Women Are Not Ambassadors for Their Sex, Even Theresa May

Women in power are seen as representing all women and are criticized for their actions as such. It’s time women are treated as humans, not just as women.

Let’s be fair, the shambles that is Brexit is hardly covering any Government Minister in glory is it?

Yet, the recurring narrative I am hearing after each day of impasse in Parliament is that ‘Theresa May has set women in politics back years’ or ‘Theresa May has given women a bad name’.

Yes, as Prime Minister and head of government, May is at the helm of this rocky ship and must bear accountability. But, no-one can believe for one moment that those words would be uttered about a male prime minister. I’ve not heard David Cameron being attributed to curtailing the progress of the middle-aged white man. Yet it is he who set this Brexit ball rolling towards the catastrophe we are facing today.


“May is now being held up as the yardstick of all women in politics and her actions, reactions, perceived failings and lack of leadership are not just hers alone, they are those of all women.”

May being labelled as a damaging example of a woman in a position of power is not a new phenomenon, rather a lazy trope which is trotted out whenever a woman falls below an arbitrary standard which has been bestowed upon her – a standard and level of account always set higher for women than men.

Women in positions of power are still viewed as a deviation from the norm, default male scenario.

When Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom were the last two MPs standing in the Conservative leadership contest in 2016, it was more than many media platforms and political commentators could comprehend.

One BBC journalist pontificated his views on the state of play saying: “May and Leadsom may both be women, but they have quite different views”. Such an insightful comment. Who would think that two human beings who share the same sex, may hold conflicting opinions?

The Daily Star headline read: “Here come the girls – next PM will be a woman”. Yes, what else would you expect from a red top which was overjoyed to take over the mantle of ‘home of Page 3’ after The Sun finally stopped publishing a topless woman in their daily paper.

But the use of girls, which infantilises adult women who deserve respect, was not just confined to the tabloid press. Girl was also the epithet of Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham who in showing his support for Leadsom, said: Having balls in a man’s world… these are things you could attribute to Mrs T that our girl’s got this time”.

His reference to Margaret Thatcher was not an isolated one. The Daily Mail screamed: “Who’ll be the new Maggie?”. Of course, Thatcher would be the go to comparison as the only female leader from a list of 74 past prime ministers.

“There is already enough evidence in the world to show the positive impact of women’s leadership. Women have successfully built and run countries and cities, economies and formidable institutions.” — Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Photo: Mujeres y Poder.

And any suggestion that May or Leadsom would be Prime Minister in their own right, with their own approach, views or policies is obviously preposterous. They would of course be a ready-made Margaret Thatcher replica. Because women are all the same aren’t they?

May is now being held up as the yardstick of all women in politics and her actions, reactions, perceived failings and lack of leadership are not just hers alone, they are those of all women.

Seemingly, women are not allowed to fail or be wrong as individuals – they are representative of women as a class.

In her Women & Power: A Manifesto book, Mary Beard highlighted the differences in the way Diane Abbott and Boris Johnson were treated after they both had what can only be described as disastrous radio interviews.

She said of Johnson “His interview was taken more as an example of laddish waywardness: he ought to get more of a grip, stop the bluster, concentrate and be a better master of his brief. Do better next time, in other words.”

She goes on “The aim of Abbott’s attackers was to make sure that she did not get a ‘next time’.”

There is no doubt that women are criticised far more harshly for mistakes or poor performances than their male counterparts. Mediocre men continue to be lauded while women are expected to adhere to an impossible level of behaviour.

So, while Brexit maelstrom continues unabated, calls for Theresa May to stand down are fair. But don’t take down all other women with her.

Emma Chesworth is a senior caseworker in Middlesborough, a qualified journalist, and a regular contributor on regional television, radio and the press on women's issues.

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