On the 19th December 2018, Jeremy Corbyn allegedly referred to Theresa May as a “stupid woman”. This article explores the difference between calling someone a “stupid person” and a “stupid woman”, while also looking more widely at the role that gender and sexism play within within both British and European politics.
On the 19th December 2018, footage emerged of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn allegedly mouthing the phrase “stupid woman” in response to comments made by Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions. A spokesman for Corbyn dismissed the claims, stating that Corbyn has “no time for any misogynistic abuse” and simultaneously claiming that he actually muttered the more harmless “stupid people”. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, confirmed that as he did not witness Corbyn’s comments, no action would be taken, although he restated that “individuals that are found to have made unwelcome remarks should apologise”. Despite it being disputed whether Corbyn even said the offending statement, both social and printed media were quickly dominated by discussions of whether “stupid woman” is an offensive term. The situation was further aggravated when Bercow, who was himself was referred to the standards watchdog in May 2018 for calling the Conservative MP and Commons leader Andrea Leadsom a “stupid woman”, faced fresh challenges over his continued refusal to issue an apology to Leadsom over his own “unwelcome remarks”.
A video from Sky News, in which Jeremy Corbyn appears to call Theresa May a "stupid woman": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1edfyaJ4YrA.
Given that the UK is currently embroiled in furious debates about Brexit, disputed claims that the Prime Minister has been referred to as a “stupid woman” may initially appear absurd. However, while discussing the debate with other young people in my placement, I was reminded that similar arguments about sexist language have been held across Europe for many years, including here in Germany where in 2016 a newly elected politician within the ruling Christian Democrat (CDU) party complained about being called a “sweet mouse” by a male senator. As of June 2017, an average of only 26.5% of parliamentarians in European countries (including Nordic countries) were female. Multiple studies have found evidence that harassment, gender biases, and both direct and indirect discrimination, contribute to the significant underrepresentation of women within politics both regionally and internationally. Therefore, it is easier to understand the outrage about the phrase “stupid woman”, when it is viewed as one example of the hostile environment in which female politicians work.
Significantly, it is clear that “stupid woman” and “stupid person” are not equally controversial statements. Despite this, a major argument which has emerged within the debates regarding the phrase “stupid woman” is that it is not offensive, but instead is simply descriptive. “Person” serves as a neutral description which does not make the word “stupid” more insulting, unlike adjectives considered to be inherently offensive which serve to compound the impact of words like “stupid” when they are used together. Because “woman” (unlike “man”) refers to a member of a group which experiences prejudice and marginalisation, it is both a simple descriptor, and also often intended as an insult and used as a belittling term, as it is accompanied by an implicit acceptance that it may be insulting to be called female. Although we often don’t overtly notice it, the language that we use is often subtly gendered, with criticisms serving to promote historical and patriarchal stereotypes of a specific group, for example by suggesting that women are less capable than men and therefore less suited to a political career. If a female politician had allegedly called a male politician a “stupid man”, it is highly unlikely that there would have been even a fraction of the outrage that this situation has garnered.
Equally, as his spokesman stated, Corbyn has an impressive record on women’s rights. He has repeatedly campaigned for the memorialisation of feminist historical figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Emily Davidson, and his 2015 Shadow Cabinet was the first to feature more women than men (although the most senior positions were still held by men). However, there is no such thing as a “perfect” feminist, and there should be no shame in listening to the concerns of others, reflecting on your words or behaviours and making changes to improve your behaviour and become more inclusive. If Corbyn did use the term “stupid woman”, that doesn’t mean he should be branded a misogynist, but it does mean that he ought to reflect on how he can begin to further tackle internalised and institutional sexism.
Given that even expert lip-readers are divided on what was said, we will likely never know whether Corbyn called May a “stupid woman” or not. Nevertheless, while there remains no firm consensus on the fact that “stupid woman” is an offensive term, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before we achieve gender equality within politics.