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Labour women: demonised and dismissed


1:38 pm - June 7th 2009

by Rowenna Davis    


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Think what you will of Flint’s resignation – but don’t put your criticisms (or your photos) in gender-loaded terms. Personally I think Flint’s resignation was opportunistic, badly orchestrated and ultimately self-defeating; but I don’t think it was a “silly woman” losing her head because of oestrogen and an X chromosome.

Across the media, Flint was portrayed in starkly sexist terms. She’s “flounced out” of the cabinet in a “hissy fit”, throwing “a stiletto in the heart of government”.

Even the broadsheets’ coverage was irresponsible – the Guardian’s decision to use Flint’s red dress photo shoot to accompany such a grave set of allegations wasn’t just objectifying; it was belittling the serious points she was making.

In today’s Observer, Flint says that Brown “used” women as little more than a “smokescreen”; a “way of making it look like you’ve got a lot of women round the table”. The reality for women in cabinet, she says, is one of “constant pressure” and “negative bullying.”

When James Purnell resigned he was criticised, but he was never accused of living up to “macho” stereotypes in the same way. When a woman makes a serious feminist argument, she shouldn’t be dismissed in a sea of sexist stereotypes, she should be listened to and challenged with the respect shown to her male colleagues.

After the expenses scandal, the public wants to see a politics that is more representative of the people, not less. I worry that the events of the past week will make this less likely. The political female role models we had weren’t exactly inspirational; now they’re also disillusioned, demonised and out of office.

If we’re going to fix our broken politics, we’ll need to utilise the best talents of our women as well as our men. Neither our government nor our media can afford to reduce them to “window dressing”.

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About the author
This is a guest article. Rowenna Davis is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to the Guardian.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. Shatterface

‘Stiletto’ refers to a kind of knife favoured by assassins, not a shoe: it’s not a sexist term. ‘Flounced out’ and ‘hissy-fit’ are, although I’ve also heard them used (homophobically) against Peter Mandleson.

I’ve no sympathy for Flint though: she’s a hypocrite who attacked male members of the cabinet who quit then suddenly remembered she’s a woman when she needed to play the victim card.

Well…how about the many ‘jokes’ on Purnell’s sideburns or Mandelson’s sexuality?

Flint, Purnell and Blears are all the epitome of how the opportunistic slimy depth reached by New Labour since 1997 (have a look here for a “BEST OF” of their 12 years as lackeys of Blair & Brown).

These are all professional politicians who hopped from think tank to Research Unit to glittery Parliamentary and Ministerial careers without believing in nothing but power.

Had they criticised Brown for reasons related to substance and policy rather than personality and electoral calculation they’d have met better approval. But as it stands…they’re just a bunch of Macchiavelian hypocrites.

Especially “I’m-proud-to-serve-Brown” on Thursday and “Brown-uses-women-on-Friday” Caroline Flint.

3. Shatterface

Incidentally, the reason Purnell’s resignation wasn’t described as ‘macho’ is because resignation is not a macho response: a macho response would have been to punch Brown in his lopsided mouth before teabagging him and posting the clip on YouTube.

Unfortunately that would have ended up with him in jail.

#1 You seriously think the use of “stiletto” in this context was just a coincidence?

As for Flint’s actual comments – there has been a male cabal in every administration in British history including those headed by a woman, and culture shift is torturously slow. In her case I don’t think it’s so much that she’s a woman that stopped her from being promoted though – Gordon Brown promoted Jacqui Smith to Home Secretary. Perhaps the reason why Smith was promoted so highly and Flint wasn’t can be seen in the way each departed. Margaret Beckett and Glenys Kinnock are hardly window dressing – they are highly capable, reliable and loyal people with great experience. Similarly I think Yvette Cooper will be the best Work & Pensions Secretary since Andrew Smith. Let’s hope she will allow the Welfare Reform Bill to be seriously amended.

Shatterface:

“‘Stiletto’ refers to a kind of knife favoured by assassins, not a shoe: it’s not a sexist term.”

Most people don’t know that. Most people only know about the shoe. The Telegraph’s use was – i strongly suspect/believe – a reference to the shoe.

