Women: the new political accessory

Elena Bunbury

December 29, 2018

We are at a stage in British politics in which, if you are a woman and you happen to be attractive, you will never be more than that.

At a political event aimed at young people, an MP sitting on a panel went around the room and asked us all who we wanted to be the next leader of the Conservative party. The MP passed no comment on the suggestions of James Cleverly, Johnny Mercer, Sajid Javid, or any of the other male names you might expect. However, when a young man put forward the name of Penny Mordaunt, the MP’s immediate response was: “Is that because she’s attractive and you fancy her?”

Penny Mordaunt is a secretary of state, she has been a Royal Navy reservist, worked in hospitals and orphanages in post-revolutionary Romania, not to mention working as head of youth for the Tory party, before working as head of broadcasting for two years under leader William Hague. But none of this mattered because she had something stacked against her: she is attractive and charismatic.

What is even more shocking is that the MP who demerited Mordaunt to only her looks was female.

Earlier today, somebody else – alas, another woman – suggested on Twitter that Kate Andrews, who is an associate director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, was only employed because of her looks.

Have we really reached a point where even females politicians are knocking other women down to nothing but appearance? It begs the question, can attractive women ever truly be judged on merit alone, or will part of their appeal always be put down to red-blooded men and women? 

At award shows, women are constantly asked what designer brand of clothing they’re wearing, or who they’re dating, but hardly ever about their work and accolades – and this transfers into politics. In cartoons and comment pieces, Theresa May’s fashion accessories are consistently highlighted, especially her famous leopard print heels. 

Women are constantly pushed to the front of all photos at political events, not because they are necessarily the most esteemed people there, but to smile, look pretty, and show how representative and progressive politics is.

It’s all very well decrying this ongoing issue in the political world, but until we change the inherent psyche that so many individuals, male and female, clearly have, we will be blocked from making further progress. Namely, that men are there to protect, provide for, and lead women, while women are there to look pretty and show diversity, and the only reason that you would want a woman to be party leader is because she’s “attractive and you fancy her”.

The way forward is to celebrate people like Penny Mordaunt on her own merits, not in a “look what they have achieved despite the barrier in their way” patronising display of faux-adoration. Competent, powerful women who are bringing about progress in the world shouldn’t be applauded simply because they have managed to overcome sexist obstacles.

Having previously written against affirmative-action policies, which undermine the very meritocratic nature of our economy and democracy, I have never considered myself a feminist in the popular version of the term. I still wouldn’t apply it to myself, except perhaps in the first-wave sense. But we all must accept when change is needed, and it’s blindingly clear – as much as many may shut their eyes to it – that it’s needed now.


Written by Elena Bunbury

Elena Bunbury is Head of Communications at 1828.


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