Mon. May 29th, 2023

Everyone is talking about the misogynistic culture of politics. And when I am asked, as a youngish woman in local politics, whether I have experienced any, I hesitate – “How long have you got?” I wonder.

Because, yes, in my relatively few years as a lowly councillor and parliamentary candidate, I have experienced 50 shades of bullying, gaslighting, undermining, sexist remarks, sexual harassment, sexual advances, demeaning comments, manipulation and outright discrimination. Overall, this has not overshadowed the positive and worthwhile work of political representation, but it has hovered in the distance like a grey cloud, occasionally raining on my parade and dampening my spirits.

There have been two standout episodes that might give a glimpse into this murky world and are probably symptomatic of the wider issues.

The first involved repeated unwanted physical sexual advances from a senior colleague who did not understand the concept of consent. It made me feel uncomfortable, and I worried that he might do the same to other younger and less confident women, so I reported it locally. The response? I was told to not make a fuss. I was specifically told it would not help my political career if I made a big deal out of it. I was depressed by how many (sometimes well-meaning) people advised me to let it go. But I didn’t.

With the support of a courageous female colleague who had also been sexually harassed by the same man, we found others. We collected statements from other women and made a formal complaint as a group. You cannot imagine the unholy hell this unleashed. I was subjected to a miserable year of abuse, insults, exclusion and isolation, smears against me. I was called a liar, a tease, a snowflake, an alcoholic, a paedophile, a twisted political rival weaponising my sexuality … all the names under the sun.

Without a doubt it cost me political support, opportunities, friendships, time, my health, lots of sleep and political capital within my networks.

But ultimately after nearly 12 months, a barrister and a formal disciplinary process, the man was sanctioned, and we were vindicated. I felt cleansed. I also see a deep line in the sand around me that other men in my political circles recognise as a boundary not to be crossed.

The second episode was institutional. As a new councillor I was prevented from speaking at a formal meeting by an experienced and senior chair from the dominant party. He didn’t just cut off my microphone; he interrupted me; he dismissed me; he belittled me; he shouted at me for more than an hour; he threatened to throw me out – anything to stop me from telling the truth to the public.

Again, I made a formal complaint. Again, my colleagues advised me against it. “There’s no point,” they said. “That’s just the culture here.” “It won’t change.” “They will defend their own.” “They won’t even investigate your complaint.” And, of course, “It will not help your career.” “You will lose political capital and support.” “Just accept that is the nature of the beast and find a way to work around him.”

But I did not accept it.

My complaint was not investigated. Instead I was offered training. After all, I was the new girl who had no experience. There was no discipline; no apology. But in an off-the-record conversation I was told I would never have any difficulty in being allowed to speak at a similar meeting again after “what happened last time”.

So the complaint did have an impact on behaviour. And each individual behaviour adds together to build up a culture.

It seems to me that the long, tedious and unpopular task of raising official complaints about misogyny does help. It gradually erodes the unacceptable and builds up boundaries to be respected, a deterrent for those without conscience and clear legal precedents that serve as useful reminders of the sanctions for those who “don’t get it”.

Of course women shouldn’t have to report abuse; and shouldn’t have to suffer abuse for reporting it. But this is the path, paved with uncomfortable objections, that could lead us out of the mire of misogyny. If the problem is a culture of accepted norms; then logically only challenging these norms, case by case, is ever going to gradually shift that culture.

Because when a woman speaks up for herself, she does so for all women. The real question is: is anyone listening?

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