“Incidentally, the reason Purnell’s resignation wasn’t described as ‘macho’ is because resignation is not a macho response: a macho response would have been to punch Brown in his lopsided mouth before teabagging him and posting the clip on YouTube. ”

Hmm, but then why is Flint’s resignation a “hissy fit”? Seems to me they basically did the same thing, except Flint calculated poorly and made her move 24 hours too late.

6. Political_Animal

There are very good reasons for challenging sexist media stereotypes and it may very well be that women are used as ‘window dressing’ but to accept all this whilst you are in cabinet and back up Gordon Brown in a very public way, but then react like she did when she didn’t get the promotion she thought her ‘loyalty’ deserved, just goes to show why she didn’t get the job. It was nothing to do with sexism, or window dressing, it was all to do with a politician being found out for being the back-stabber she is.

Has there ever been such a quick u-turn from outright loyalty, to ultimate betrayal? Whether she is a woman or not is irrelevant, the point is, you wouldn’t want people who think it appropriate to act in the way she did in the cabinet. Ultimately, Gordon Brown was proved correct in his decision not to promote her.

“Personally I think Flint’s resignation was opportunistic, badly orchestrated and ultimately self-defeating” but she was apparently making a “serious feminist argument.” The problem is, the former derails any chance of the latter.

The Cabinet may well be a misogynistic place, I don’t know. However, (as you’ve accepted), this was not why Caroline Flint made her comments. It is widely accepted that she made the comments in a fit of rage at not getting a full Cabinet position. To then claim her resignation was some great feminist crusade against a chauvinist boss (whom she had fully backed 12hrs earlier), was simply ludicrous. To demonise Flint is to demonise a very silly person; her case does not represent ‘sexism’ despite her wishes. To rail against the media arguably using “gender-loaded terms” against her seems to rather miss the point.

8. Shatterface

5 & 6: follow the link from the ‘stiletto’ comment above and read it in the context of the Yahoo article it features in rather than the context Rowena forces it into. It’s clearly used in the context of stabbing Brown in the back, hence it’s referring to a knife; and anyone who watched Danger Mouse as a kid knows what a stiletto is.

Rowena needs three examples of sexism because rhetoric demands it and she’s had to manufacture the third to make the charge stick.

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up and admit I used Flint’s Observer Woman photshoot for a cheap gag on another LibCon thread (comparing her to the on-trend fashionista Tony McNulty), after wondering whether it was sexist to do so – given that Flint clearly either (a) likes to be fashionable (fair enough), or was thinking ‘Don’t U Wish Yr MP Wz Hott Like Me?’ (not something that could said of anyone else in the Cabinet). Maybe she thought it was the equivalent of appearing on Have I Got News for You. It didn’t help that having defended Brown and attacked Purnell, she then decides to resign shouting ‘Sexism!’ 24 hours later. You mean she only realised that Brown was allegedy a chauvinist bully and used women for window dressing 24 hours after not being– well, we don’t fully know what happened re. the reshuffle, so the stories of her resigning because she wasn’t promoted to a full Cabinet post may be true. If that’s the case, then it’s a case of thwarted ambition – with the accusations of sexism thown in to cover her tracks.

To be honest, the ‘Male New Labour Cabal’ story has been doing the rounds ever since 1997, despite the number of women MPs and ministers. In fact, playing the whole things as a ‘numbers game’ has been part of the problem. Apparently, Margaret Beckett is the longest-serving Labour minister ever, and (technically) the only woman to have led the party (after John Smith died) yet no-one would name her as a feminist. Likewise, there may be an underlying sexism in the hostility to Hazel Blears, or it could because she’s ginger – or it could be that she embodies the robotic ‘on-message’ mentality that meant defending the Iraq war and every twist and turn of government policy, even when it contradicts itself. Not being part of ‘Brown’s gang’ (or Blair’s in the past) is the initial problem. exacerbated by the lack of women in that gang.

