What that sexist smear campaign against Angela Rayner actually reveals

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

MPs from across the political spectrum have condemned misogynistic claims that deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner tried to distract Boris Johnson in the House of Commons by crossing and uncrossing her legs – but the attitudes that underpin these claims are not rare, writes Stylist’s Lauren Geall.

If you’ve checked the news at all today, chances are you’ve seen reports of the ridiculous claims made against Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, this weekend.

In yesterday’s edition of the Mail On Sunday, the newspaper’s political editor said that several Conservative MPs had claimed that Rayner tries to distract the prime minister when she goes head-to-head with him during PMQs by crossing and uncrossing her legs.

A spokesperson for Angela Rayner has, of course, dismissed the story as “categorically untrue”, and MPs from across the political spectrum have criticised the story for its misogynistic and sexist nature.

Among them was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wrote: “As much as I disagree with @AngelaRayner on almost every political issue I respect her as a parliamentarian and deplore the misogyny directed at her anonymously today.”

But as widespread as the condemnation of the claims reported by the Mail On Sunday has been, the attitudes that underpin the comments themselves are not rare. In fact, the misogynistic and sexist attitudes present in the smear against Rayner continue to dominate the experiences of women in politics every day.

Rayner herself expressed this sentiment when she took to social media to respond to the story yesterday. “Women in politics face sexism and misogyny every day – and I’m no different,” she wrote in an extended Twitter thread.

“I stand accused of a ‘ploy’ to ‘distract’ the helpless PM – by being a woman, having legs and wearing clothes,” she explained. “I am conspiring to ‘put him off his stride’. The rest I won’t repeat – but you get the picture. Boris Johnson’s cheerleaders have resorted to spreading desperate, perverted smears in their doomed attempts to save his skin.” 

Referencing the comments the Mail On Sunday article makes about her background – including the fact that she is “comprehensive school-educated” and “left school at 16 while pregnant” – Rayner went on to thank those speaking out.

“I won’t be letting their vile lies deter me,” she said. “Their attempts to harass and intimidate me will fail. I’ve been open about how I’ve had to struggle to get where I am today. I’m proud of my background, I’m proud of who I am and where I’m from – but it’s taken time.”

She concluded: “Thank you to so many of you for your messages of solidarity and support. For calling this out for what it is. You are making a stand in the name of decency – against those who would further coarsen, cheapen and debase our politics to benefit their own interests. We all deserve so much better.” 

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, echoed Rayner’s message about sexism in politics, describing the claims made against the Ashton-under-Lyne MP as “absolutely outrageous”. 

“I don’t think there is a single female member of parliament, or indeed a single staff member in parliament, who hasn’t got their own stories of sexism and misogyny,” she explained. 

“And I’m afraid that this story just shines a spotlight on the sort of rubbish that female MPs and other women in parliament have to put up with on a day-to-day basis.”

Responding to the claims during an appearance on ITV’s This Morning, Labour leader Keir Starmer added: “I actually think it’s a culture thing. Going after one or two individuals is not enough. We’ve got to change the culture in parliament. It’s sexist, misogynist and we need to change it.”

Starmer continued: “For politicians like Angela, they are absolutely entitled to make their political arguments in the same way as everybody else. Angela said to me that ‘it triggered something in me about the way women are seen in politics’. It’s a very emotional thing, a deep thing. She has a right to make her political arguments and not be seen or discussed in that way.

“I think the culture of the whole place has to change. We all have to play a part in that. We have to call it out for what it is… I need to look at it within my own party… we will be on it with zero tolerance.” 

While it’s positive to see the issue of sexism in politics receiving some much-needed attention, this isn’t the first time the problem has made headlines.  

Just last week, it was revealed that three cabinet ministers are among more than 50 MPs reportedly facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

And online, women in politics are often subjected to horrific abuse – analysis conducted in the run-up to the 2019 general election found that over 5,000 abusive tweets had been sent to the UK’s female MPs in just an 11-day period, with many aimed at the MPs appearances or containing threats of violence.

These incidents don’t just exist on their own, either – they have a wider, knock-on effect that has the potential to last generations. 

Last month, a report published by the cross-party Women and Equalities Committee warned that action was needed to “avoid losing a generation of women in politics” due to factors including online abuse and “deeply troubling” revelations about bullying and harassment within the Houses of Parliament.

It also referenced the fact that women tend to stay in the House of Commons for a shorter period of time than their male counterparts – a worrying trend when you consider that the House is only 34% women, with only 5.7% of those women from minority ethnic backgrounds.

If anything, the latest smear being levelled at Angela Rayner is a reminder of just how systemic and ongoing an issue sexism is in politics – and it shouldn’t take more abuse for those in charge to start doing something about it. 

Images: Getty

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