magazine covers returned a series of stern women in boxy, masculine suits, as if they have had to become a man in order to make headway in a man’s world.
‘We need to humanise leaders and allow women to see the dark and the light (this isn’t about making it look easy and ignoring the challenges),’ said Anniki Sommerville, author of the report, which was carried out by research agency Flamingo.
‘And we need to make sure that leadership roles feel in tune with the values that are important to women right now. And this isn’t just women. It’s everyone.’
The report came to mind when I saw the Daily Mail’s ‘Legs-It’ front page last night.
There was a photo of Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the UK, and Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, gathered to discuss Brexit, and how the UK’s departure from the European Union might affect Scotland.
'I like seeing these women in the public eye.'
Putting their politics aside, these are both hard-working, professional women capable both of international politics and rich personal lives. Both also happen to be known for natty tailoring (Sturgeon) and good shoes (May).
I like seeing these women in the public eye. I may not agree with them, I may find them opportunistic or antagonistic, and they may make mistakes, but that all comes with the line of work they’ve chosen. True equality is, after all, when we have just as many opportunistic or antagonistic women in the job as opportunistic or antagonistic men.
But having them there shows our girls and young women that politics is an option for them. And that they should fight for causes close to their heart, that they should educate themselves on the issues, and that they can wear leopard-print heels while they do so.
But that’s as far as the representation should go. We don’t need endless column inches about the choice of leopard-print heels or why a politician isn’t wearing leopard-print heels, or what those leopard-print heels mean. Let’s get on with the business of what they have to say.
‘Have you actually read the story,’ someone asked me, after my string of angry tweets about the Daily Mail’s front page.
I had. And the story inside was even worse than I imagined.
It was a comment piece by Sarah Vine, dissecting the body language, clothes and make-up of the two leaders, as if these revealed great clues to the state of nations. Sturgeon’s navy and white jacket is ‘unmistakably reminiscent of the Scottish flag’, while May’s fingers, ‘elegant with their classic red nails, were relaxed and open,’.
So far, so Glenda Slagg.
What followed in the piece was only a few stops short of what happened in the 50s, when Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren were asked to compare bust sizes during a press conference in London:
‘But what stands out here are the legs,’ Vine continues. ‘– and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed.
‘May’s famously long extremities are demurely arranged in her customary finishing-school stance – knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal, feet neatly aligned. It’s a studied pose that reminds us that for all her confidence, she is ever the vicar’s daughter, always respectful and anxious not to put a foot wrong.
‘Sturgeon’s shorter but undeniably more shapely shanks are altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed, with the dominant leg pointing towards her audience.’
It’s the strangely sexualised language which stands out here. The ‘unsheathed’ and the ‘dominant’ contrasting with the ‘demurely’ and the ‘vicar’. Sturgeon is the sexy siren luring Scotland away from Good Ship Britain.
Sturgeon and May are too seasoned to be upset by this piece and its silly headline. They haven’t gone into politics expecting a fleet of cheerleaders. It won’t derail their discussions nor sour their relations.
But it will send out a strange message to our children: that women in politics will be judged on not only their choice of nail varnish and how they sit, but on the shape and length of their legs.
Contrary to the premise of Vine’s article, no doubt Sturgeon and May know that if they want to communicate a message, they can do this the normal way: by talking, writing and debating, and not by how they place their legs nor whether or not they wear sheer tights.
And this is what we need to tell our children.