It’s a funny life, being a Tory woman. A few years ago, I was at the Thatcherite Centre for Policy studies, celebrating a book launch by a major figure on the eurosceptic right. After the speeches and general congratulation, a whiskered old codger next to me raised a glass to a few hangers-on in a drunken corner. “To Maggie, foundress of these hallowed halls. Who never needed a bl**dy all women shortlist.” Shortly afterwards, this champion of women’s progress asked me if I’d like some help considering whether to become a candidate. And with a debonair wink, he placed an arthritic hand upon my arse.
For the last two decades, the glorious reign of our Maggie has allowed the Conservative party to get out of any sexism row scot-free. Maggie reached the top of the Conservative party; ergo the Conservative party cannot be sexist. Today, Theresa May becomes our second female Prime Minister – and a second female Conservative leader. This, for all Laurie Penny’s caveats, is a huge step forward. It’s not just that we get to celebrate the end of the Etonian Borstal break-out brigade, or hope that, Sandberg-style, our new PM will lean in and demand more women’s loos in No 10. If she can banish the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May might teach the Tories – and the headline writers – that there’s more than one way to be a woman in charge. That would be a service to women inside and outside Parliament.
The danger lies in validating further that old Tory lie that woman don’t face extra barriers in their party. For Andrea Leadsom, confirming this comforting illusion was part of her appeal. After the news that she’d beaten Michael Gove on the ballot, she told reporters: “The great news is we have an all-female shortlist with no positive discrimination or anything, isn’t that fantastic?” (Not entirely true: one Leave campaign source said of her rise to prominence “we only put Andrea on TV because we were desperate for a woman front of house.”)
Leadsom’s comments on motherhood, of course, owe something to old fears about the monstrosity of women with fallow wombs. Elizabeth I, the health of whose body represented the state, was accused of faking her periods through self-harm: “she has hardly ever had the purgations proper to all women”, claimed the Vatican’s representative in France, and as such, her inner equilibrium was inevitably unstable.
The more palatable, modern phrasing of this distaste – that all politicians ought to have children – is well-established on the Tory Right. Jennifer Aniston may have chosen today to announce that “we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child”, but Edward Leigh’s Cornerstone Group is less convinced.
Thus Leadsom’s most crashing assumption, despite admitting she barely knew Theresa May, was the line that “I am sure Theresa will be really, really sad that she doesn’t have children.” To be fair, May had anticipated her, giving a heavily choreographed kitchen-interview to the Daily Mail in which she expressed her regret and implied she and her husband had sought fertility treatment. When real liberation comes, women in power won’t have to explain or apologise for their reproductive status. Nor will they need to represent a Tory Everywoman. If you’ve never stepped outside of Eastbourne, perhaps, ‘normal women’ have children, but on closer inspection those normal women are too busy covering childcare, caring for Granny and working the double shift in Tesco to sit late in the House of Commons.
Such misogyny has swirled around this contest, from both left and right. You don’t have to like Sarah Vine to recognise that “Lady Macbeth” is one of the oldest tropes in the book (Shakespeare’s quasi-witch descends, through Renaissance translations of Seneca, from the blood-soaked, adulterous Clytemnestra of Greek myth; with her fantasy of beating to death “the babe that milks me,” Lady Macbeth, too, is defined in opposition to healthy motherhood.) On Monday, an image circulated on Twitter of Theresa May as Ursula, high villainess of Disney’s Little Mermaid. If you have to go with an image of evil from America’s most commercial cultural monolith, try to avoid the sea-witch with bulging breasts and murky tentacles under her skirt.
This stuff matters. As I’ve written elsewhere, Theresa May’s political persona has always been defined by her gender. “Not clubbable”, say colleagues, which suggests she hasn’t yet joined Nicholas Soames on the Cigar Committee at White’s. If she’s reserved, formal, authoritative, imagine a female PM who gossiped, flirted and swapped confidences over lasagna. Women who insist on their authority – May was known for chairing the most formal of meetings at the Home Office – do so not because they need the kicks, but because no one else will assert it for them.
None of that makes Theresa May a new Thatcher. She’s not known for blinkered ideology – if anything, her politique pragmatism makes her unpopular with zealots in the Thatcher mode, such as Michael Gove. What she does have in common with Thatcher is that she bases much of her appeal on being tough on crime and national security. For female politicians the world over, toughness is the easy substitute for masculinity. If May tacks to the right during her premiership (and this week she’s been looking steadily populist), our chances of seeing a real alternative to the Maggie model recede.
Whatever she does, the Thatcher headlines will continue thick and fast. So too will the chorus of Tory self-congratulation. During his last PMQs, David Cameron crowed: “2-0 on women prime ministers and not a pink bus in sight”.
If May wants to prove that the change is substantial, she’ll need to start by mentoring other women in the party – and dropping the Cameron model of sprinking the junior ranks with women in high-visbility, low-authority positions. For all our quibbles, however, she has already done the most important thing. Next time we see a woman enter Downing Street, she won’t be instantly compared to Thatcher. Unlike her male peers (with 52 role models to chose from and counting), she’ll have two paradigms of female power to pursue. It’s not much. But we’re getting there.