30 Jan 2019

In Spiked’s world, women are the real sexists

In the second of a series four articles, Sian Norris explores how Spiked writers make it impossible for feminists to raise issues of misogyny and double-standards by claiming that women play the “sexism card” to avoid accountability.

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Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
In Spiked’s world, women are the real sexists - NewsMavens
Women's March London, 2019, YouTube

Who are the real sexists in society? Is it the men using gendered insults to try and undermine women’s work? Is it the political observers who claim a woman just can’t be a good MP if she’s not “nice”? Or is it the feminists who raise these issues to try and challenge everyday sexism?

It should be an easy question -- it's the men, right? Wrong!

Spiked takes the view that feminists are the “real sexists” who present women as weak and irrational. They often negatively compare the activists of today to the Suffragettes, who they say campaigned for women to be seen as rational rather than emotional creatures. They falsely claim that, by calling out sexism, feminists are painting women as unable to cope with scrutiny and the “rough and tumble” of politics, debate and public life.

While this is untrue, it also makes it impossible for feminists to win. If we expose sexism, we are hysterical and treating women as permanent victims. But if we ignore sexism, then those trying to silence and abuse women are allowed to do so with impunity.

Let’s take this article about Elizabeth Warren and “the real sexism in politics” by Ella Whelan. Warren is a Democratic Senator in the USA, who has announced her intention to run for President in 2020. A prominent pro-choice and feminist voice, she has been repeatedly attacked for being “unlikeable”, and called a “divisive figure”.

Feminist and liberal writers and activists have claimed that such charges are based on sexism, rather than a dislike of Warren’s political credentials. In a piece for The Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes:

“The better explanation for why Warren attracts disproportionate conservative criticism, and has disproportionately high disapproval ratings, has nothing to do with her progressive economic views or her dalliance with DNA testing [Warren took a test to prove her First Nation heritage]. It’s that she’s a woman.”

Beinart goes on to substantiate his claim by pointing out that women who are considered ambitious are judged more negatively than their male counterparts. He also cites examples where women politicians face greater attacks from political opponents than male colleagues.

But these forensic points are ignored by Whelan. She misrepresents Beinart’s claim that women politicians are judged differently from their male equivalents and leaps to the false accusation that “it is now apparently sexist to criticise female politicians”. She demands that women in public life “have got to stop playing the sexism card”, and writes the idea that Warren is unlikeable “because she’s a woman” is a “ludicrous suggestion”.

Whelan attempts to claim that “the undertone of much of this discussion is that female politicians should not be held accountable to the same extent as men."

This ignores that feminists want to see Warren held to account -- but on her views about the economy, gun crime, reproductive rights, healthcare -- the very things we measure male politicians by. Talking about whether she is “likeable” or not is the exact opposite of holding a public figure to account.

Nowhere does Whelan prove her point that feminists “claim it is now sexist to criticize female politicians.” She suggests that feminists want “different treatment” for women from men, gleefully ignoring that women politicians already are treated differently from men, and that is the issue.

The belief that women play the “sexism card” to silence criticism also came up in an article by Candice Holdsworth, this time about the British journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

Cadwalladr is known for her work exposing the activities of Vote Leave and Leave.EU -- two organizations who were instrumental in winning the Leave vote during the 2016 Brexit referendum. After fellow journalist Andrew Neil called Cadwalladr a “mad cat woman” on Twitter, Cadwalladr accused him of sexism.

Candice Holdsworth presents this as proof of how “many feminists and gender activists cannot countenance even mild criticism of feminist causes”. This is incorrect, not least because the legality of the Brexit vote is not exactly a feminist cause.

She says there’s no evidence “that Neil made his comment for sexist reasons” -- despite the fact that “mad cat woman” is an epithet only ever applied to women -- used to portray single and child-free women as abnormal. It had nothing to do with the substance of Cadwalladr’s reporting on Brexit. No male journalist is called a “mad cat man” -- their social status is inconsequential to criticisms of their work.

Holdsworth goes on to claim that the comments need to be seen in the context of Twitter, “which tends to breed incivility, rather than as misogynistic.” This flies in the face of recent research done by Amnesty International which shows women disproportionately endure online abuse on Twitter, and that this abuse is overwhelmingly misogynistic. Indeed, Amnesty International has accused the platform of being “toxic” for women.


This is the second of four articles analyzing Spiked magazine’s representation of feminism.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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