There is one aspect of Theresa May’s character that invites admiration – her sheer grit.
Her stamina and staying power: her ability to stand up at the House of Commons and take hours of mocking, jeering and odium – let alone the stream of invective she receives otherwise and across the media, mainstream and social – and still keep on keeping on. Hand the woman a medal for this quite heroic attribute: perseverance.
Some feminists believe that women find it tougher in politics because, in this most adversarial of arenas, there is an underlying misogyny. This is a man’s game, in its fundamental structure, and women take more flak when they become visibly part of it.
And some women who are far from being feminists feel that Theresa is given a harder time because she is a woman: that her opponents would never descend to such depths of opprobrium had she been a man. She’s been nicknamed the “Maybot” and repeatedly portrayed in cartoons as a robot-like creature, with no imagination or judgement. The cartoons are often vicious in other ways too: she’s portrayed as an ugly figure dripping in blood and guts, or brainlessly obeying the orders of Jean-Claude Juncker.
The parliamentary party’s vote of no confidence showed that more than a third of her Tory colleagues indeed have no confidence in her, and it’s known that some loathe her. She’s seen as a “supplicant” to Brussels (and Dublin) rather than as a tough negotiator who should have more robustly affirmed Britain’s entitlement to leave the EU. She kisses Juncker, and Donald Tusk and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. (But not Angela Merkel, who holds the real power: no girly kissy-huggy body language from Angela!)
Some people feel, consciously or unconsciously, that a woman in the public arena shouldn’t be treated quite as toughly as a man. I heard my own son remark, perhaps chivalrously, “Nobody would want to see their mum be subjected to the kind of abuse Theresa May gets.” Perhaps, in the circumstances, not being a mother has left May freer of such emotional considerations. She doesn’t have to bear in mind that there’s some offspring at home writhing in embarrassment at what’s been going on.
However, if you are going to claim equality, then you have to take the rough with the smooth. And there are some advantages to being a woman in politics – rarer specimens, until now, and thus easier for a female to make a mark.
Yet it’s striking that the Brexit debate in Britain has produced such a plethora of political women now visibly part of the conversation, with the bookies giving odds on Amber Rudd, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey as Theresa’s successor. There’s also the cast of female parliamentarians as critical of May’s leadership as any man might be – Priti Patel, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Nadine Dorries, Suella Braverman (like Patel, also from an Indian heritage): and not forgetting Arlene Foster – not in the Westminster parliament, but a power politician just the same. (Laura Perrins, the Irishwoman who runs the ConservativeHome website, is also a fierce May adversary.)
Sisterhood? In politics, women are just like men. They divide along party and “tribal” lines. Loyalty to a political position invariably trumps gender. Arlene’s adherence to the values of the DUP are a lot more relevant than the fact that she shares XX chromosomes with Theresa.
It is just 100 years ago this week that women won a qualified right to vote at Westminster, and the right, too, to be elected to parliament – as we know from our celebrations of Constance Markievicz’s achievement. The opponents of suffrage – notably Queen Victoria, who was totally against votes for women – feared that politics would “drag women down” to the unsavoury level of gutter diatribes. Ladies should be above such rabble.
But women chose to enter the fray, and now, they are in the full glare of battle. Many relish it: the scenes in the House of Commons over the past two weeks have frequently been described as “shambolic”, but they have also been headily exciting, pulsating with drama and a piquant sense of danger.
The political animal embraces the high-risk, high-reward wager: the rewards in politics can be enormous – power, position, and indeed money, since they seldom starve, even out of office.
So are the risks: the brickbats, the catcalls, the perils of a humiliating fall from grace.
If Theresa were a man, in this situation, there would be just as much opprobrium thrown at her – perhaps in a slightly different register but, essentially, the vituperative tone would be the same.
What she’s really demonstrating is that a woman can be strong enough to take the scale of the derision with fortitude and resilience, and that, in itself, is a kind of feminist victory.
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