Sunday, 10 July 2016

Please quit telling me what a feminist victory looks like

Women of Britain! The middle-aged men have spoken! They have descended into my notifications and those of other women on Twitter to tell us that the Theresa May-Andrea Leadsom Conservative Party leadership challenge is a feminist victory. Phew. We can all relax. Thank you, men of Twitter!

Sure, the Tories have managed to ensure that our next Prime Minister will be a woman without setting quotas, lists or targets - although the male competition was not so much an embarrassment of riches as an embarrassment of embarrassments. Behold! Stepping up to the plate and then falling down a deep, ridiculous hole of his own creation was walking disaster area, Michael Gove. He and his wife, Sarah Vine, failed in their attempt to be the Macbeths. Instead, they were more like the Magrubers. And then there was Stephen Crabb, best known for believing you can pray away the gay until a WhatsApp sexting scandal broke alongside the already-notorious front page story in The Times on Andrea Leadsom's ongoing fetishisation of her own ability to make babies.

And once again, the men come out and tell us what to think about the Mum-knows-best brouhaha. Oh, and Louise Mensch who is naturally supporting a fellow incompetent by hitching herself to the Leadsom bandwagon.

"Being a mother gives me an edge on May - Leadsom" was the headline across the front of The Times. Leadsom was furious. She demanded the transcript of the interview be released. And then she demanded the audio was released. The Times duly released everything. It turned out that the article quoted her accurately. At best, she could complain that the headline maybe over-egged the pudding just a little but that is the job of the newspaper sub-editor, to encapsulate the essence of the story in a line that will draw in readers.

After the event, Leadsom is pouting that her passive-aggressively unpleasant words about Theresa May's childlessness should not have been the focus of the story. Bad luck, Andrea. You're the one who constantly mentions the fact that you're a mother as if it's an indisputable qualification for high office. Indeed, if anyone was playing drinking games during the last referendum debate, knocking back a shot every time Leadsom mentioned her own motherhood would be a one-way ticket to a thunderous hangover.

If you put yourself out there as a public figure and you make your personal choices public, you should expect scrutiny. It has also emerged that Andrea Leadsom had a nanny while she was raising her kids. I had the temerity to tweet that this means her call for small businesses to be exempt from paying women maternity pay was an example of "privileged ignorance".

Within minutes a couple of men decided to pounce on me. Hi guys! Nice of you to say hello! Charles Crawford, a right-wing former diplomat, passively retweeted me and one of his acolytes decided to respond by saying according to my logic, we may as well sack all the nannies and render them unemployed. That logic is on par with saying that if we let barbers cut our hair, the next thing we know, they'll be whipping out axes and beheading us.

Plenty of women use nannies and plenty of women make sacrifices to afford nannies so they can effectively combine work and motherhood. In the case of Andrea Leadsom, she was able to continue whatever the hell she was doing in her career in the City and as a politician, aided by her ability to afford a nanny. Good for her. Nobody should begrudge her that. She can raise her kids however she likes. But for the women struggling to earn a living working in small companies, the added burden of not being entitled to maternity pay renders them less economically active, can drive them into poverty and lead to them returning to work before they're ready just to be able to pay the bills. Did Andrea Leadsom ever give these women a second thought?

As for Theresa May, she is the least worst option, although that is damning with faint praise. She has only a slightly better track record on LGBT rights as an MP, although she was very smart to mention that she voted in support of marriage equality in her speech announcing her candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership. This instantly separates her from Leadsom's God-obsessed objection to gay people getting married. She also cannily hinted at dialling back on her urge to restrict human rights legislation. As Home Secretary, a poisoned chalice portfolio regardless of what party is in power, her work in the deportation of Abu Qatada was exemplary - she was able to demonstrate that that due process applies to everyone, even hatemongers, which is important if you are at all concerned about human rights.

And she is certainly smarter and more dignified than Andrea Leadsom. It was absurd that she felt the need to tell the Daily Mail in an interview that she and her husband could not have children and this was a source of sadness for them. Male politicians are never asked these sort of questions, but May handled it well and moved on. She has not turned this weekend's outcry over The Times' story into a woman-versus-woman slanging match even though it would be like shooting fish in a barrel to use it for political capital.

But as long as female politicians are asked about the contents of their uterus, and as long as female politicians themselves decide to make "I'm a mother, doncha know?" a central pillar of their campaigns, any victory for women in politics and public life feels decidedly Pyrrhic.

From a very basic "you cannot be what you cannot see" standpoint, it is good for girls and young women to see that being a woman is no barrier to being the Prime Minister but is that really enough?

In any case, no matter whether the next PM is Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom, we will still have an austerity-loving Conservative government in place and these policies tend to disproportionately affect women. But please, middle-aged men of the British right, do keep telling us what a huge feminist win this is. We need your penis-powered guidance and wisdom. It's much easier than talking about anyone's policies.

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