Dani Garavelli: remember the last false dawn of feminism

I hope you got your champagne glasses out and toasted the progressiveness of the Tories when it emerged the next prime minister of the UK would be a woman. That's a grand total of two in the last century, and without recourse to those nasty, PC-gone-mad gender quotas. All hail the meritocracy. Why wouldn't you raise a cheer for the shattering of the glass ceiling and the new dawn of gender equality a victory for Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom is certain to usher in?

Britains first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, left the battle for equal pay and maternity rights to her successors in Labour. Photograph: PA
Britains first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, left the battle for equal pay and maternity rights to her successors in Labour. Photograph: PA

Unless, of course, you spotted that until the EU referendum – when a stockpile of boyhood grudges spontaneously combusted – the Conservatives were the epitome of towel-slapping, pig-molesting laddishness; and that the only reason two women are fighting it out to become leader is that their male counterparts have made such a bloody mess of everything. In which case you may have spent Thursday gritting your teeth at smug tweets from the kinds of people who think Margaret Thatcher is a role model for girls.

This is not to diminish the candidates’ abilities, which may or may not abound. Not being Boris Johnson or Michael Gove is, I suppose, an achievement in itself. But the idea that the May vs Leadsom showdown – which has come about by default – enhances Conservatives’ feminist credentials seems as delusional as the notion that either woman will be able to unite the riven country.

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Nor was the sideswipe at the Opposition particularly convincing. “The embarrassing truth about Labour’s record on women has been exposed,” read the headline of a Telegraph column that criticised the party for its failure to produce a single female PM. Admittedly, it is difficult for Labour to occupy the moral high ground when Jeremy Corbyn seems as committed to gender equality as Tam Cowan on a stag do. But Labour still has proportionately more female MPs than the Conservatives (43 per cent compared with 21 per cent) and now Angela Eagle is set to launch a bid for the leadership. It is the left that has fought most of the big battles on equal pay and maternity rights, while the right continues to fetishise a prime minister who won the pulling-the-ladder-up-behind-you trophy a record-breaking 11 years in a row.

If there is one thing Thatcher demonstrated, it is that possessing two X chromosomes doesn’t necessarily make you a supporter of women. Rifling through the back catalogues of May and Leadsom to assess their potential as feminist allies yields mixed results. Both supported austerity policies which impact disproportionately on women. To her credit, May introduced legislation against human trafficking and created a new offence of coercive control, yet she appears to have ignored the maltreatment of female detainees at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

Leadsom is anti-abortion and anti-maternity pay. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, last week she provided a master-class in kicking other women on the way to the top. In an interview with the Times, she used her fertility as a trump card over May who, just days earlier, had spoken of her own thwarted efforts to start a family. Leadsom may be accusing the newspaper of “gutter journalism”, but the transcript shows she believes having children gives her “a very real stake in the future of [the] country, a tangible stake”. May “possibly has nieces and nephews, lots of people, but I have children,” she added, as if her ability to conceive merited a round of applause.

The public fixation with the parental status of politicians extends to men as well as women; it is not unusual to see male leaders play up their hands-on dadness to enhance their electoral prospects. But it has a whole other dimension when women are involved. The description of former Australian PM Julia Gillard as “deliberately barren” and that notorious New Statesman cover – which showed four sad-faced politicians: Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, Liz Kendall and May standing by a cot that contained a ballot box instead of a baby – were potent reminders of society’s abiding distrust of women who don’t reproduce.

So ingrained, in some quarters, is the belief in maternal empathy that May intuited her childlessness would become an issue before Leadsom made it one. Why else would this otherwise private politician feel obliged to offer up her reproductive history for public scrutiny?

However inexperienced she is, Leadsom understands that children, and/or the lack of them, can be used to as a weapon to deny women power. The fact she was prepared not only to draw that weapon – but to embed it firmly between May’s shoulder blades – proves mothers do not always possess the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

What the brouhaha over the Tory leadership contest has done rather neatly is to cast a fresh light on wildly conflicting attitudes towards successful females. On the one hand, we seem to have entered a new era where women reign supreme. Everywhere you look, there they are: confident women taking control. Soon, if we are lucky, Hillary Clinton will swell their ranks.

Yet – in this same era – newspapers continue to treat powerful women as a novelty, devoting more attention to their wardrobes than their policies.

In 2016, it is still possible to open the 
Daily Mail and find a spread on May’s cleavage dominating the budget coverage or to tune into the BBC and hear a journalist utter the sentence: “Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are both women, but they have different views.” Still wedded to female stereotypes, Ken Clarke can call May “a bloody difficult woman” while elsewhere she is praised for cooking a new recipe every week.

This needs to change, and as more 
and more women come to the fore, I expect it will. But on the evidence we have seen so far, I wouldn’t put money on either May or Leadsom being in the vanguard of this or any other feminist crusade.