Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom

POLITICS

Women deserve an equal chance to be wrong 

Should we be glad that our next prime minister will be a woman, even if we don't agree with her? Regardless of our politics, we shouldn't lose sight of what it means for gender equality, says Helen Lewis

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By Helen Lewis on

How should we feel about two women reaching the final round of the contest to lead the Conservative party – and so become our next prime minister?

This is tricky for me, as someone on the left. In my ideal world, neither Theresa May nor Andrea Leadsom would lead the country. In my ideal world, the next prime minister would make a positive case for immigration, reduce inequality, close Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre and ensure that rights like the ability to sue for pregnancy-related discrimination don't get eroded in the bonfire of "red tape" that will accompany Brexit. 

Actually, in my ideal world there would be no Brexit, which would mean David Cameron would continue as prime minister until 2020. Which I would not find ideal. All we have established here is that we do not live in my ideal world, or anything close to it. 

There is something else behind the demands that no one should support a candidate 'just because she’s a woman'. As it happens, I think very few women do – if anything, women are usually harsher on other women

And that’s what I don’t understand when my fellow progressives insist that it’s no victory for feminism for two women to reach the final of a competition to lead the Conservative party. We have had 75 prime ministers, and only one has been a woman. We have had the ability to vote for less than a century. We have had the ability to serve in parliament for less than a century.

The demand that feminists must not celebrate – even in a qualified fashion – the arrival of a second female prime minister has a simple assumption behind it: women only deserve the same chances as men when we approve of them personally. What a rallying cry: equal rights for women I endorse! Votes for women (as long as they use them to make choices I agree with)! Fetch my sash! 

This is symptomatic of a culture in which any individual woman is expected to represent all women. That lone female comedian on a panel show doesn’t make you laugh? That’s because women aren’t funny. Think Margaret Thatcher was a divisive prime minister who punished and ignored poor communities? Then we should probably let men keep the Tory party warm until a socialist, social liberal woman turns up to lead it.

Feminism is the pursuit of equal rights and opportunities for women. As a feminist, I do not support May's decision to detain female asylum seekers in Yarls Wood or Leadsom's belief that companies with fewer than three employees should not have to offer maternity pay. As a feminist, though, I believe female politicians should have an equal opportunity with men to argue in favour of their beliefs and try to convince the voting public. Women's rights and opportunities cannot be conditional on passing an arbitrary test of virtue or wisdom.

And there is something else behind the demands that no one should support a candidate “just because she’s a woman”. As it happens, I think very few women do – if anything, women are usually harsher on other women. But lurking under the sentiment is a horror of women defining themselves as a class, and making political demands as a class. It’s a horror that women might organise around issues which matter to them – maternity rights, equal pay, the toll of unpaid care – and find those more important than whatever the speaker thinks they should care about.

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After all, women are the only group who are regularly told they must not vote along identity lines. In the US this spring, there was horror at the idea that women might "vote with their vaginas" for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. There was no comparable horror that black Americans might "vote with their melanin" for Barack Obama in 2008. Try saying that of course we'd like to have more black and minority ethnic politicians one day, but actually, isn't it, like, more important to have politicians who care about BME issues? It wouldn't wash, and it shouldn't wash. Watch the video of a 106-year-old black woman dancing with Obama and tell her she's wrong to be happy about an African-American in the Oval Office, even though he hasn't been able to stop racist police killings or drone strikes. Representation matters.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I also believe in the power of role models, of "you can't be what you can't see". It will matter to a whole generation of girls to see more women wielding power. It will matter to a whole generation of girls to grow up in a world where women arguing across the dispatch box, or in the television studios, is just a normal state of affairs. One of those girls might, in time, become the socialist, feminist messiah. We should make sure she knows that politics is something she can do. 

*** 

After all that, though, I’m going to say something which might sound strange. Part of me dreads a time when we have a female prime minister, and three female leaders in Scotland, and perhaps a female US president.

We’re going to see a lot of what I call "Loose Women Syndrome", after what happens whenever I suggest that the television schedules are still dominated by men. "Er – what about Loose Women?" someone will tweet back, thinking they have aimed a knockout blow at my argument. When I used to write more about the under-representation of women in video games, the equivalent was Lara Croft. If a man on the internet could immediately name one game with a female protagonist, how could anyone argue there was a problem?

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this the "availability heuristic". When evaluating a topic, we give more weight to examples which spring easily to mind. So the question of whether there is a problem with women in politics will be immediately answered with: how can there be, when our leading politician is a woman? What more does feminism have to do when literally Britain’s most important person has two X chromosomes?

Unfortunately, the coincidence of so many women leaders at one time – Angela Merkel in Germany; Kezia Dugdale, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson in Scotland – will obscure the huge barriers faced by women in politics, and throughout society, thanks to both overt discrimination and structural problems, such as the toll of unpaid caring labour. (All the women I just mentioned, like Theresa May, do not have children. Childcare still falls more heavily on women and it still hampers our participation in public life.) 

I foresee a future of talking about structural sexism – say, the challenges facing low-paid women trapped in part-time work – and being patronisingly reminded that women can't really be that oppressed since one of us made it to prime minister. It's going to be maddening.

And, yes, it is also true that the success of Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom will be of little comfort to a single mother trying to survive on benefits or a woman leaving an abusive relationship and discovering her local refuge has closed. But neither would the success of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. Feminists will no doubt have plenty of opportunities to criticise our next prime minister, and we should scrutinise her policies carefully. But we should never forget one simple fact: women deserve an equal chance to be wrong. 

@helenlewis 

Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom
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