Why Ségolène Royal is right about décolletage

If she did indeed argue that professional women working in her ministry should avoid flashing the flesh, was that really such an outrageous thing to suggest?



In what has been the perfect episode from the British perspective Ségolène Royal, a senior minister in France’s socialist government, has allegedly issued a decree against women working in her department wearing low-cut, cleavage-revealing dresses.

How we have all laughed. “Shame on you, Ségolène!” wrote one female columnist. “You live in a society where female style is second to none and to carp about what (younger) women wear sounds catty and disloyal.”

There have been endless (catty) mentions of the minister’s age, and of the fact that she was once President Hollande’s partner. Old photographs in which the Royal poitrine is clearly visible have been gleefully published.

Here, in fact, is a soft news story with everything the British press could want: loony leftism, the French, and breasts.

Yet if Ségolène Royal did indeed argue that professional women working in her ministry should avoid flashing the flesh, was that really such an outrageous thing to suggest? It is an odd fact of modern life that the most heroically feminist of women can cheerfully appear at work – in politics, on TV, in offices across the country – dressed to kill in clothes which, in various clinging, lifting, peek-a-boo ways, are designed accentuate the wearer’s physical desirability.

Men like it, of course, and presumably so do the women themselves. The generally accepted view is that, even in a society which likes to think that it is egalitarian, working life is made just that little bit more bearable by the occasional tug of hopeless desire in the office, the opportunity to drift off into an inappropriate fantasy during a meeting. Is it, though, entirely in keeping with the basic tenets of feminism?

Imagine how we would all react if, in order to steal a march on Nigel Farage in the recent televised debates on Europe, Nick Clegg had swished on to the stage in skinny, buttock-clinging chinos with a bulging posing-pouch to enhance his intimate proportions and chest-hair sprouting manfully from his tight, open-necked shirt.

It is a horrible thought. No male politician, with the dubious exceptions of Vladimir Putin and Lembit Opik, have gone out of their way to accentuate their sexual attractiveness – indeed, the fashion is for a statesmanlike sexlessness. Anything else would undermine the required air of seriousness and responsibility.

Yet when a female politician steps up the despatch box in the House of Commons with the top part of her breasts exposed (Jacqui Smith) or teeters on to a party conference platform in what used to be known as fuck-me shoes (Theresa May), it is the men who dare to gawp and giggle who are held in contempt. How neanderthal, we all say. How childish and tediously sexist.

Not that the Royal argument against women dressing sexily for work excuses the sort of male oafishness which, according Germaine Greer, interviewed for Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes, to be broadcast on BBC2 next month, is if anything getting worse. “Nowadays women expect to share men’s lives, they want to do the same work, they want to play the same games, they want to have the same social life, and I think it’s driving men nuts.”

Some men, Germaine: the stupid, the fearful, the sexually insecure, the pornified. There are a lot of them around. As Laura Bates’s admirable Everyday Sexism Project has shown, women and girls are daily subjected to small acts of male prejudice and bullying. What was once widely dismissed as a bit of banter or innocent if uninvited flirting is now recognised for what it is – an unattractive expression of the perceived power of men over women.

Because sexism still exists, the way influential women present themselves in professional life is all the more important. The argument for equality of opportunity in the workplace is weakened if politicians, TV presenters and even feminist polemicists continue to play the very game of which they disapprove. When young women are encouraged to use their sexuality as part of their professional armoury at work – perhaps somehow to even out the inbuilt gender imbalance – it is an admission of defeat. They are being told to exploit their own kind of inequality.

The argument behind the Everyday Sexism Project is straightforward. “Everything is connected,” Laura Bates has written. “Inequality is a continuum, with the minor and major incidents irrevocably related to one another as the attitudes and underlie one allow the other to flourish.”

No one could seriously deny that continuum of small and large, of cause and effect, but it works for both genders. Just as there is for men a clear division between self-presentation at work and at a party or at the pub, so the same should be true for women.

If attitudes are to change, it may be men who are going to have to most of the growing up, but intelligent, powerful women need to play their part. The sexy office dress, a bit of thigh-flashing during a TV interview, dolling oneself up before an important political statement: they are all, in their way, part of everyday sexism, too.

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