Over the last few days, newspapers have paid a great deal of attention to Carrie Symonds, the fiancé of Boris Johnson and former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.
It is reported that she, along with Munira Mirza, Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, and Allegra Stratton, the new face of Number 10 press briefings, objected to Johnson’s plans to make Lee Cain his chief of staff, and ultimately caused Cain’s subsequent resignation. Many see this as evidence that Symonds has too much power, and have even joked that she is now the de facto Prime Minister.
The intricacies of what happened with Cain at Number 10 still aren’t completely clear. But whatever the case, it was no excuse for the avalanche of sexism that has been directed at Symonds and the other women reportedly involved in Cain’s departure.
Take some of the words that have been printed about Symonds. Papers claim she is called a ”princess” and “dubbed the ‘Duchess of Downing Street’”. Would anyone – in any context – have ever referred to Philip May, Denis Thatcher, or the male partner of any female politician as a “prince” or a “Duke”? I think we all know the answer.
In another example of sexism, newspapers claim that Symonds teamed up with Mirza and Stratton to see off Cain. One headline reads “How ‘Carrie’s Crew’ saw off the ‘Brexit Boys” about the trio, as though they were 10-year-olds telling tales on Cain to a teacher.
Aside from this being an infantilising description of some of the most important figures in the Government, it reflects a depressing tendency to group women together, as if they think the same. Perhaps Mirza, Stratton and Symonds all objected to Cain for their own individual reasons. Why relate it back to their gender?
Critics of Symonds will say their main objection is not that she is a woman, but that she has interfered too much in political decisions. However, it begs questions about what this “interference” means. It is not unrealistic, for example, to assume that Prime Ministers’ partners might offer opinions, with varying levels of zealousness, on their other half’s work (even if that is running the country). And leaders have to decide how much they want to listen to the advice.
Symonds is not just any political partner, either; her experience as former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party, and as one of the most prominent campaigners in last year’s elections, puts her in a unique position in terms of political insight.
But that’s not the point. The point is the level of vitriol directed at Symonds. It is all the more pertinent in the same week Kate Bingham, Head of the Government’s vaccine task force, found herself receiving equally harsh treatment, albeit because of a £670,000 PR bill. Whatever one’s view on the PR view, it does seem to me that women in these positions sign up to an astronomical level of scrutiny.
As one paper wrote about Bingham “She is obviously very talented, she speaks her mind and gets straight to the point, but has frustrated a lot of people at the department”, which I also cannot imagine being said about a man.
In short, we think we have come a long way in fighting sexism, and in many ways we have. But there are still things that people say and do, sometimes without even noticing, that reveal just how unfamiliar many are with the idea of women occupying political spaces and roles – even in 2020. Referring to Symonds as a “princess” is just the start, unfortunately.