Of course some in the blogosphere are out-and-out misogynists and pride themselves on being so, even if they do feign outrage when accused of such sins. Others are well-intentioned accidental offenders. And some are so scared of being called sexist, they over-compensate in the opposite direction, which in itself could perhaps be deemed a tad sexist, implicitly endorsing as it does the ‘feminazi’ stereotype of a woman who will metaphorically – perhaps even literally – castrate you if you so much as say ‘nice frock’.
Which brings me nicely onto this anecdote. During Gordon’s speech at conference I took part in Sky’s “Unplugged” coverage. As Sarah walked on to introduce Gordon I was asked by the interviewer what I thought – great dress I said. (I realise now he was expecting some insightful political commentary on the fact Sarah was once again introducing Gordon, not on what she was wearing. But it was a great dress). Interviewer raised his eyebrows. “You can say that, I’d be in trouble if I did”. In other words, he’d have been called sexist. I also tweeted it at the same time – I was very impressed by the dress - and got this response (from a man): “Imagine reaction if a man, or Daily Mail, has said that. Really!”
Now I appreciate that if a man had walked on stage my initial response would not have been nice suit – but that’s because suits are, by and large, boring. If Mandela had walked on stage I might well have said nice shirt. It usually is with Nelson. And not an episode of QT goes by without many a tweet on Dimbelby’s latest tie. We get quite excited when it's the spider one.
For the record, I don’t think it’s sexist to say nice things about what someone’s wearing. If I wear a new outfit or new boots, I’m far more offended if no-one comments. I wore some rather high wedge sandals in parliament before recess. At exactly the same time one of my colleagues exclaimed ‘they’re ridiculous’ and another gushed ‘they’re fabulous’. One was Chris Bryant, the other was a woman. I think you can guess which one was which.
It does depend on context though and – tricky point this – the way in which things are said. Middle-aged men taking too much of an interest in one’s knee-length boots can sometimes veer towards the pervy end of the appreciation scale. And yes, this falls into the category of things men can never get right... and then get blamed by women for getting wrong. It's to do with intonation and the look on your face, and where you are when the comment is made...and, to be frank, whether you've got a bit of a reputation for that sort of thing.
A Tory, I think, once told me he’d been on an overseas trip with a female Labour MP who had rounded on him for trying to hold the door open for her, and terrified him so much he actually asked me if I minded him doing it for me. No, of course I don’t. (I do however object to David Cameron walking through doors in front of me and letting them slam in my face because he’s too arrogant to notice that anyone else is in his vicinity, which has happened at least twice, if not three times. And no, it’s not because he knows who I am. I wouldn’t object so much if it was. So much for public school manners.)
But I digress.... So if it’s not sexist to say ‘nice dress’, is it sexist to say ‘horrible dress’? Yes. Women are not in politics to be judged on how they look, but what they say. You are allowed to say they look nice, but not go on and on about it. (Caroline Flint being a case in point. We’ve had that discussion, she’s an attractive woman, get over it. Although it has to be said, it’s not confined to women politicians. Many an hour of female Labour activists’ time has been devoted to the perennial ‘which Miliband brother’ question, which is usually only brought to a close when someone mentions Andy Burnham’s eyelashes).
Saying nice things in a non-perverted way is OK. Even discussing the relative attractiveness of Yvette –v- Harriet is probably OK, so long as you don’t go on and on about it, and don’t do it in a ‘not if you paid me’ kind of way. Pointing out female unattractiveness, or weight gain, or ageing, or hideous frock is not OK, unless they’re Tories. (I jest). It’s OK to bitch amongst friends about someone’s dress sense, or bad hair, but not in public because that’s mean and plays into their hands. ‘They’ being the real misogynists out there who will just use it as an excuse to say vile things themselves. And actually it’s not really even OK to do it amongst friends, but we all do, don’t we? How else would we get through those interminable Vince Cable sermons in the Commons without discussing the benches opposite? Although ties are the most frequent topic of conversation amongst the male MPs, at least when I'm listening.
I realise I’m not making much progress in pinning this down... I’m not sure where the border lies between being rude or unkind, and being sexist. After all, many a jest has been made on Twitter about Eric Pickles and pies, so what’s the difference between that and commenting on Ann Widdecombe’s pre-Celebrity Fit Club bulk? “Because you shouldn’t judge women in politics by their appearance” comes the answer. But you’re allowed to do it to men? Maybe... because when it comes down to it, Eric Pickles isn’t judged primarily by his less than godlike physique, but by his politics (which are even less attractive).
At the end of the day, this is something you either ‘get’ or don’t get.... It’s about intention, and underlying agendas, and what we know, or think we know, of your views on women. It’s about whether you’re trying to put women down by raising issues specific to them as women, as opposed to just having a go on political grounds. It’s about whether there’s an element of condescension that you wouldn’t employ when talking to a man, or a total failure to listen to anything a woman says or does without putting it into a sexual context. And it definitely includes those menacing ‘we’re watching you’ comments from the lunatic libertarians.
So in terms of an idiots' guide to sexism, not very helpful. But the idiots probably don't care.