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7 July 2016

A Tory leadership race between two women is not a feminist revolution

I have spent the day being told I should be pleased that the future leader of my country will be female. This is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph.

By Laurie Penny

The next prime minister of Britain will be a woman. She will not be elected by the people. She will be one of two candidates left over after all the men running for Tory leader backstabbed and blustered themselves out of the running. Neither Andrea Leadsom nor Theresa May are the figureheads anyone with a scrap of interest in women’s freedom would choose, presuming we got a say, which we don’t.  Nonetheless, I have spent the entire day being told that I should be pleased at the fact that the future leader of my country will be a female person. This is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph.

In times of upheaval, women are invariably called on to clear up the mess the men have made. As the greatest political crisis in recent memory continues to roll over Britain, and leader after craven wannabe leader abdicates responsibility for the fallout, I find myself recalling Mrs Lintott’s declaration in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. “History,” she says, “is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind – with the bucket.”

Following the ugly implosion of both major parties, it now seems that female politicians may be left to tidy up the wreckage – and they will need an awfully big bucket. We are now facing the very real prospect of a female prime minister facing down a female leader of the opposition. The Scottish National Party is already led by Nicola Sturgeon, the only apparent adult in top office across the entire United Kingdom. In four months, a female prime minister might be calling Hillary Clinton to congratulate her on her election as the first female president of the world’s only superpower.

Let’s not bring out the bunting just yet. Men still outnumber women in parliament by a ratio of more than two to one. Unless you truly believe that men are twice as capable as women, this seems insufficient. The fact that the leaders and deputy leaders of both major parties in the disintegrating sandcastle of British politics are men has not been deemed worthy of comment, of course. And nor has the fact that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were fronted by overgrown schoolboys prepared to rip up the fabric of civil society to beat their playground rivals.

One of the perks of being a man in politics – one of the perks of being a man in general – is never having to answer the “gender question”. Nobody is asking if there is something about men in politics that makes them unfit for power, as many of our current leaders clearly are.

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Female politicians certainly appear to have more resilience than men. No woman goes into politics for an easy ride. Female MPs, ministers and lawmakers of all stripes face down harassment and threats. Women still have to answer for their entire sex in a way that men are never expected to. If women had been in charge of this EU fiasco, I guarantee you that we would now be recommending the removal of the female franchise and rehearsing jokes about how women can’t steer a car, much less a country.

Can female politicians do a better job of fixing this mess than men? The only reason we’re asking that is that they’ve never been given the chance. On the one hand, they could hardly do worse; on the other, the mess is monumental, and whoever is in charge of the long, uncertain slog back to stability will doubtless face precisely the public opprobrium that both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have proven too cowardly to contemplate, with some additional press commentary on their shoes, haircuts and outfit choices to distract us all from the collapse of civil society. I can hardly wait.

The truth is that women are not, in fact, magic. Women are, in fact, people, and people who happen to be female are no less complicated and unpredictable than those who happen to be male. Women have just as much capacity to be venal, petty and egomaniacal as men do, although they are less likely to be indulged in such behaviour. Women have just as much potential for crashing incompetence as men, although female mediocrity is far less frequently rewarded with jobs in government. The country has yet to recover from Margaret Thatcher’s manicured massacre of our social fabric and yet we have somehow already forgotten that The Man can be a woman.

The fact of being female does not mean a leader will deliver for women. Neither of the remaining Tory candidates seems poised to turn parliament into a knitting circle. Theresa May has a staggeringly right-wing record on immigration, has been involve in the deportation of refugee women fleeing rape and violence, and voted to cut abortion rights. Andrea Leadsom is a right-wing religious fanatic who did not vote for gay marriage. Both of them have stood up for welfare cuts that will hit women hardest. No woman, however powerful, can escape sexism, but Leadsom  in particular seems ready to use it to her advantage: in a typical newspaper interview, she described the delicious Sunday roasts she makes for her family, positioning herself as the sort of mother of the nation we might run to after having messed our pants in public. That sort of power play is many things, but it is not feminism.

In the midst of this panicked pound-shop Thatcher tribute band contest, one thing is clear. Whoever is running the world come November, it is women as a whole who will be left holding the bucket. As the economic and civil consequences of Brexit unfold, it is women who will be expected to do the emotional and practical work to keep families and communities functioning, just as they have done through six years of austerity. Women have filled the gap in public services with free and voluntary labour. Women have already been hardest hit by public-sector job cuts, just as they are already over-represented among the low-paid, precarious workers who suffered most in the last recession. Women will be expected to pay for the mistakes of men in power, and to do so thanklessly and for free, without making a fuss. (I could not help but notice that almost all of my acquaintances on the left who argued for Brexit on the basis that more pain now would lead to revolution later were male. The theory that social collapse is to be welcomed as a precursor to a people’s uprising is wearily typical of masculine leftist posturing, assuming as it does that women will be around to set the bones, sew up the wounds and sweep up the debris if the uprising fails to fall out as planned.)

It remains to be seen if the situation for women throughout the country will be made any better by women in Westminster. Poor and vulnerable men, after all, have not historically been guaranteed a good deal just because they shared a gender with their political leaders. Gender equality, like wealth, tends not to trickle down. It will be interesting to see what the world looks like with more women in top roles, but women aren’t enchanted beings who bring light and harmony to politics by wafting fragrantly through the corridors of power. Women are just people. Sometimes people beat each other down, and sometimes people sell each other out, particularly when a bit of power is on the table. Real equality will only be possible when we realise that. 

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers