With customary ruthlessness, Britain’s Conservative Party has dispensed with Prime Minister David Cameron and ended its nine-week leadership “campaign” eight and a half weeks early. Theresa May will take over the party, and the country, on Wednesday. The Camerons will move out of Downing Street, and the Mays will move in. The king is dead; long live the queen.
But before we move rapidly on, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider, briefly, that rather extraordinary four-day leadership campaign. First, the parliamentary Conservative Party eliminated all of the men who led the Brexit campaign. Then it selected two candidates for the final all-party election: May, a longstanding veteran of Cameron’s cabinet who unenthusiastically campaigned to stay in the European Union, and Andrea Leadsom, a relatively unknown junior minister who campaigned vigorously to leave.
There are many other differences between the two women, but Leadsom chose to focus on only one. In an interview with the Times of London, she said that it “must be sad” for May, who “possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people,” to have no children: “But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next … Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.”
This must be an evolutionary or historical turning point of some kind: Have we ever had a female politician implicitly attack another female politician for not having children? Have the “mommy wars” ever been taken into the political arena before at all? And what does it mean? Perhaps it’s a sign of “progress”: Finally, children are being perceived, at least by some people, as an asset for working women instead of a handicap. Perhaps it’s the opposite: As ever, women define themselves through their families.
Looked at another way, Leadsom attacked May using sexist language that no man could ever get away with. Margaret Thatcher used to wave her handbag around and shout about saving money like a good housewife, which worked. Leadsom took the female stereotype a step further, and claimed that her children, not her good housekeeping, made her virtuous.
It didn’t work, and she didn’t get away with it. Even hardened male politicians were horrified. Leadsom herself had second thoughts once she saw her own words in print. “Truly appalling and the exact opposite of what I said. I am disgusted,” she tweeted. Unfortunately for her, the Times had the audio version of the interview, proving that yes, this was the exact transcription of what Leadsom had said. After several more hours of confusion, during which some of her supporters continued to deny that she had said what she said, Leadsom resigned. Presumably, she can now spend more time with her family.