Whenever I hear about Conservative men calling Theresa May “Mummy”, my first instinct is to shriek: “What the hell is wrong with you?” My second instinct is to stow that question because really, if I started attempting a full catalogue of answers to it, I would be here all day.
The unsettling trend broke cover during the 2016 Tory leadership election, when Giles Dilnot (then a BBC journalist) tweeted about running into an MP who smilingly told him “It’s time for Mummy”, which is a scene that becomes more like the reveal of the big baddie in a Doctor Who episode every time I imagine it. Head tilted, eyes bulging, the henchman invites the main villain to enter the scene in a flurry of dry ice.
I have no idea whether this “Mummy” business has been going on for longer than that, because I don’t know what Tory MPs get up to in their private lives. But Harry Cole of the Guido Fawkes political gossip website reported hearing it again from two MPs in the week of the 2017 general election announcement, which means they definitely haven’t caught the run of themselves and put a lid on it.
It’s even more bizarre, of course, because one of hapless Andrea Leadsom’s campaign lines (one of the few lines she had the opportunity to trot out, in fact, before the instinct for Tory discipline ended her tilt at the leadership) was a swipe at May’s childlessness. Leadsom would prove herself a better prime minister, she contended, because having reproduced gave her a “very real stake” in the future of the nation – compared, implicitly, to her child-free challenger, Theresa May. After all, the ability to understand time is something that men are born with but women can only develop along with a placenta.
Leadsom apologised, of course. But that couldn’t fix the damage she’d done to her prospects, and nor could it conceal or rectify her terrible failure of judgement.
Because while it’s true that the models for women in leadership in politics remain slim – and motherhood is one of rare types of female authority that Conservatives seem to be very comfortable with – that doesn't mean this apparent term of endearment, "Mummy", indicates that they wanted or needed someone's actual mother as their leader. It means that they wanted a woman who can play the role of matriarch.
A woman who, like Margaret Thatcher, can wield power while weaponising femininity – with results that can fall into the exquisite realm of camp, a place of blissful insincerity where you can say exactly what you mean as long as you’re winking. What else is a pair of leopard print kitten heels on a female politician but a boldface promise that you might be exercising power, but you certainly won’t be sliding into mannishness?
This is why the obsession with female politicians’ wardrobes and uteruses is both grotesquely frivolous and unavoidable. This is the game in a world made for men. It shouldn’t be, but you can either try to tear down those rules or play it to win.
When Tory MPs call Theresa May “Mummy”, of course they’re joking – and, of course, they’re serious. As nauseating as it sounds, as utterly insulting as it is, with its insinuation that only metaphorical maternity can give women a place at the top, being called "Mummy" doesn’t hurt Theresa May at all. Whether you thrill to the prospect or it makes you feel a bit sick, it is time for Mummy.
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