‘Seen and not heard’: A feminist examination of the Covid-19 inquiry
As the end of the Covid-19 inquiry drags on, the ‘Thick of It’ couldn’t even come close to some of the findings. Sweary WhatsApp messages (reminiscent of the fictional Malcolm Tucker) and an astounding level of policy incompetence have come to light.
The PM of the Covid-19-era government was the infamous Boris Johnson, who had previously been in trouble for his Eton-schoolboy humour. He describes himself as a feminist, yet made comments about admiring “semi-naked” volleyballers, has been accused by colleagues of staring at their breasts, and was forced from office for covering up sex scandals. The term ‘old boys club’ is still used when describing the British Parliament and the continuing attitudes towards female MPs.
One of the headlines to come out of the Covid-19 inquiry has been Dominic Cummings “Sweary WhatsApps” to his colleagues. Usage of terms like “clusterf*ck” and “f*ckpigs” were often exchanged between male colleagues – indicative of an unprofessional work culture. Sidenote, this unprofessionalism in regard to one of the most important workplaces in the country is a troubling sign of those in power’s flippant disregard for rules, and regulations and respect for the people.
Anyway, whilst Cummings denied using misogynistic language, the messages that were made public show a different story. Talking about Helen MacNamara (former Deputy Cabinet Secretary 2020-2021) he referred to her as a “C*nt” while complaining about “dodging stilettos” from her. This type of language between male colleagues is indicative of something being very wrong with the workplace culture.
Even if not said to a woman’s face, men the use of this kind of derogative language in private allows them to get away with hidden sexism. MacNamara herself complained of an “egotistical and macho” culture during the Covid years. This included misplaced male overconfidence, along with a constant discrediting of female official’s perspectives.
We have seen time and again the importance of female perspectives in politics. In theory, female leaders tend to be more risk-adverse than their male counterparts. This was especially seen during Covid where female-ran economies did much better in the long term as they locked-down their countries earlier than others. MacNamara, during the Covid inquiry, talked at length about the fact that women were ignored in meetings, had their opinions sidelined, and that female-focused (COVID-related) issues were ignored.
What was particularly horrifying was that the issue of domestic violence was blatantly ignored by government officials. I still remember the terrifying stories of women forced into lockdown with abusive partners, with no alternative options. The inquiry implies that this was particularly allowed to happen due to government oversight. Combine this with more ignorance of the fact that PPE was known to not fit female workers, and you have an image of a government that seemingly doesn’t care about women.
A culture of sexism and ignorance at the epicentre of power has negative connotations across the country: if we can’t trust our government to listen to important concerns of women, how can we expect other areas like business or the media to listen? Even in education, women’s viewpoints are often belittled or ignored: humanities subjects (which are statistically female-dominated) are frequently discredited as less important or frivolous. It seems obvious that a Conservative government is unconcerned with the issues of women but it doesn’t make the continued culture of misogyny in the UK any less terrifying.
That is not to say that female politicians are always correct: the infamy of Margaret Thatcher, Suella Braverman, and Liz Truss – who was best known for her catastrophic ‘Truss-enomics’ – clearly corruption and bigotry crosses gender lines. However, it shouldn’t be ignored that gendered differences are still engrained in our daily lives and we still need a larger female perspective that is reflective of the majority of women in this country.
At a time when violence against women is rising and misogyny is rearing its ugly head, we should be able to turn to our politicians. We should trust that they want to protect the interests of those who identify as female, not embroil themselves in culture wars focused on the rights of transgender people or allowing the Met Police’s track record of misogyny to continue to go unchecked.
The Westminister rumour mill suggests that Braverman, sacked for being too far-right even for the present Conservative party, wants to run for party leader at the next election. Labour has never had a female leader yet the Conservative party has had 3 so far. The most successful (though arguably only successful at enriching her peers and bolstering divides) long-running female Leader was Margaret Thatcher, a figurehead of neoliberalism and political hate.
It seems to me that female politicians only have a chance if they can appeal to the fringes, if they can stir up enough vitriol that their coworkers and voters forget their gender altogether. Thatcher herself decreed that she always made it home to iron and cook dinner, to fulfil her socially prescribed duties. Yet her policies of suppression don’t seem the match the sexist idea of a caring mother that she herself pushed on British women. If we learn anything from Braverman’s tyranny and the sexist government during Covid, it is that women in this country can only survive in politics if they turn their back on their fellow women and join in the ‘old boys club’.