Frankly, the ‘silly woman’ coverage was inevitable from most of the usual suspects (who gets stabbed by a high-heeled shoe?). Similarly, the ‘numbers game’ approach to women in the Cabinet was always a story waiting to happen, plus there will be those who will assume that Flint must be right merely for making the accusation, and will take the tone of the coverage as ‘proof’. The person I (almost) feel sorry for is Harman: she’s caught between her loyalty to Brown, her recognition that equality within the Labour party is an unfinished project – and her own populist feminist tendency to blame men for (say) the banking crisis because apparently women are never in favour of free-market globalised capitalism (remind me who’s just taken over at the CBI?). The manner of Flint’s resignation exposed the problem of merely relying on numbers of women as ‘proof’ of progress on equality : a majority Tory government including 50% women would be ‘progress’ – but they’re still Tories (which should reassure Tory men that their balls won’t drop off if it ever happens). The temptation (which Rowenna Davis thankfully avoids) is to fall into a ‘ner-ner-ner’ game of ‘my gender right or wrong’ where both sides end up saying (or blogging) ‘I told you so’. It’s much more complex than that these days.

PS: The really macho thing in this crisis would be for a male leadership challenger to say to Brown: ‘You. Me. Outside. <Now!‘ – at least it would get the whole thing over with more quickly.

Good piece and I think you’re right, essentially – but I can’t help thinking the likes of Flint are less than innocent in some of this. What the hell was she doing in an Observer photo shoot in tight frocks the week or so before?

I was less than pleased at that – the rest of us girls are out here in the workplace and online journalism and blogging and politics, etc, trying hard to get ourselves taken seriously as people and contributors, and then the likes of Flint breaks ranks to get themselves photographed in stereotypical dresses and poses under headlines like (if memory serves) MPs Can Be Sexy, Too. Flint’s an opportunist, not a feminist, and as such, contributes to no cause other than those that advance Caroline Flint.

I for one am glad she’s out. Her voting record sucked. I think her points about women in government are important – just wished someone less hypocritical than Flint had raised them.

11. redpesto

Sunny – admin notice: the link is meant to end after ‘CBI’ – can you edit then delete this post. Apologies.

12. redpesto

Kate, I’d be wary of going for the idea that being taken seriosuly and (at the very least) being into fashion are mutually exclusive (or should Flint have stuck to trouser suits?).

13. Shatterface

I think the lack of women in high profile roles is shocking but it’s a shame that it’s usually the least deserving cases which get taken up. Genuinely talented women who lose their jobs usually fight back as individuals rather than as representatives of their gender.

redpesto,

alas – i cannot be wary of that idea at all. it’s one thing to be into fashion – it’s another to drape yourself over an observer couch in the interests of advancing the female cause, and then throw a wobbly because nobody takes you seriously. don’t think it is a sexist point, either – i personally thought flint made herself ridiculous when she did that, and i’m a feminist who supports the notion of women in parliament (and the notion of women choosing their clothes) wholeheartedly.

she would never have done that shoot if she’d taken the notion of women in parliament more seriously than i do, or than she takes herself.

etc

15. redpesto

Kate – I do agree with you, but I’d make a distincition betwen Flint’s apparent lack of feminist credientials and a re-run of the ‘bad feminist’ argument because she dresses too feminine (i.e. she could have got away with that photoshoot, but only if she had the political achievements and credentials to go with it – which she doesn’t seem to).

16. Rob Knight

On the Flint photoshoot, it’s possible (if one wishes to be charitable to Caroline Flint) to read the situation thus: that the photoshoot itself wasn’t her idea, and was something that she was pressured into by Brown’s people as a means of diverting attention away from the activities of the rest of the cabinet at the height of the expenses crisis (a point I’ve borrowed from Alix here). This is a fairly typical New Labour MO: when things go wrong, point out that ‘hey, we might be awful but we have women in the cabinet!’. That someone thought a sexy photoshoot was the best way of making this point might just highlight how bad things have got.

In this reading, Flint’s complaint of being treated as ‘window dressing’ does actually make some sense. But is it more sexist to adopt the narrative of Flint as a cruelly manipulated woman than it is to treat her as a vengeful harpy? I’m not going to try to guess, and I suspect that the truth is a lot more boring than either. It’s just a bunch of not particularly nice people, who have all badly compromised themselves for stupid reasons, arguing with each other in public, and doesn’t really signify anything more substantial than that.

