X marks the spot but the Ys have it: Referendum coverage as a boys’ own story

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman (/feminist political communication scholar) because most of my time is spent on absences, peering into the black hole of women’s silencing. Any number of men, both politicians and journalists, regularly claim that this or that election will focus on the Mumsnet vote or, in the case of the EU Referendum, that women voters will determine the outcome. The implication of these pontifications is that women will somehow be addressed as women, as if their/our concerns, interests and ballot box behaviour are both biologically-determined and homogenous. Not only is this fatuous nonsense, but even if it was a little bit true (for example, most of the folks who campaigned against the tampon tax were probably women), political parties and the media make scant effort to find out what women, individually or severally, might actually want. The siren song of ‘where are the women?’ has been heard as much during this campaign as any others although the final weeks of the campaign did see an improvement in the visibility of women politicians speaking on both sides of the argument.

The siren song of ‘where are the women?’ has been heard as much during this campaign as any others although the final weeks of the campaign did see an improvement in the visibility of women politicians speaking on both sides of the argument.

The consideration of women’s ‘specialness’ was exemplified by both Remain and Leave’s launch of femme-campaigns, with Remain’s Women IN campaign launched in January via an open letter to the Evening Standard signed by fifty “leading businesswomen, scientists, trade union officials and health professionals.” Leave’s effort, Women for Britain, was somewhat cynically deployed on International Women’s Day, fronted by UKIP’s Suzanne Evans and Priti Patel for the Tories, with Patel subsequently becoming the only woman politician who enjoyed media traction in the first weeks of the campaign. Unfortunately for Patel, comparing herself and the other EU refuseniks with the Suffragettes’ struggle did not sit well with Emmeline Pankhurst’s great grand-daughter, Helen, who demanded an apology for the (in)appropriation. What unites both campaigns is the strange fact that their respective official launches constitute their only significant media appearance, not so much a campaign, more a PR stunt. There have been a few soundbites from their various spokespeople since their launches but they do not add up to a campaign for women’s votes: on polling day, Women for Britain’s Faccebook page had a mere 1448 likes.

By May, the domination of a few male voices (Dave, Boz and Mike) and the extreme narrowness of the debate – it’s all about immigration, stupid – not to mention #allmalepanels, mansplaining and the beauty contest for next Tory Leader, was revealed in a Labour report discussed by Harriet Harman, prompting her to say that women were being “frozen out of the debate” and that she would be making an official complaint to Ofcom about women’s under-representation. Labour’s research showed that between January and the end of May, only two out of 14 commentators on BBC TV’s breakfast show were women as were 10 of the 58 politicians contributing to the Today programme alongside the six women out of 24 guests invited to chat on Good Morning Britain. This resonates exactly with Loughborough University Centre for Research in Communication and Culture’s rather excellent campaign coverage reports which persistently showed the marginalisation of women’s voices throughout the campaign.

By early June, the parties and the media seemed to have taken notice of the conspicuous and voluble social media critique of the exclusionary tenor of the tory-boys-story and ITV’s EU debate fielded five women and Boris. Remain had Angela Eagle (Lab), Amber Rudd (Cons) and Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leave had Andrea Leadsom (Cons) and Gisela Stuart (Lab). The BBC followed suit in the last televised (The Great) debate on 21 June with the same pair of women for Leave but a different line-up for Remain (Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives and Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC) bookending Sadiq Khan. The media coverage of the event, at least the stories I read, was mostly gender-neutral with none of the routine trivialisation on women’s sartorial style. However, the Mail could not resist commenting on Davidson’s passion for kick-boxing and her recent engagement to her “partner Jennifer Wilson”, a level of personal detail not provided for any of the other panellists. Whilst the last week of the campaign did indeed render women more visible in terms of these set-piece debates, general coverage remained a boys’ own story, with Jo Cox the most significant woman politician in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. We now know that xenophobia won the day and her belief that we have more in common than divides us has failed to persuade. We are the poorer for that.