The sexist language of politics: Both men and women need to change

“We can't call men out, and then use sex or sexist language back at them,” writes former MLA Donna Kennedy Glans. “I don't encourage women to grow a thicker skin. To lighten up. But I do encourage them to observe their reactions to both sexist criticism and fawning adoration. To be wary of both. To anticipate both.”

How can female politicians hold power without weaponizing sex or collapsing into victimhood?

These three politicians have recently been involved in incidents inflammed by sexist language. From left: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, UCP Leader Jason Kenney and federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna. (CBC/CBC/Canadian Press)

This isn't politically correct, but it's nearly impossible to criticize a female politician's style today.

Mixing gender, personality critique and politics in the world of social media is a crap shoot. And the odds are far worse when it's a male rolling the dice of public approbation.

So. Do we need to sanitize the rough-and-tumble of power politics to remove anything that someone could take offence to? Or do we need to teach females to toughen up a bit, and learn to play the game better? Dangerous questions.

The politics of language is now as fraught as the politics of, well, politics. As acceptable language changes, so must we.

Today, there is no tolerance for 'gendered' criticism of women, and thus, there must be no tolerance of gendered criticism of men. Words like "mansplaining" and "hepeats" have got to go. And claiming that male politicians without children don't have legitimate opinions on family issues is as sexist as saying a woman finds math hard.

Marxist feminist vs. being a dick

Put yourself in the shoes of females in politics. I've been there. The critique comes from all sides, including from other women.

On one hand I've been accused of promoting "Marxist feminism." Thanks for that. On the other, I've been called a "victim of misogyny." And more recently, I've been called "naïve" for being willing to remain engaged with divergent points of view on issues.

How did I respond?

I laughed, shrugging off the charge of naivety. I took back my ground from those who labelled me a victim, and told my own story. And I fumed, knowing a defamation suit only feeds agendas.

Was my experience worse than that of my male counterparts? Perhaps not worse.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper was never warm and fuzzy, but was it fair to call him cold, aloof, ruthless? (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

Male politicians get called lots of nasty names. Remember how we described Stephen Harper? Cold, aloof, ruthless. Except for that famous blue sweater, he wasn't warm and fuzzy. Remember how Rick Mercer called Jason Kenney "the epitome of old-school masculinity." And how on social media Kenney's been called a bully, and a dick. This, too, is wrong.

But, as a female politician, it is different.

The names I got called were laced with sexism — their connotations intended to eat away at my power as a female in leadership.     

Sexist criticism vs. fawning adoration

Politics is an unusual space. In politics, day and night, someone is working to replace you. It's ugly.

I don't encourage women to grow a thicker skin, to lighten up. But I do encourage them to observe their reactions to both sexist criticism and fawning adoration.To be wary of both. To anticipate both.

And to respond strategically.

Watching Environment Minister Catherine McKenna call out Rebel Media for shameful sexism in their "Climate Barbie" name-calling was particularly satisfying. Who doesn't enjoy a little schadenfreude.

The question then is how can female politicians gain and hold their power, without either weaponizing their sex or collapsing into victimhood? You can scold, shame or ridicule your critics as sexist. But there can't be a double standard here. We can't call men out, and then use sex or sexist language back at them.

Rick Mercer took aim at United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney over his stance on gay-straight alliances as Bill 24 passed into legislation in Alberta. (CBC/Canadian Press)

God-help the man who talks about a female politician as barren. But somehow it's OK for a woman to say that Jason Kenney can't speak about family issues because he has no children?

Where was our outrage over that?

Ladies, we have to stop here. If we truly want to rid politics of sexism, we all have to up the game. We can't keep calling male politicians bullies, difficult, bastards.

Using sexism as a weapon

Sex continues to be used to sell cars, gym memberships, and pretty much everything else. It can also be used as a weapon in politics. It may not be politically correct to say it, but it's true.

Women know how weaponize sex. It's biological. And, now, it seems women are learning how to use sexism as a weapon too. Female politicians now get to use sexism, for best effect, with a humorous edge.

Alberta's female premier, Rachel Notley, recently turned the tables on not one, but two male MLAs in Question Period.

Last month, in response to a question on pipelines by Opposition MLA Greg Clark, Notley responded:

"Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, to the member opposite for the mansplaining opportunity. Let me just say that I am quite familiar with the file."

We all think it's funny, and laugh. We shouldn't.

Premier Rachel Notley said another MLA was "mansplaining" with a question he asked during question period in November. (CBC)

The next day, in response to another question on pipelines by another male Opposition MLA, Notley dismissed the substance of the question, then spoke to tone:

"Can I just introduce a new word into the legislature, the definition of which is as follows: Hepeat. When a person who might be a man repeats what you say and takes credit for it."

Clever lines. But not cool. One male MLA called a point of order, asking for an apology, saying, "It is a term that is essentially accusing me, Mr. Speaker, of sexism."

The Speaker of the Alberta Legislature ruled, however, that mansplaining wasn't all that unparliamentary. In the eyes of some, Notley is the one being sexist. But who has the guts to call her out?

We all should.

What men can't say

At this #MeToo moment in history, a male's use of power, and powerful words, is suspect.

As a result, it's increasingly difficult for anyone, male or female, to critique a female politician.

We know what's absolutely off limits: clothing and hair, ovaries and babies, voice decibel levels. And, uniquely in Alberta, it is folly to even hint at a female politician's math competencies.

We can't name-call, either: Iron Lady was a badge of honour for Margaret Thatcher. But Ice Maiden is not OK for Theresa May.

Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was tagged as "Climate Barbie" by some of her critics last month. She responded by calling out Rebel Media for its sexism. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

We can't refer to potentially negative emotional characteristics. Of course, bitchy is off the list, but it's also dangerous to describe a female politician as moody, intransigent, angry, miserable, whiny, stone cold, hysterical. And her leadership style cannot be described as bossy, headstrong, autocratic, schoolmarm, control freak.

We can try to ask common-sense, fact-based policy questions of a female politician. But leave off the epithets. It's a dangerous blade for males to dance on. Your tone will be heavily scrutinized. A mere whiff of sexism can inflame the masses. 

What men can say

There are times when you do need to say something about a female politician: Her tone, her mannerisms, some unpleasant or worrisome characteristic that bears noting.

So ... here goes.

I'd say that "single-minded" and unwilling to listen are fair game. Rigid, sharp, overly forceful and unyielding are all also good. These labels seem like fair play. Let's throw in ideologically-constrained.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is seen here in a picture taken in September. How would you describe her recent actions? What's fair and what's sexist? (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi now listening to the Burmese militia rather than heeding the advice of international human rights champions? I'd veer away from labels like weak, victim, figurehead, manipulated, token, puppet, turncoat, fickle and erratic. But you should be allowed to point out the obvious inconsistencies in judgment using descriptors like unduly influenced, misguided, inconsistent, ill-advised, unwise, collaborator, enabler and even wrong.

Say it out loud

I know we've made mistakes. All of us.

And, I know it's not smart to critique your own community; it's giving power to the enemy. But, I'm doing it here. I'm asking us all to stand back and say, out loud, sexism is wrong. If men can't do it to us, we can't turn around and do it to them. Let's not perpetuate this.

Let's rise above. 

You can read more from Donna Kennedy-Glans on her blog, Beyond Polarity.

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Donna Kennedy-Glans is a former Progressive Conservative MLA. She spent 28 years in the energy sector, and currently writes the blog Beyond Polarity.