Cut female Tory politicians some slack - womanhood isn't weakness

Equality means judging women by the same standards as men. Margaret Thatcher wasn't a bad women or mother - she was a bad human.

 

Being that, by mid-afternoon last Tuesday, we officially reached media Thatcheration point, it pains us somewhat to jump on this particular bandwagon. But there you go - we’re in desperate need of what editors like to call a "news peg" and she is ours. You might think that everything that could be written about Maggie T has already been written, and it’s true, a much more verbose version of this article probably has appeared in an undergraduate gender studies thesis somewhere, probably at the University of Sussex in 1985. But it is the cross which, as professional feminists, we must bear.

We’re assuming that most of you have already read Russell Brand’s heartfelt retrospective on Maggie T’s legacy, but if you haven’t, then the web editor has kindly provided a link. The piece appeared both on the Guardian and the Huffington Post websites, with the Guardian opting for "I always felt sorry for her children" as a headline, and HuffPo "Remembering Margaret Thatcher: Britain’s Unmaternal National Matriarch". It’s a fine piece of writing, about how it feels to be one of "Thatcher’s children" on this day of what Brand dubs "matriarchal mourning". It also rendered explicit a thought process that has been bubbling under the surface throughout the week’s eulogising: our determination, as a nation, to define Thatcher not merely by her deeds and words but by her gender.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad", wrote the poet Philip Larkin. If we take that to be true, then the last week has seen Thatcher’s children very much working through their issues, on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum, and endlessly and doggedly in print. "'Thatcher as mother' seemed, to my tiddly mind, anathema’," wrote Brand, as he struggles to mentally reconcile the role of  "warrior Queen" with "also gave birth", "how could anyone who was so resolutely Margaret Thatcher be anything else?" Meanwhile, to characterise the Telegraph’s coverage as one, long protracted wail of "MUMMMMYYYYYYYYYYY" may seem mockingly reductive, but. But.

Thatcher’s "unmaternal" hardness, her uncompromising, ruthless individualism, are qualities that are completely incompatible with how we, as a society, view womanhood. As a gender, woman are naturally expected to embody qualities such as empathy, caring, tenderness. Thatcher seemed to represent none of these things. Brand said that as a child he wondered from whom Mark and Carol would get their cuddles. Their mum was made of iron, after all. Thatcher was not soft like a woman should be, she was a mummy gone rogue. The mother of a thousand dead, as the Crass single had it. A woman who took milk away, when her natural duty was to provide it.

To some, particularly the lefty lower orders with their strange, mollycoddling parenting centred around love and nurturing, Thatcher failed as a woman. She rejected all those soft, maternal feelings that come part and parcel with the female sex. Equally, you could speculate that this is part of the reason why the male upper classes resort to such bizarre levels of hagiography when it comes to Margaret Thatcher. She reminds them of their own cold, distant mothers. Pack you off to school at four and be done with you. Hide and seek on the train station plaform, as you count to ten and mum walks briskly off the other way, to be worshipped from Stowe, at a distance, forevermore. No wonder they hate Nanny so much, with her welfare state safety net and her unconditional promise to look after you no matter what. Spineless helicopter parenting. What this country needs is some tough love.

Yes, you could speculate, but to do so would be bullshit, because, despite hundreds or years of stereoptyped gender roles, "monster" and "mother" are not mutually exclusive traits. To imply so buys into a quasi-Victorian narrative that motherhood, and the empathy that comes with it, somehow compromises rational thought. That there is no space for the emotions of women in the political arena, particularly not conservatism, which, being a selfish, uncaring ideology, is typically male territory. Just look at the way Louise Mensch (who for a while looked to be the next Thatcher) was treated when she gave up her position as an MP in order to concentrate on her children. Her refusal to pretend that they did not exist was seen as weakness. Likewise Nadine Dorries’  daughters were seen to be compromising her when they announced their existence by talking the press rather than being seen and not heard. Edwina Currie, meanwhile, makes a hard working mum who "went hungry to feed her children" cry on national radio, while Theresa May, in her capacity not just as Home Secretary but as Home Wrecker, coldheartedly breaks up families when implementing immigration policy which, though it may sound heartless, is what David Cameron pays her to do.

Perhaps the continued peddling of this line of thought goes some way to explaining the Left’s discomfort with Conservative women. It is as though their very emotionless, robotic existence does not compute, and it is to their detriment that they fell back on the "matriarch" as a trope. There is a fundamentally sexist school of thought that sees Tory women as strange, outlying creatures, whose greed and selfishness grate jarringly against their femininity. You could argue that, in order to succeed in public life, women have had to adopt many male traits, and to an extent you’d be correct. But one’s ability to reproduce does not preclude one’s ability to be a total bastard; women can be monsters too. If we are to demand full gender equality, then we need to judge women using the same moral scale as we do men. A vagina, and the children that come out of it, are not factors which make a female politician more or less evil than a male one, no. It is her actions, and her policies that do that. A traitor to her gender? Sure, but not because she made a bad woman or a bad mother, but because she made a bad human.

Margaret Thatcher in 1975. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.