Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Political Barbie

On the surface, we have made huge strides for women’s equality in the party. Women made up over half our candidates in target seats at the election this year, and make up two of the four candidates for leader. Every single candidate for leader or deputy has signed the Labour Women’s Network #leadforwomen pledge, which calls for a balanced shadow cabinet and support for all women-shortlists.

We have come a long way, but this leadership election has also shown us how much more there is to do. Just look at the impossible challenge that has been set for women standing in the different contests. They cannot have a famous husband. But they cannot possibly be unmarried. Their lack of children is worrying. But when they do have children, they must be bad mothers. They cannot be too old. But they cannot be inexperienced. They have to prove how tough they are. But they should never be aggressive.

I remember when I discovered what would happen if a Barbie was brought to life. She would fall over because her proportions would be all wrong, and she probably would not survive because her body fat ratio would be so low. That is a lesson I think we need in politics today. The ‘perfect’ political woman cannot actually exist.

None of the candidates have said anything sexist. There has not been a spate of overtly sexist articles or attributable briefings. It is more subtle than that, and women candidates are being forced to answer these charges all the same.

We do not just have a numbers problem in politics, we have a cultural problem. There are too many people who talk the talk on equality, but who have not yet challenged the prejudice that lurks deep within. We have an ‘I’m not a sexist, but’ problem.

This is not a problem limited to Labour. Most senior women politicians across the world have faced it. Julia Gillard had to justify being ‘deliberately barren’. Cecile Duflot, the French housing minister, was on the receiving end of wolf-whistles in the French parliament. In this country we have an unhealthy obsession with Theresa May’s shoes.

But if the most powerful women in our party are having to answer questions about their gender, not just their political merit, then it does not take much to imagine what is happening at the grassroots. The questions asked in local selections about ‘who will look after the children’. The fact that women are very unlikely to win when they stand in open parliamentary selections. The stereotype, which remains largely true, that women are constituency Labour party secretaries while the men are chair. It is no surprise that, out of the reach of all-women shortlists and enforced national targets, just 16 per cent of Labour local authority leaders are women.

In the same way that we should not create unrealistic expectations for a Barbie body image, we should stop trying to create the perfect political woman. She does not exist. If we want to truly lead for women, we need to change our culture as well as our numbers.


Olivia Bailey is chair of Labour Women’s Network and research director at the Fabian Society. She tweets @livbailey


Photo: Mike Mozart

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Olivia Bailey

is chair of Labour Women's Network and research director at the Fabian Society. Formerly she was chair of Labour Students and women's officer at the National Union of Students.


  • I must admit that although supporting women candidate election/selection has advanced, I have not noticed that policies in support of women has been advanced as a result of increased representation of women. I have never quite got this idea that it takes a woman to deliver on women promoting policies. Reading Corbyn’s latest (and superb) statement on equality for women shows that it is more important to be an ideological supporter of women that to actually be a woman.

  • Hear Hear Olivia. If the Party vote a man AGAIN in 2015 then, as a movement, we talk about equality but, we don’t actually deliver it.

Sign up to our daily roundup email