A week ago, as the media congratulated Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on keeping her head when all around were losing theirs, I suggested that Britain’s leaders should ‘woman up’. Evidently they got the message. Both the Labour and the Conservative parties are now embroiled in battles over who should lead them, and in both cases the main contenders are women. For Labour, Angela Eagle is poised to challenge the incumbent Jeremy Corbyn; meanwhile, on the Conservative side, the five candidates to replace David Cameron (who resigned after the EU referendum) include two women, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. May has been widely tipped to win, but Leadsom now seems to be gaining ground. Both women are currently ahead of all three men (Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb).
Last week I argued that what keeps women under-represented in positions of leadership isn’t a lack of competence or confidence, it’s our attitudes to female authority. Powerful women are resented in a way their male equivalents are not; the more authoritative a woman sounds, the less likeable a lot of people (both men and women) will find her. But you might think the current situation calls that analysis into question. If we’re so uncomfortable with women taking charge, how have we ended up in a situation where women are the most credible challengers for the top jobs in British politics?
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organization is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
But Mummy is not the only female archetype to have featured in this week’s political narrative, as told in both the print and the broadcast media. Their coverage of the Conservative contest has come straight from the Bumper Book of Old Sexist Clichés.
A particular highlight was the BBC’s confusion as it contemplated a leadership election featuring more than one female candidate. ‘May and Leadsom may both be women’, it reported, ‘but they have quite different views’.
Twitter had some fun with this ridiculous statement. ‘Crikey’, exclaimed one commenter, ‘they’re letting women think different things now??’ Whoever wrote the offending sentence was evidently operating on the ‘default male’ principle I’ve discussed in previous posts. Men, as the unmarked or default category of human beings, can be understood and judged primarily as individuals rather than gendered subjects; women, by contrast, are almost always viewed through a gendered lens. This disparity is easily overlooked when there’s only one woman in an otherwise all-male field; in that (still very common) situation it can seem ‘natural’ to treat her as representing ‘the woman’s perspective’. When there’s more than one, it becomes less natural. By solemnly explaining that May and Leadsom weren’t just generic and interchangeable ‘women’, the BBC exposed the underlying sexism of its own assumptions.
But treating women as individuals is not the only alternative to treating them as an undifferentiated mass. In between these two poles there’s another possibility: bring on the time-honoured female archetypes. Here are just three that featured prominently in last week’s media coverage.
The power behind the throne
What cleared the way for the two Tory women who are currently leading the field was the unexpected withdrawal of Boris Johnson from the race, after his supposed friend and loyal lieutenant Michael Gove made a last minute announcement of his own candidacy. Which apparently he did BECAUSE HIS WIFE TOLD HIM TO. The woman in question, journalist Sarah Vine, was cast by the media as a present-day Lady Macbeth, using a husband who by his own admission was temperamentally unsuited to hold the highest office as a proxy for her own ambitions. For this she was vilified—most notably by another woman journalist, Rachel Johnson. Who happens to be Boris Johnson’s sister. (Cue Tammy Wynette singing ‘Stand By Your Man’.)
This ‘female power behind the throne’ trope is a sexist triple whammy. It blames women for acts of treachery committed by men; it reinforces the view that the ‘natural’ way for women to exercise power is indirectly, via their influence on men; and it also gets used to suggest that a man who allows himself to be influenced by a woman (aka ‘henpecked’ or ‘pussy-whipped’) is weak and unfit to lead.
The family woman
With Johnson gone and Gove’s challenge looking shakier by the hour, Theresa May emerged as the new front-runner, and the much less well-known Andrea Leadsom also began to look like a serious contender. As the media geared up to explain who these women were, another traditional archetype came lumbering into view: the female politician who’s a housewife at heart. She may be running the country, but her family still comes first. Margaret Thatcher was a great performer of this role: old-fashioned though it now appears, it offers women—and especially Conservative women, who need the support of the traditionalists in their party—an opportunity to present themselves as both competent and unthreatening. Their apparent enthusiasm for everyday domesticity is meant to reassure us that they have not been unsexed by power.
Before the referendum, Theresa May’s main concession to the demand for some token display of femininity involved the wearing of slightly unorthodox shoes. But now she’s an aspiring Prime Minister she has turned up the emotional temperature. In what was billed as ‘the most candid and intimate interview she has ever given’, May revealed what the Daily Mail called the ‘softer side to the steely favourite to be the next PM’—most notably by speaking of her own and her husband’s ‘heartbreak’ about not being able to have children. Childlessness is always suspect in women—Nicola Sturgeon was asked about it in the General Election—but it’s more forgivable if it’s involuntary. By speaking openly on this subject, May addressed the one minus-point identified in a Telegraph article assessing her merits as a leader:
She’s been married to the same man since 1980 (morally sound: check), doesn’t have any children (could be a turn-off for some but it does mean she’s less likely to be distracted on the job). She cooks a new recipe every week and goes to church every Sunday: she knows there’s more to life than Westminster.
“When in doubt, cook a Sunday roast, get the family around you and you’ll feel fine afterwards,” she says. “If my boys are there, it’s beef and Yorkshire pudding. If it’s me and my daughter and husband, it’s more likely to be chicken…”
That last bit shows real attention to detail. Chez Leadsom it’s not just the roles that are traditionally gendered, the food on the table is too. Red meat for the boys and white meat for the girls. (‘Beef vs. chicken’ is a classic example of what’s known as ‘metaphorical gender’, where the two items in a pair are judged to express a masculine/feminine contrast despite having no directly gendered meaning—other examples include ‘square vs. circle’ and ‘knife vs fork’).