Hiya red pesto,

I think I need to explain what I’m saying in a little more detail – it’s not the ‘dressing too feminine’ part that gets on my wick, but the cynical ‘if I appear in a national newspaper in tight frocks, I’ll draw the spotlight, because that’s the age we live in and I know I can take advantage of it,’ feeling I got from the whole thing. It’s about Flint cynically tapping into the ‘show us yer tits’ aspect of the modern mainstream media. Point is – why did she do that, and why did she do that when she did it? Alix Mortimer has a good piece on the oddity of that shoot and the timing:

http://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/window-dressing-eh/

I also found it extremely odd – Flint would have known that appearing in sexy poses in a tight frock would get a reaction – it always does. So why did she do it? What was the political point? I’m not entirely sure what the political point was, but certainly, one of the results was that she lost credibility – for herself, and for women, by putting sex into politics, when the rest of us are trying to get it out. So as to speak.

Hi Rob,

That’s an interesting reading and I hadn’t thought of it. I’d have to say that if Brown’s henchpersons DID pressure FLINT into stripping down to divert the crowds, she SHOULD speak out about that. That’s a whole other story, and it should be told if it is – ie, if Brown is walking round the office saying – ‘I need someone else to draw the lightening for a bit – Caroline, how about you show the papers yr fanny.’

Surely not?

Good piece and I think you’re right, essentially – but I can’t help thinking the likes of Flint are less than innocent in some of this. What the hell was she doing in an Observer photo shoot in tight frocks the week or so before?

I don’t see why this has any bearing on anything. People like Cameron have graced the front cover of GQ, but that doesn’t mean people constantly refer to that (except Iain Dale etc).

And I have no idea why the Guardian would go with that as the front-page picture, except perhaps to say oh look, Govt minister stands provocatively for a magazine shoot, isn’t it terrible?.

Regardless of Flint’s opportunism, that shouldn’t detract from the despicable way women ministers are treated by the press.

20. Rob Knight

Kate @20:

That’s a whole other story, and it should be told if it is – ie, if Brown is walking round the office saying – ‘I need someone else to draw the lightening for a bit – Caroline, how about you show the papers yr fanny.’

It sounds like something that might have happened in an episode of The Thick Of It and on that basis is quite probably true…

I’m not quite sure I’d call it ‘stripping’ (that, presumably, was plan B…) but I can easily imagine how a junior minister might be pressured into doing or saying all kinds of things on the basis that “this is how you can best help the party” and, more importantly “it’ll be good for your career”. What’s pretty awful about Caroline Flint is that it seems she was OK with this until it turned out that it wasn’t good for her career after all.

The problem here, I think, is the system of patronage that has backbench MPs wanting to be PPSs, PPSs wanting to be junior cabinet ministers and junior cabinet ministers wanting to be senior ministers or PM. Sexism is an irrelevant argument, though I can understand why it’s a more fun one to have.

Sunny,

Love you man, but disagree, to an extent at least – us females can surely influence the way we appear in the press? And of course Flint’s appearance in that photoshoot has relevance – apart from anything else, it upset feminists like me. Doesn’t my opinion count, as a woman? I felt let down by her – how can you say that has no relevance? I watch women in the press and politics very closely, not least because I’m still – tragic at my age, I know – casting around for great female role models.

As I say, I consider myself feminism personnified, but I dislike it in the extreme when women who don’t need to and who are in a perfect position to promote other, more important, aspects of womanhood take advantage of the cheapest aspects of the mainstream press to advance an agenda. (It all takes on a slightly different perspective if Rob is right and Gordon’s heavies forced her to participate in those pictures, though. That’s some twisted shit, man).

Agree that the way women are presented in the press is generally terrible, but don’t you also think that us girls have a responsibility to each other to wear down the press’ sexism by not engaging in it? If we all refused to flash our knickers at cameras, there wouldn’t be any fanny pictures, would there?

Apart from those upskirt ones pervs do on the tube, etc.

Jesus – yr right, Rob. The Thick of It – of course.

Can’t believe I was that innocent. Why do I keep taking this shit at face value?

Good to see I was wrong about the better bits of the lefty sisterhood in my post 🙂

I kind of can’t believe it *really* happened like I suggested, and yet, and yet… it fits. Has Flint done anything like that shoot before, can y’all tell me?

