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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser