When she allowed her emotion to show during her resignation speech, Theresa May finally did something good for women

This isn’t about forgiveness. And it isn’t about a woman ‘finally cracking up’, either

Harriet Hall
Friday 24 May 2019 18:01 BST
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Theresa May's full speech as she announces her resignation

In the moment when Theresa May allowed her emotion to show while signing off her resignation announcement this morning, she did more for women than she has over her entire political career.

Hearing her voice crack when she said running the country she loves has been “the honour of my life”, it was difficult not to feel sad about the fact that another woman’s time at the helm of the country was over – not to mention the fact that her tumultuous time in office will inevitably be used against other women in politics in the future.

Before you accuse me of sympathy: no, I don’t feel sorry for Theresa May. She cried only for herself – not for Grenfell or Windrush or the homeless, not for the domestic violence shelters which were closed down on her watch, the Northern Irish women who suffered because of the DUP’s draconian stance on abortion, or the immigrant women detained in Yarl’s Wood – and it will take decades to turn back the clock on that dismal record, no matter how hard she tries to push the “second-ever female PM” line.

But that moment at the conclusion of her resignation speech was like watching a woman shake off the patriarchal shackles she’s been chained with for more than two years, and finally exhaling. It was poignant, and perhaps even relatable, for all women to see the prime minister show – not through coughing fits, embarrassing Mamma Mia! dance routines or by reminiscing about running through fields of wheat – that she’s just another human being, and it hasn’t been easy.

Emotion has been weaponised against women since time immemorial, especially in the political sphere. Our wombs make us irrational, we’ve been told; our hormones make us weak. Remember when Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt said women shouldn’t be allowed to work in laboratories because, “when you criticise them, they cry”? And it makes no difference whether we actually cry or whether we merely assert ourselves: studies have shown that men who react to situations with anger are celebrated, and women who do the same are penalised.

For women to cry, historically, is for women to prove misogyny right, to prove that we cannot hack it – we are too vulnerable. But to subscribe to this “do as the boys do” model of lean-in feminism damages men just as much as women. It says that toxic masculinity is the norm, and demands that emotionality and rationality are seen as mutually exclusive states, rather than often complementary.

Nowadays men are often celebrated for crying or talking about their emotions (which, for the record, I support) but May has been torn apart for it. She’s been ridiculed across the internet for those final moments, when she finally lost her composure because – let’s face it – she really, actually cared.

Of course May isn’t the first politician to show emotion (Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and even Margaret Thatcher all had their moments), but these tears felt much more genuine than the politically convenient crocodile tears adopted in an opportune moment. She was done fighting, her defence mechanisms abandoned; she had nothing more to give. The only thing she had left to give the country was a poignant, impassioned acknowledgement that she had, ultimately, failed in an office she held in extremely high esteem.

Paparazzi have swarmed to capture a shot of May looking sad, “feeling the strain”, but this wasn’t a moment caught off-guard in the back of a car. May allowed us to see this. She allowed us to dwell on it as a cynical Conservative leadership with Boris Johnson as the frontrunner cranks into gear.

Let’s rewind back to the final moments of May’s predecessor. Leaving the country completely in the lurch following a referendum conducted for party political interests, David Cameron lit the match and walked away. The hollowness of his words were exposed when a microphone left on gave us a glimpse into his mindset as he sung himself a jaunty tune while sauntering cocksure back into 10 Downing Street.

May has faced vitriol like only a woman in her position could: the price and style of her clothes dissected, her legs compared with the first minister of Scotland’s, her moments of steadfast resolve recharacterised as “robotic”. She has undoubtedly suffered gender discrimination, whether or not she has acted as a feminist herself (again: she hasn’t.) But this isn’t about forgiveness. It’s acknowledging that people hate strong women – people within her own party made no secret of their dislike for “the Maybot” – and they love to see them break. May took control of that narrative and, instead of allowing crowing pundits to say she’d “proved her femaleness” or “finally cracked”, proved she still had some integrity.

May had a normal human reaction to a moment she’s spent desperately (and often stubbornly) trying to avoid – and she made no attempt to repress it. I might not agree with her politics, but at least she was steadfast. Will we be able to say the same for the person waiting next in line?

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