Interesting, see this from the Observer’s follow up article today:

What comes across with Flint is how let down she feels. “Whenever it was a difficult week, I was used, I was sent out to do Any Questions on the week of the Damian McBride emails, I did Question Time, but my loyalty was always being questioned, my work wasn’t valued.”

Emphasis mine.

This is the sort of thread that that makes left-leaning feminists sound incredibly stupid.

On the one hand, Flint is rightly criticised for her self-aggrandising mendacity and on the other for being better looking than the standard Labour apparat chick.

Not much of an achievement incidentally.

It is self evident that when career politicians are promoted because of their gender, you are going to get politicians operating at a level beyond their abilities. Compare Flint and Harman with Castle and Williams if you doubt this.

Add a culture in which advancement depends upon sacificing ideas and principles to supporting the party line and the result is ineptitude- brutally demonstrated by the pathetic attempt at a coup by the Blairists.

What is amusing about Flint’s demise is that it was brought about by the same self serving ambition that characterised her rise. No wonder she was pissed off.

All credit to Brown for calling her bluff.

It is self evident that when career politicians are promoted because of their gender, you are going to get politicians operating at a level beyond their abilities. Compare Flint and Harman with Castle and Williams if you doubt this.

Oh yeah, because Purnell, Andy Burnham etc are really powerfully intelligent figures with brilliant things to say.

Agree that the way women are presented in the press is generally terrible, but don’t you also think that us girls have a responsibility to each other to wear down the press’ sexism by not engaging in it? If we all refused to flash our knickers at cameras, there wouldn’t be any fanny pictures, would there?

Kate, I don’t disagree, but surely a women is allowed to be in the press without everyone taking that as licence to attack her in misogynist ways? All Flint did was pose in some dresses. I didn’t really look at that and think – well, if she ever criticises the PM for using women just to pretend he cares about gender equality, then she’s got no right to do that.

I can separate out the fact that Flint was opportunistic in her reaction, but that doesn’t mean Brown’s administration is blameless.

Oh yeah, because Purnell, Andy Burnham etc are really powerfully intelligent figures with brilliant things to say.

No they are not.

Compare these non-entities with Tony Benn.

He is still virtually the only Labour MP whose pronouncements are informed by principle. He called this week for a debate on policy- Afghanistan, Trident, ID cards etc.

Where are the rest of them?.

‘I can separate out the fact that Flint was opportunistic in her reaction, but that doesn’t mean Brown’s administration is blameless.’

Yep, I think we’re on the same page there. Where we differ is in our reaction to those pictures. I didn’t see those as just posing in some dresses. I saw them as sexual shots (and they are rather posed and provocative) that made me feel disappointed. I feel that women who pose that way give the other side ammunition and that we all have a responsibility not to do that.

He is still virtually the only Labour MP whose pronouncements are informed by principle. He called this week for a debate on policy- Afghanistan, Trident, ID cards etc.

This is what Jon Cruddas just did too today.

OK

That’s two.

Alix @26 – it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to be ‘Minister for 8.10am on the Today programme’ (Flint, Blears, Prescott, McNulty, Major Eric Joyce, Keith Vaz…)

Kate @ me:

I think I need to explain what I’m saying in a little more detail – it’s not the ‘dressing too feminine’ part that gets on my wick, but the cynical ‘if I appear in a national newspaper in tight frocks, I’ll draw the spotlight, because that’s the age we live in and I know I can take advantage of it,’ feeling I got from the whole thing. It’s about Flint cynically tapping into the ’show us yer tits’ aspect of the modern mainstream media. Point is – why did she do that, and why did she do that when she did it?

I’d agree with you there – only the timeline to get from the idea, to the execution, to the publication of the Observer Women’s magazine must have been too long for it to be a short-term gimmick to distract from the government’s troubles.

But lets be clear, what kind of politics did Flint represent?

Frankly, I am sick to the back teeth of women like Flint who are happy to carry out the neoliberal agenda that attacks working class women yet complain about sexism when it suits their own opportunism.
Why didn’t Flint et al speak out about the sexism in the boys’ club that is known as Parliament before. Why now? It is just plain cynical.
The politics of NL isn’t about principle it is about careerism. They have successfully sucked the politics out of Labour, along with democracy and accountability.

I would take Flint et al more seriously if they had the guts and the spine to stand up to the neoliberal agenda and spoke out against the political attacks that have created a more unequal society where women are on the sharp end. Flint was the one who said that to get a council house you have to get a job. That was her proposal. And would impact on women in society.
Where was her solidarity then with women?

Yes, more women in Parliament but women who are solid and show solidarity. Women who have spoken out and defied the NL line. Where was Flint and co. speaking out against the Welfare Reform Bill? Lynne Jones did an excellent job speaking out. Lone though.

The appalling consequences of the WRB will be experienced by working class women esp. lone parents.

Where were these women like Flint, Blears, Smith and so on? They are self-serving individualists.

They coulda shoulda spoken out about the sexism before ….why now?

This is my take on Flint and Co.

http://harpymarx.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/nothing-more-than-self-serving-apparatchiks/

Dumb question, I don’t doubt, but what is the neoliberal agenda?

Great post, Harpymarx. Exactly right. Hear hear.

Thanks Kate. Much appreciated.

The reaction of the “liberal” media when the token babe decided to think for herself instead of conforming to the diktat of the Politically Correct Thought Police was very revealing. They are all for women’s rights so long as the women don’t step out of line.

The reaction of the “liberal” media when the token babe decided to think for herself instead of conforming to the diktat of the Politically Correct Thought Police was very revealing. They are all for women’s rights so long as the women don’t step out of line.

Err, what?

surely a women is allowed to be in the press without everyone taking that as licence to attack her in misogynist ways? All Flint did was pose in some dresses.

I agree with Kate. Caroline Flint didn’t just pose in some dresses, she allowed The Observer to publish a selection of photographs that were classically submissive, orientated purely around her gender rather than her career which should have been her primary concern.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2009/may/10/fashion-caroline-flint?picture=346969479
In the second photo she’s looking up at the camera with her head at an angle. How often do you see a man in that pose? In the fourth she is actually reclined on a couch in a classically submissive, deferential posture. A lot of people are immune to this kind of photography because they are used to seeing women posed in this way but it’s completely unnatural and entirely a result of societal perception of women as sex objects. If you still don’t get it then let’s just take a moment to imagine David Miliband being photographed like that. How about Margaret Thatcher? Harriet Harman? Yvette Cooper? Perhaps you can recall a male politician being photographed from above in a submissive posture? Doing a clothing shoot for a national newspaper? The problem is that Caroline Flint may have been discriminated against because she was female but she doesn’t even understand that she allowed herself to be discriminated against extremely publicly and unnecessarily. She showed a basic misunderstanding of what sexism is but then claimed that she was a victim of it so how on earth can anyone trust that the problem she perceived was correctly interpreted by her? This is only further backed up by HarpyMarx’s point about the WRB.

@ 39 Kentron

What are you having a promlem with in my comment? Caroline Flint is an inelligent, independent minded woman. She made her own mind up to resign just as she made up her own mind to pose for some glamour shots.

And look at the Politically Correct Thought Police tearing into her now for not conforming to the official “women must not be seen as sexy” line. She is accused of allowing herself to be objectified, pandering to male sexism and a whole catalogue of cimes.

Years ago when I had a good physique I did some glamour shots, beefcake they were called then, to draw attention to something I was involved in. The women in the group put me up for it. When approached later by a gay magazine to do a shoot for them I declined for the simple reason I was not willing to shave my chest and legs. The money they were offering was penuts but had shaving not been a condition I would have done it for a laugh. None of that affected my performance as a management consultant in any way.

So I’m asking can we drop the idiotic pretence that a man could never be asked to do a shoot like Caroline did. She did what she did, no big deal. And no reason to deny her the right to complain about misogyny in the Labour party.

Clearer now?

#41: I disagree with a number of your presumptions (that Ms. Flint is “intelligent” or “independent-minded”, or that her actions had anything to do with “misogyny”), but that definitely makes your point clearer. Thanks.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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    RT @pickledpolitics: Labour women: demonised and dismissed – (on LibCon) http://tr.im/nIkg

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    RT @pickledpolitics: Labour women: demonised and dismissed – (on LibCon) http://tr.im/nIkg

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    Laboour women have been demonised and dismissed – new blog post on Liberal Conspiracy – http://tiny.cc/vfoVm

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