After last year’s General Election, when both David Cameron and Ed Miliband gave interviews in their kitchens, some commentators suggested that active involvement in ‘the familiar routines of family life’ had become a symbolic marker of likeability for male as well as female politicians. But that moment—if it was one—seems to have passed. No one was asking the men in the Conservative contest what they cook for their families at the weekend, or whether they have children (and if not, why not).
That’s not to say the men have been exempt from gender stereotyping. But with them it’s more about the steeliness than the softness. In its profile of Stephen Crabb (who, like Leadsom, was previously little known outside Conservative circles), the Mail seemed to have come down with a touch of the Vladimir Putins, informing readers that
…rugby-playing wannabe PM Crabb’s broken nose adds grit to his boy-next-door charm.
Crabb’s response to a predictable question about his lack of experience in government prompted another reference to his sporting prowess:
‘I’ve got more experience than Margaret Thatcher had when she became leader,’ Crabb fires back, like the ferocious rugby-tackler he is.
But in interviews with men these passing references to masculine pursuits are largely decorative: in the journalist’s actual conversation with Crabb, the focus was on politics rather than rugby. It’s only women who are required to spend a good part of any interview affirming that something else is more important to them than the job which is the reason they’re being interviewed.
Deadlier than the male
But it hasn’t all been cosy domestic chit-chat. The Guardian’s Andrew Rawnsley, for instance, preferred another familiar formula: ‘the female of the species is deadlier than the male’. Her ‘softer side’ conceals a dark heart, and an insatiable hunger for power over men.
In her quiet but deadly way, Mrs May has been the most ruthless player of them all… She waited for the Tory boys to finish knifing each other in their pantomime version of House of Cards and then elegantly stepped over their twitching corpses to seize pole position for the succession.
Apparently we’re supposed to judge May as somehow more ruthless than Gove or Johnson because she stood quietly on the sidelines while they were figuratively killing each other. And then stepped over their dead bodies in a properly ladylike manner. As he reached for his dictionary of sexist clichés, perhaps Rawnsley regretted that May steps out in kitten heels rather than stilettos. Or perhaps his use of a subtly gendered rhetoric (juxtaposing ‘deadly’ and ‘ruthless’ with ‘quiet’ and ‘elegant’) was not the product of deliberate calculation. Perhaps he was just channelling the collective unconscious, where misogyny can flourish unencumbered by logic.
Andrea Leadsom has also been presented as a ‘sinister’ figure, sometimes using a strategy I mentioned in my previous post–comparing her to one of the archetypal female wielders of petty authority (head girl, headmistress, Matron, etc.) who are conventionally depicted as simultaneously ridiculous (their pretensions to power are comical) and repulsive. The Times sketch-writer Patrick Kidd brought these themes together in a comment he made on Twitter:
I can imagine Andrea Leadsom being a very reassuring pharmacist, if not a prime minister. She has something of the Night Nurse about her.
So, let’s just recap. According to the media a Conservative woman leader should be ‘steely’ but with a ‘softer side’, fully domesticated but immaculately shod, dedicated to her job yet insistent that family comes first. She must be a grown-up, firmly restoring order and cleaning up whatever mess the children have made; but she should approach the task in a spirit of service, downplaying any personal ambitions she might harbour. Her behaviour should be ladylike, her ruthless streak carefully concealed, and she should not court cheap popularity.
There is one woman who fits that specification, and I think it’s high time she stepped up. Or rather, flew in. Ladies and gentlemen, the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be… MARY POPPINS. If Mary can’t sort us out, I really don’t know who can.
Readers should note that at present an hour is a long time in British politics: all factual statements made in this post were accurate when I wrote it, but they may well be out of date by the time you read it. Updating the text to take account of new developments would be virtually a full-time job, so I’m not going to attempt to do it comprehensively. But I might add the occasional newsflash.
NEWSFLASH: since this post was published, Ken Clarke has been caught on camera calling Theresa May ‘a bloody difficult woman’–another well-worn archetype to add to the list.
NEWSFLASH, 5 July 18.50: The bloody difficult woman has just won the first round of voting with 165 votes to her rivals’ combined 164. Andrea Leadsom came second with 66.
NEWSFLASH, 9 July 8.40: after the second round of voting it’s now a straight choice for the Tories between May and Leadsom, and we’re drowning in media commentary on what it means that this has become a contest between two women. A dozen columns have appeared warning that it isn’t a triumph for feminism (no indeed, but which feminists ever said it was?) Newsnight has debated which of the two women is more like Thatcher (Leadsom according to Norman Tebbit). Another well-worn trope, the catfight, has made an appearance: Leadsom has apparently claimed to be a better candidate because, unlike May, she has children. (As noted in the post above, May evidently saw that one coming). The stereotypes just keep on keeping on…
NEWSFLASH, 11 July 12.00: Leadsom has announced her withdrawal from the leadership contest. I’m not sure what will happen next, but I think it’s time to draw a line under this post. Here we go.
Theresa May became Britain’s 76th Prime Minister (and the second woman to hold the position) on July 13, 2016. This blog deals exclusively in language-related feminist commentary, but if anyone’s interested in my other, non-linguistic thoughts on this contest and its outcome, check out this post on Trouble & Strife‘s website.