Belfast Telegraph

Laughing at rain-soaked Theresa Villiers is one more sad example of sexism

By Fionola Meredith

'Woman gets soaked in the rain' - it's not the sort of thing you'd expect to make the headlines. It's about the same level of non-news as 'Slate falls off roof'.

But it turns out that female Cabinet ministers are considered very newsworthy - and entirely fair game - if they get caught in a heavy shower.

Pictures of Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers were published in many media outlets after she was photographed walking from Parliament to Downing Street without an umbrella.

The prevailing tone was snide and sneering - Ha, ha, forgot your brolly, Theresa?

Let's face it, nobody is at their best when they've been drenched in a downpour. But what struck me most about these pictures was the latent sexism involved. Where were the pictures of male Cabinet members arriving at Number 10 looking soggy? Not a one did I see, though I bet such photographs were taken.

So what, you may say. It's just a few funny snaps of a politician, isn't it?

But the absence of men shows that this is yet another tedious example of the tendency to judge women on their appearance and punish them - in this case by mockery about "sodden and sullen-looking Mrs Villiers squelching up Downing Street" - if they do not conform. The implicit message is: how dare a woman in the public eye not look perfect. How dare she appear anything less than impeccably groomed.

Whether Mrs Villiers' mascara is running or not, or whether her pearl necklace is a little rain-spattered, has precisely nothing to do with how well - or otherwise - she does her job.

Yet she, like many other women, will be held up as a figure of ridicule if her appearance is judged to have fallen short.

Scrutinising the dresses, shoes, bags and general demeanour of female Cabinet ministers, as though the route to Downing Street was a catwalk, has become something of a habit in certain sections of the media.

Even when the women get a thumbs-up from these self-appointed arbiters of taste and beauty it's really not a compliment.

Judging them in this way is actually a not-so-subtle way of undermining their authority and fitness for high office.

It makes a joke of their dignity and their ability. It reduces them to a shapely leg, or a fashion-forward handbag, or a nicely-turned ankle, or, in the unfortunate Mrs Villiers' case, a ruined hair-do. Nothing more than the sum of their physical parts and paraphernalia.

When we see photographs of George Osborne en route to Downing Street with rain dripping off the end of his nose, or Iain Duncan Smith grappling with an out-of-control umbrella, then we'll know that times have finally changed.

Belfast Telegraph


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