In the century since women were first eligible to stand and vote in British general elections, they have relied on news media to represent their political perspectives in the public realm.
This book provides a systematic analysis of electoral coverage by charting how women candidates, voters, politicians' spouses, and party leaders have been portrayed in newspapers since 1918.
The result is a fascinating account of both continuity and change in the position of women in British politics. The book demonstrates that for women to be effectively represented in the political domain, they must also be effectively represented in the public discussion of politics that takes place in the media.
Feminist media scholars have been analyzing the depiction of women politicians in political news for several decades, but for some reason the portrayal of female citizens has elicited considerably less attention, which this chapter will go some way towards correcting. This lack of research is troubling because normative theories about the role of media in democratic societies hold that journalists have a responsibility to inform citizens about electoral politics, so it is crucial to analyze how news media position and describe women voters and their political priorities. The UK press started off on mixed footing in this regard, as the newspapers at the beginning of the twentieth century were much divided over the issue of women’s suffrage. Newspapers such as the Daily Herald were mostly supportive of the aims of the suffrage campaigners. Other papers like the Daily News, however, disapproved of the tactics adopted by the Women’s Social and Political Union in particular, but were sympathetic to the principle of voting rights for women (Bingham, 2004). The Daily Mail famously labelled the more militant members of the movement ‘the suffragettes’, a pejorative term which they adopted in defiance (Bingham, 2004). Eventually, though, women’s enormous contribution to the war effort was thought to have persuaded even the sceptical newspapers to support the call for their enfranchisement in 1918 (Melman, 1988; Bingham, 2004).
When only married women or women who owned property were granted the right to vote in Westminster elections in 1918, the campaign to equalize the franchise was less well received by some newspapers. Individual sections of the press, particularly those owned by Lord Rothermere, were particularly hostile towards the campaign (Bingham, 2002).
After a long struggle, women got the right to vote in the aftermath of the First World War. The process of integrating them into political life, however, was not immediately straightforward. The Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised approximately seven million women over the age of thirty, or women over twenty-one who were householders (or married to one). However, in an oversight that reveals much about the role women were still expected to play in British society, the legislation failed to address whether women would be allowed to stand for election to parliament (Cowman, 2010). This ambiguity gave long-time campaigners for women’s political rights an opportunity. Several women, such as Christabel Pankhurst, forced the issue of women standing for election by submitting nomination papers regardless. Eventually, a bill was introduced to settle the matter, which resulted in the rushed Eligibility of Women Act 1918 (Beddoe, 1989) that allowed women to stand for election on equal terms with men. This new legislation, therefore, meant that women could be elected members of a parliament nine years before they were eligible to vote for it (Cowman, 2010), highlighting the absurdity of the rationale for denying women the right to vote as men did in the first place.
Since the bill only became law three weeks before the election, women candidates had little time to find a seat, let alone one that was winnable. As a result, only one woman was elected in the 1918 general election.
It is now more than one hundred years since women gained the right to vote and stand as parliamentary candidates in the UK. Just as progress to reach that point was somewhat glacial, progress since that time has been almost as slow. While women became members of parliament quite soon after women’s suffrage, it would take six decades before a woman was elected prime minister for the first time. Throughout the subsequent century, the social and political lives of these women would change dramatically as a result of the political advocacy and activism of countless women (owman, 2010). Political discourse has also changed significantly over the same period because, as various legislation has been enacted to usher more and more citizens into the electorate, political parties have needed to appeal to an increasingly diverse and growing polity. The expansion of democracy placed new emphasis on the role of journalism and its ability to inform voters about politics and hold those in power to account (Temple, 2008). News media have, then, always been important in shaping what issues citizens ought to care about and whose voices are important in political debate. It is therefore crucial that news coverage of politics is inclusive and reflects the issues and concerns of all citizens.
Some twenty-five years ago (at the time of publication), Annabelle Sreberny and Karen Ross remarked that ‘work in political communication has tended to lack a gender dimension, while feminist work on the media has tended to focus on entertainment formats, rather than the “fact-based” genre of current affairs that address the viewer as a gendered citizen’ (Sreberny-Mohammadi & Ross, 1996: 103).
