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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder