Theresa May: a forecast for what female leadership will bring to Britain

Published 15th July 2016

There is a saying in Latin America that when one woman comes into politics, she changes, but when many women come into politics, politics changes. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister she was one of very few women in the political arena. By comparison when Theresa May became the second female Prime Minister on Wednesday 13th July 2016, she joined the swelling ranks of female global leaders. What impact will this have on other women? May will work closely with the female chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, to facilitate Brexit negotiations, and allegedly the first call she made as Prime Minister was to Merkel. It is likely that Hilary Clinton will become the first female US President later this year, and Angela Eagle is campaigning for leadership of the Labour Party, contesting Jeremy Corbyn’s incumbency. Where Thatcher avoided policies to help women, what will May do as Prime Minister to fulfil her claims of being a strong proponent of women’s rights?

Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat as MP in the House of Commons, told innumerable stories about the hostility she encountered. One particularly galling anecdote involves Winston Churchill admitting that the male MP’s had tried to ‘freeze her out’. Churchill said that when women entered the House of Commons he felt as if a woman was entering his bathroom and that he had nothing to protect himself with. How far has this picture Churchill so colourfully painted of a furiously defensive, men-only club changed?

Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was conspicuously absent of any encouragement for women’s career advancement. Dame Jenni Murray once asked her on a radio interview how she kept up her professionalism when faced with comments such as French President Mitterand description that she had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’. Margaret refused on live radio to answer the question. This refusal to share her experiences of dealing with the pressures of working in a male-dominated world plays into a narrative that Thatcher ‘drawing up the ladder behind her’. Baroness Young was the only woman deemed ‘good enough’ to be in her cabinet. Thatcher also claimed that ‘women’s lib’ had never helped her and that she did not like ‘strident females’. By contrast, Theresa May describes herself as always having ‘championed women in politics’. In appointing Liz Truss as the Lord Chancellor (or rather Lady Chancellor), May has helped to chip away at the glass ceiling. Truss will be the first female Chancellor in British history.

How has this championing of women in politics translated to May’s political record? She is a self-declared feminist, and founded Women2Win to secure more women candidates in the Conservative party. She is viewed as pragmatic, tough, and as a shrewd operator, and has identified the importance of maximizing on the skills of women to deliver economic benefits to Britain. To achieve this goal she has advocated flexible parental leave and has discussed the importance of providing female role models and mentoring. May has made violence against women a cornerstone of her work during her time as home secretary, introducing the law of coercive control to tackle domestic violence and setting up a nationwide HMIC inquiry into how police deal with domestic violence. Her style of management has been described as instinctively collegiate, an important and traditionally ‘feminine’ characteristic which is seen as conducive to negotiation and settlement.

A significant similarity between the press treatment of Thatcher and May is the focus on their physical appearance, notably never replicated with coverage of male politicians. The level of media scrutiny over a female leader’s appearance is a revealing barometer of gender equality. Margaret Thatcher responded to criticism of her clothes, hair, and voice by softening her appearance and taking voice-coaching lessons. By contrast, May has never altered her appearance or conduct, although admittedly a relentless media obsession with her footwear is not equivalent to the constant berating experienced by Margaret. It can be expected that there will be less tolerance of the kind of ‘lifestyle’ intrigue perpetuated by the press that Margaret Thatcher experienced. People were fascinated by her personal life; her projected image of idealized female domesticity, an immaculate home, cooking breakfast for Denis every morning before leaving and claiming that she never went to a pub unless escorted by a man. In the recent leadership race against challenger Andrea Leadsom, May expressed her wish to ‘to keep my personal life personal’ and hoped that ‘nobody would think that mattered’ on the question of her remaining childless. The shock of a female Prime Minister has therefore already been absorbed and thirty years on less blatantly sexist discourses are to be expected.

In 1972 a radio broadcast spoke to some key women members of parliament, drawing a consensus from all of them that women were under pressure to be more conscientious than their male colleagues, even excessively so, in order that an accusation of their incompetence could never be levied. Margaret Thatcher was purportedly better briefed on any subject than the responsible departmental minister. She was extremely informed, perhaps as Shirley Williams argued, so that men could not say she was not up to the job. Entering a phase where female leadership will be increasingly common, perhaps this pressure on women to be unfalteringly professional will ease. Whereas Thatcher’s combative style of politics made her notorious among her own party members, perhaps May’s more ‘negotiable’ leadership approach will produce better solutions to the challenges faced.

Theresa May can expect some welcome differences in how she is treated by colleagues and the press compared to her predecessor. Westminster is a more accepting place for female politicians, yet it still suffers from severe under-representation of women. The male-dominated environment of Westminster is one that May’s leadership has the capacity to change, and is expected to change. As well as the pressing need for progression, women’s rights will need championing when Britain leaves the European Union. We look forward to seeing what changes she will ring.
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