One of the most irritating things about Brexit at the moment (potential economic catastrophe aside) is the way it has dominated the headlines on a daily basis, side-lining other more interesting stories. Such as this one that occurred in mid-December which went virtually unnoticed. MP Jess Phillips expressed her disgust at the return of Andrew Griffiths to the House of Commons by reading out violent and explicit text messages he had sent to his female constituents. ‘She’s so cute, so sweet,’ Phillips read to the House, ‘I can’t wait to beat her. Can she take a beating?’
It is unclear if the texts were solicited, although the claims by female MPs that this was blatant sexual harassment indicate that they were not. Griffiths revealed he enjoyed the power over women his parliamentary membership gave him, and had sent over two thousand similar messages to two constituents before resigning in June. What angered Phillips however, was that the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, and other Conservative party whips, decided to readmit Griffiths to parliament ahead of Theresa May’s confidence vote, where he voted in her favour.
Why is so little attention being paid to this? Not only did Griffiths behave in a manner so blatantly inappropriate, exploiting his position of privilege and influence for his own sexual satisfaction, but the gravity of his behaviour was set aside for political leverage, albeit temporarily. To me, this indicates that clear-cut instances of abuse of power, harassment and sexism are not being taken seriously enough by the government; imagine what it indicates to the two female constituents. It is outrageous to decide, however momentarily, that the actions of Griffiths are not disrespectful or unprofessional enough to prevent him from making his contribution to the confidence vote, a privilege he has already demonstrated he does not deserve to have.
Parliament must do better than this if it wants to claim with any legitimacy that it is representative of all genders and that it is committed to tackling gender-based violence. Phillips’s decision to publicly shame Griffiths and remind the House of his behaviour is admirable and I applaud her for that, as well as the responses from other female MPs. But why was the reaction so subdued? Why was there no public condemnation of Griffiths by male MPs? And how can Theresa May proclaim herself a feminist, yet recall someone who clearly does not respect women (or his constituents) for the sake of one vote? May herself has been at the receiving end of endless mockery, dismissal and disrespect that is so clearly gendered, yet she did not challenge Griffith’s return, nor did she challenge allegations of his abusive behaviour when she appointed him as her Chief of Staff. It may be unrealistic of me to expect May to tackle every single problematic behaviour she encounters in Parliament. However, from an outsider’s perspective, it appears that May has become adept at weaponising feminism as a nifty buzzword when she needs it, and dropping the rhetoric as soon as everyone stops paying attention.
‘Power’ should be thought of as something diffuse, like a perfume that lingers in the air hours after the wearer has left the room. It is not simply a hierarchical relationship between two or more people, but something that exists in the conversations, knowledge and procedural norms of everyday life; both visible and invisible. Consider this, and consider that patriarchy’s most wielded tool is its power which systematically snakes through every single institution that forms our government. What protects Griffiths, and other male MPs who continue to harass women and exploit their powerful positions, is not just the actions (or inactions) of the House of Commons, but the general, normalised idea that this is what powerful people (usually men) do sometimes, and that’s just how it is. Those horrified by it (usually women) get five minutes to try and explain the awfulness of the situation, and then the world moves on, and something confusing but vaguely Brexit related turns all our heads.
In the end, actions speak louder than words, and both chief Conservative party whips and Theresa May’s actions are practically yelling that sexual harassment by their own colleagues isn’t that big of a deal. That just seems to be the way the cookie crumbles.