A short anthology of sexist remarks in Parliament

A short anthology of sexist remarks in Parliament
Photo credit: Getty

In recent weeks, there have been no fewer than three high-profile sexist remarks at Parliament. There were no doubt more not captured in the public theatre of the Parliament of New Zealand.

All were made by men, and all were used against women in an opposing party.

Parliament has still not achieved gender parity. We currently have the highest number of women in Parliament in New Zealand history, but at 40 percent, we're not quite there yet.

That might be partly because politics can be hostile to women. Many women in politics have publically acknowledged that. There are remarks about looks, the social media comments, and then there are the insults from fellow politicians.

Let's take a look back at some recent sexist remarks.

Case file: "Hysterical"- That old chestnut

Thursday 7 June 2018

Calling women 'hysterical' is a total classic. So classic we've been doing it for centuries.

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis was facing questions from National MP Jacqui Dean at select committee when he called her "hysterical".

Kelvin Davis, deputy Labour leader, Tourism Minister.
Kelvin Davis, deputy Labour leader, Tourism Minister. Photo credit: Newshub.

She says she was doing her job. That job's asking tough, sometimes annoying, questions of ministers in charge of things. As Auckland University politics associate Professor Katherine Smits will explain, the accusation she was 'hysterical' is an attempt to reduce her questions to an emotional outburst.

By the next morning, Mr Davis recognised his mistake and issued an apology, to both Ms Dean and the Prime Minister.

The definition of 'hysterical' is "affected by or deriving from wildly uncontrolled emotion".

The word derives from 'hysteria', which was once a common medical diagnosis for women only. It was pretty much a catch-all diagnosis for everything from nervousness to emotional outbursts. That diagnosis had women institutionalised.

"It's not that people using it now have actually got that in mind, but what they've got in mind is this idea that women can't be rational," Dr Smits told Newshub.

"Every time someone uses a term like hysterical, it's sexist, but it's also just really poor arguing and really bad for the kind of debate that's supposed to go on."

Case file: "Settle petal" - Pre-school language

Wednesday 23 May 2018

NZ First MP Ron Mark got told off for telling a female National MP to "settle, petal. Settle", during Question Time at Parliament.

The Speaker stopped him, and told him to apologise for his sexist comment. He did, but he looked pretty quizzical as he did so.

Winston Peters and Ron Mark at Ratana.
Winston Peters and Ron Mark at Ratana. Photo credit: Lloyd Burr/Newshub.

"It's infantile language," Dr Smits says.

"You're using language you might use at home toward a small child about a grown adult woman, thinking you're pretty clever doing it because it has bit of a rhyme. It's a refusal to respond to what people are actually saying.

"It's introducing the language of the nursery to the public debate."

You couldn't see on Parliament TV who Mr Mark was directing the comment at, but it was clear from the audio it was a woman. Judith Collins says the comment was directed at Finance Spokesperson Amy Adams.

The Speaker told Newshub it is "entirely inappropriate for any member to make sexist comments in the House".

Case file: "Stupid little girl" - The irony

Wednesday 9 May 2018

The Speaker Trevor Mallard says he heard a National MP call the Prime Minister a "stupid little girl" during Question Time. At the time, he asked whoever made the "very sexist remark" to apologise. No one owned up.

Like "Settle, petal", it's a comment that reduces a grown woman to a child, Dr Smits says.

"It's offensive in so many ways. Obviously, it's offensive to call someone stupid, but it's offensive to refer to adult members as if they were small children.

"These comments say much more about the people who are making them. They suggest a real lack of political engagement, intellectual engagement and a lack of maturity - that's the irony of 'little girl'. It's schoolyard-like."

Case file: "Pretty young woman"

Wednesday 6 June 2017

This comment wasn't made in Parliament or by a politician, but it gets an honourable mention as it was made at function endorsing Labour's Northcote candidate Shanan Halbert.

Alan Duff, the author of Once Were Warriors, referred to Ms Ardern as a "pretty young woman".

"There is no denying the Jacinda factor. We all love a pretty young woman," The Spinoff reports him saying. 

Again, it's a comment infantilising a grown adult woman and, in this case, equating the leader's popularity with her looks.

This all raises the question: Does Parliament have a problem with women?


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