What a difference a day makes. On Friday, the papers were celebrating that, with the Conservative leadership contest down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, a female politician was heading for No 10. By the weekend, it was “childless woman versus mother”. Or, to quote The Times’s Saturday headline: “Being a mother gives me an edge on May – Leadsom.”
It’s ironic – or perhaps telling – that Andrea “as a mother” Leadsom has had to watch her bid for the leadership become characterised by the same adage that defined how she got there in the first place. With only six years as an MP, and a short spell as a junior minister, Leadsom’s main qualification for prime minister appears to be standing on the right side of the stage during the EU referendum debates.
This lack of experience – with the media, as much as politics – may go some way to explaining the firestorm Leadsom’s found herself in. A seasoned politician knows how to take an interview and not be drawn into an answer that will damage them, to avoid uttering offhand words that will inevitably be featured as the headline, or to stay away from certain subjects entirely.
Leadsom, on the other hand, has developed a habit of saying things that would be better left unsaid. Her views are essentially one extended round of “inappropriate comment” bingo, from LGBT rights to single parents (the children of lone parents are, according to Leadsom, 70 per cent more likely to be a drug addict or criminal).
She’s willingly told interviewers she’s unhappy with the equal marriage legislation, while being keen to lecture on the importance of matrimony for heterosexuals – even linking “the self-indulgence and carelessness of non-committed adult relationships” to the horrific abuse of Baby P.
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In our society, women are taught early on what’s expected of them – who the competition is, and who they need on side. Leadsom feels no need for female solidarity
For employment law, she’s spoken of how the smallest businesses should have “absolutely no regulation whatsoever” – that’s no minimum wage, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights or maternity and paternity rights. (It’s yet to be determined how anyone can simultaneously be pro-motherhood, while being against universal maternity rights.)
But it would be an error to pass off Leadsom as a single voice ranting at the wind. Her claim that being a mother means she has “a real stake” in the future of the country has dominated this weekend’s news not simply because it demonstrates one female politician’s ludicrous view, but because it speaks to wider beliefs about women and politics.
There is a reason that The Times ran the headline that it did, as there is that Leadsom made the comments in the first place. The fetishisation of motherhood holds power in politics, from the emphasis given to “the Mumsnet vote” to the female politicians who utilise their own status as “mother” and the journalists who keep asking about it.
This has very little to do with children and everything to do with gender. Note: this weekend has not seen a discussion of parent versus non-parent, but mother versus non-mother. Imagine if Leadsom or May were male: whether fatherhood – or the lack of it – would affect their ability to govern is unlikely to have made the interview, let alone the headline. Similarly, if Andrea Leadsom were Andrew Leadsom, it would not be an ability to have a child that “he” would use to position “himself” as superior.
It’s worth reading the less publicised extract from The Times interview, in which Leadsom remarks on why she’s not a feminist. “I’m not a feminist because I’m not anti-men, I just see people as people,” she says. “I’m never happy to see women written out of the picture… but feminism is a term that’s been used to abuse men, so I don’t identify with it.”
In our society, women are taught early on what’s expected of them – who the competition is, and who they need on side. Leadsom feels no need for female solidarity. Naïve or calculated, she knows – particularly when competing with a childless woman – motherhood is a powerful tool to use. (Her emphasis on the word “childless” in the audio recording of the interview implies she is well aware of this.)
It will be interesting to see whether, with a socially conservative membership to win over, Leadsom now chooses to embrace it. Base instincts are certainly an easy sell. “Since when has it been a crime to be proud about your children?” Tim Loughton, Leadsom’s campaign manager, remarked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.
With two women in the race, the bid for prime minister has descended into sexist stereotyping depressingly quickly. This weekend was a reminder of the mould women bidding for power are still ushered into. And, so far, Leadsom is playing right into it.
UPDATE: At 12.15pm on July 11, Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the Conservative leadership contest, offering her full support to Theresa May.