It might seem a strange choice to include an analysis of women who are neither portrayed as citizens nor as candidates in a study about electoral news. However, the ubiquity of coverage of spouses and relatives tells us a tremendous amount about British politics. Politicians’ relatives occupy an in-between status where they are part citizen (as voters) and part politician (due to their political advocacy), which disrupts the traditional divide between public and private spheres. As a result, these women often appear in the newspapers as symbolic representations of, or advocates for, their male relatives’ political credentials or personal qualities. As these women are only included on the basis of their relationship with men, it is therefore instructive to scrutinize the newspaper coverage they receive because their presence also reveals much about the gendered character of election coverage.
Coverage of wives and other female relatives is not a new phenomenon. The inclusion of women who were close to frontline male politicians in campaigning organizations like the Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Federation encouraged women to become active in party politics long before they gained the right to vote (Cowman, 2010). Consequently, female relatives of aspiring or established politicians have been part of election campaigns for a long time. Prime minister William Gladstone’s wife Catherine was thought to be the first to establish the idea that wives should be seen alongside their husbands on the campaign trail by appearing on the platform when he spoke (Lawrence, 2009). Other women took a much more active role: Jennie Churchill (wife of Tory MP Randolph Churchill, and mother of Winston) became famous for giving lively speeches and canvassing voters during the 1885 election (Lawrence, 2009).
It took until 1979 for a woman to lead a major political party into a British general election. Since then, an uptick in the number of female leaders offers a chance to assess the way women party leaders are represented in newspaper coverage. Since Margaret Thatcher’s first campaign as Conservative Party leader in 1979, there have been five campaigns in which women leaders have been the subject of press attention. This chapter will therefore focus on these five elections. For the first three, 1979, 1983, and 1987, Margaret Thatcher was the only female leader. In the 2015 and 2017 campaigns, multiple women leaders were visible in the news, including the Conservative’s Theresa May (2017), the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (2015) and Caroline Lucas (2017), Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood (2015 and 2017), and the Scottish National Party’s (and first minister of Scotland) Nicola Sturgeon (2015 and 2017). Of these elections, three were contested by female prime ministers (1983, 1987, and 2017). While the 2010 election was contested by a female party leader (Caroline Lucas, Green Party), this campaign could not be included because she did not appear in the sampled newspaper coverage.
Given that party leaders have a much higher public profile than their female colleagues, it would be significant if this effects how they are reported on in gendered terms. There is some evidence suggesting that as women in Australia and Canada become increasingly prominent, news coverage about them is less likely to centre their gender identity (Trimble et al, 2019).
This book has provided a systematic quantitative and qualitative analysis of the mediated representation of women in UK election coverage. The preceding chapters have shown that there have been both significant continuities and changes over time, and they also demonstrate how some of the observable changes in political communication have gendered consequences for the representation of women party leaders, ordinary politicians, voters, and female relatives of male politicians. In this final chapter of the book, the similarities and differences between these groups of women will first be discussed, showing the importance of analyzing the mediated representation of more than just political representatives, then the chapter will revisit the academic literature on changes to election coverage to demonstrate that taking gendered mediation into account is crucial for our understanding of these trends, and to call for more scholars of election coverage to engage with the literature on gendered mediation.
There have been many studies which compare the representation of men and women politicians in order to determine gender differences between their portrayal (see Semetko & Boomgaarden, 2005; Trimble et al, 2013; Harmer et al, 2017; Trimble, 2017; Harmer et al, 2020). For the most part, however, studies of gendered mediation take women politicians as their focus. This study followed in that tradition, but also sought to extend the value of such work by analyzing how women voters and female relatives of politicians were represented. It is also necessary to compare the four groups of women to identify any disparities, because the mediated representation of women goes a long way to determining how both the public and political elites alike conceive of who matters in formal politics. This inevitably impacts on how they campaign. Stereotypical and partial coverage of even one group of women has consequences for the way all women are represented politically.
There were several similarities and differences in the way all four groups of women were mediated over time. This section will bring together these findings to assess how UK election news represents women. Firstly, the presence and voices of women in the coverage will be explored.