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Finland's Sanna Marin smiles and leans over her podium during a meeting of the Nordic Council
Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin has had to defend her diplomacy and her dancing. Kimmo Brandt / EPA-EFE

From Queen Elizabeth to Sanna Marin, young women in politics have always faced prejudice

Two prime ministers meeting to discuss relations between their countries is standard practice in international politics. But New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Finland’s Sanna Marin had to defend a recent summit after a reporter asked whether they met because they are both young, female leaders.

As prime ministers, Ardern and Marin have indeed broken barriers in politics. But the prejudice demonstrated by this question has a long history. Young women have always faced scepticism about their experience and ability to rule.

This was even true of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Questioning 15 prime ministers in weekly private sessions for 70 years surely gave her insight into the challenges of government. But when she first took the throne, Winston Churchill thought she was “just a child” and too inexperienced for the role, according to historian Kate Williams. We have to wonder whether he would have said that about a 25-year-old king.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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UK society has a complicated relationship with age. Older people are seen as wise and experienced, but also out of touch and mentally and physically in decline. Younger people are seen as inventive but unreliable, or even reckless.

These are merely generalisations, of course. But they still have an impact on workplaces and political institutions, making it easier for older people to establish themselves as experts. It is partly for this reason that the UK parliament remains dominated by older people.

This is certainly true in the House of Lords, which retains 92 places for hereditary peers. Hereditary political positions are extremely risky and, of course, unfair. They privilege a tiny number of families, and especially the older generation because you only become eligible when the peer before you (usually your parent) dies.

The rest of the peers are appointed after establishing their careers, so the age of the House of Lords is high to begin with. But as people increasingly marry and die later, it is skewed even further – this year, the average age was 71.

The House of Commons is slightly younger – the average age of MPs was 51 in 2019. In the last 50 years, we have seen an increase in the number of MPs aged 60-69 up to 105. Although those aged between 18-29 have also risen, they still only number 21 MPs.

Young women in the UK parliament

The few young people in the House of Commons are patronised, particularly the women. Prejudice is perpetuated by unthinking negligence as much as active hostility. For decades, MPs and peers of colour (especially women) have reported to me over and over again in interviews that security officers, and even other politicians, assume they are staff or visitors. If you are already struggling with imposter syndrome, which many politicians do, imagine how off-putting it is when people assume you are automatically out of place.

Young women in politics are also frequently targets of horrifying online abuse. In a debate asking the House to consider misogyny a hate crime in 2018, Mhairi Black, the youngest MP ever to be elected aged 20, explained:

There is no softening just how sexualised and misogynistic the abuse is … I’ve been assured multiple times that I don’t have to worry because I am so ugly that no one would want to rape me. All of these insults have been tailored to me because I am a woman.

Even when the abuse is patronising rather than violent, it can be seriously undermining. Just months before her meeting with Ardern, Finland’s leader Marin (at 37, one of the world’s youngest heads of state) was criticised over a video showing her dancing and singing during a night out. The international backlash and political pressure led to Marin taking a drugs test (it was negative). Still, her behaviour was associated with the frivolity of youth – all the more so because she was a good dancer rather than a clumsy one.

All politicians are vulnerable to opponents leaking damaging material, but the specificity of this criticism was significantly shaped by her being a young woman. It was presumably designed to chime with the prejudice that young women tend to be fun-loving and unserious. Politics is serious, and still seen as the preserve of men in most countries around the world.

Mhairi Black, wearing a suit, speaks at a podium behind a placard reading Stronger for Scotland.
When elected in 2015, Mhairi Black was the youngest MP to join the House of Commons since the Reform Act 1832. Wenn Rights Ltd/Alamy

Prejudice in parliaments

Sociologist Nirmal Puwar has pointed out that women – especially young, minority ethnic and working-class women – are seen as invaders into political spaces that have been occupied by white men for centuries.

Societal inequalities around age and gender are often amplified in spaces like parliament, where representatives engage in intense power struggles. Prejudice based on these issues is used as a weapon by politicians (and their supporters) against each other to patronise, make allegations and exclude.

But the opposite of prejudice – a sense of common, shared experience – can be an antidote. In solidarity with Marin, women in Finland and Denmark uploaded videos of themselves dancing, a riposte to misogyny and ageism that did no harm to anyone.

At a time when older people are increasingly struggling to keep up with the digital world and lack a sense of urgency about climate change (the effects of which will hardly affect them), they may need to make way for more young people in the political world, whether we like it or not. We just need to figure out a way to make being in the public eye more bearable for these young politicians.

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