Yes, Theresa May has been an awful prime minister – but resorting to misogyny is not the answer

David Cameron was not constantly compared with Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard or William Hague in the same way May has been compared with Thatcher. When a man is bad, it’s only on him. When a woman is bad, it’s her femaleness that takes the brunt

Sarah Ditum
Saturday 10 June 2017 13:29
Comments
Theresa May's policies have not been kind to vulnerable women, but some critics are focussing on her gender as a contributing factor
Theresa May's policies have not been kind to vulnerable women, but some critics are focussing on her gender as a contributing factor

It was a couple of weeks ago, the first time I felt it. An odd twinge of… compassion? Sympathy? No, pity. And the object was Theresa May.

Less than two months ago, May was supposed to the Tories’ biggest asset. In all the campaign materials, her name and face dominated, with the words “Conservative Party” sneaking in at the bottom in tiny print. The Spectator drew her as an iron-clad icon, alongside A N Wilson breathlessly declaring a phenomenon called “Maymania”. “Mummy sweeps onwards, borne in heavenly chariots, floating above painted clouds,” he wrote – “mummy” being a nickname for May among activists. It’s a sentence that sounded fairly insane at the time and utterly deranged now.

May didn’t have to call an election, and she shouldn’t have. She bet national stability (and her party’s fortunes) on the public loving her personal brand, and has found out that twitchily reciting empty three-word slogans isn’t the magic charisma tree she thought. The “iron lady mark two” mythologising has been melted down in no time at all, with former staffers coming forward with damning stories about May’s susceptibility to the toxic influence of her key advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who both resigned today. Whatever in May looked decisive and commanding at the start of the election, now looks antsy and autocratic.

She has been a terrible, terrible leader. But it would be unfair to think there was any easy path for her. Like so many female leaders, Theresa May was handed power at a moment of crisis. Most people know about the glass ceiling, especially if they’re a female Labour MP trying to crack into the higher levels of the party.

The glass cliff is a parallel phenomenon where women do break into senior roles, but only when conditions are close to disaster.

Theresa May was pushed to the edge of the glass cliff. That she then ran towards it in stupid shoes was her choice: she got to exercise her judgement, and her judgement was incredibly bad. But all the same, this is a depressing outcome for the UK’s second female prime minister, in an election that was otherwise very good for women. The 2017 parliament has a record intake of female MPs (in large part because May’s failure meant Labour, with its stronger record on women’s representation, not only held seats but made gains).

There are people who would write off all that female talent on the basis of May’s disasters. Of course, no one ever thinks a male failure is a precedent for all men. David Cameron was not constantly compared with Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard or William Hague in the same way May has been compared with Thatcher. When a man is bad, it’s only on him. When a woman is bad, it’s her femaleness that takes the brunt: the nauseating “mummy” stuff is mirrored on the other side of politics with hateful misogyny. One allegedly left-wing writer denounced May as a “whore” for not resigning – whore, of course, being the centuries-old way for men to tear down any woman who doesn’t keep herself tucked up in domesticity.

General Election 2017: The final results

Being a target for sexism, of course, does not make one a feminist, and May’s women’s movement scorecard is distinctly patchy. She put in some good work on male violence and won a reputation for lifting up female colleagues, but she also pushed brutalising policies affecting migrant women. She backed austerity policies that have decimated refuges and social care, pushing women back into the home whether they’re safe there or not, further burdening the hidden economy of unpaid female labour. Her voting record reveals a quietly pursued anti-abortion agenda that is now seemingly entering into a deal with the DUP’s explicitly anti-choice policies.

But let’s give Theresa May one last chance to earn that old “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt of hers. Let her stand instead for the right of women to be as rubbish as men. To be – even with all allowances for sexism – just not very good at the job, and for that to be a reflection only on them as individuals.

Theresa May, you have been an awful leader and an appalling prime minister. But meanwhile, Ruth Davidson, the Tories’ leader in Scotland, has played a blinder. Bring on the next woman.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in