Within half an hour of Jeremy Corbyn seemingly mouthing “stupid woman” in reference to Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions today, I had been asked by four separate men why it’s different when a man calls a man a stupid man. Within an hour, I’d decided that I’d have to write something outlining exactly why.
I have some previous in this area: ever since I began working in journalism, I’ve been accused of being a “stupid woman” by armchair commentators below the line on my articles and across social media. My male colleagues were often accused of being stupid too (although, more often than not, they would first be accused of being nasty, wicked or deliberately obtuse, whereas people who don’t like what women write usually reach for an adjective implying that the woman in question is incapable of understanding or in possession of a low IQ). They weren’t, however, called “stupid man”.
When we reach for a word that qualifies “stupid”, we try and go for something that reinforces the insult. “Stupid idiot” is one that gets bandied around a lot; in Dad’s Army, Private Pike is famously frequently referred to as “stupid boy” by the disparaging Captain Mainwaring. “Stupid man” is much less commonly used, simply because it doesn’t have the same effect as when you deploy an extra qualifying word to underline exactly how stupid the person you’re referring to is.
Is every single person who says “stupid woman” a raging misogynist? Of course not. Many people who use the term might even be women themselves. We all grew up in a patriarchal society where women are generally seen as less competent than men: that’s one of the main reasons why we have a stubbornly persistent gender pay gap. Nor is every person who initially misunderstands the significance of using the term a secret sexist pig. But there is no excuse for pretending the context doesn’t exist once a woman (or a man) has patiently explained it to you. Trust that these people aren’t lying to you. Occam’s Razor suggests that there isn’t actually a worldwide conspiracy of women trying to make people believe in a “victimhood culture”; we just want you to understand the experiences we have in the world that we share.
I shouldn’t have to point this out, but it’s especially hard to swallow when someone mockingly brings up a woman’s gender in parliament, where every British citizen is supposed to be represented (despite 78 per cent of MPs being male.) It was horrible to watch when David Cameron told Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” and it’s extremely disappointing if Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of a left-wing opposition party, stooped to similar lows today (his spokesperson has said that there is no basis for an apology as Corbyn mouthed “stupid people” at the Tory frontbench. I have slowed down and rewatched the footage a number of times and I can’t say with 100 per cent certainty that he did mouth “woman” rather than “people”, though Evelyn Glennie, who is deaf and lip-reads, has reportedly said she is sure that it’s “woman” and I’m inclined to believe her).
A depressing facet of this entire controversy is how much it will be jumped upon by men who have never once concerned themselves with feminism but will now proclaim their outrage at the mere possibility that Corbyn might have used the offending phrase. Watching right-wing tabloids use the row as a stick with which to beat lefties is just as depressing as the thing being said in the first place. I’m well aware that men who might call their colleagues or relatives stupid women when they know they’re not being overheard by female peers will pretend to be champions of gender equality the moment the Labour leader seems to have said something sexist. But claiming that we should jettison discussions about women’s rights because they “distract from the cause” is a poisonous and persistent problem for the left, and choosing to hush things up because they aren’t convenient for Labour isn’t progressive.
Andrea Leadsom made a good point (something I never thought I’d write) in the House directly after the Corbyn controversy erupted, when she stood up and asked Speaker John Bercow why he never apologised for calling her a “stupid woman” under similar circumstances. Clearly a number of men who work in politics disrespect their female colleagues. Clearly not enough is being done about it. And clearly this argument goes beyond party politics, red-top front pages and irreverent jokes on Twitter.
A long time ago, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the Labour Party. Nowadays, there are some ideas he has which I absolutely agree with and some which I am opposed to. I’m deeply saddened if, in an unguarded moment, “stupid woman” was what came automatically out of his mouth. It’s not acceptable, and it falls well below my expectations of any political leader (expectations I still struggle to hold on to, even in the age of Donald Trump).
I also believe in the power of apology, education and open discussion, and would like to hear him address the issue head-on. If no one is brave enough to own up to their mistakes and make a public effort to do better, then it makes it very difficult for any prejudice to be fully eradicated. All of which is to say that I believe in rehabilitation (I’m a Labour voter, after all), but I’m still angry. Male readers would do well to consider whether they might feel the same about “stupid man” if it was said after 2,000-plus years of matriarchal oppression.
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