By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
Angela Merkel has long dominated the liberal political sphere in Europe. But as Theresa May moves into No. 10, it has become increasingly clear that women are taking their place at the head of the table in conservative politics. After David Cameron’s resignation in the wake of Brexit, both Boris Johnson and the Machiavellian Michael Gove were swiftly dispatched with in the battle for Tory leadership. Left standing were Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minster Andrea Leadsom, two conservative women on opposite sides of the Brexit debate.
Leadsom took herself out of the running last Monday, saying that a leadership struggle at such a “critical time” for the UK would be “highly undesirable.” She also apologized to May for suggesting in a newspaper interview that being a mother made her a better candidate for leader than childless May. The UK press has unsurprisingly seized on this exchange after Theresa May spoke in an interview about her sadness at being unable to have children. Of course, in the case of female candidates, media focus often shifts to their family lives, and their fulfillment of traditional roles, even in supposedly egalitarian western societies. Beyond the inherent sexism, centering the conversation around the fertility of the two potential candidates for PM of Britain also misses the point: Theresa May, whose controversial policy of reducing immigration from outside the EU was facilitated by “go home vans” which drove around the country offering illegal migrants help to return to their home countries, is set to lead a major power through a geopolitical transition of huge proportions.
Marine Le Pen has become increasingly relevant in France, no more so than in the wake of Brexit. Although it is a mistake to conflate May’s conservatism with Le Pen’s racist far right policies, conservative women leaders occupy a particular place in politics. It is clear that voters are revolting against the liberal economic policies that have been in place in the US and Britain since after WWII and are embracing populism as an antidote to our unsettled times. But are women conservatives especially appealing during certain periods?
One possible answer is demonstrated by the case of the French National Front. Current party president Marine Le Pen portrays the “clean” version of her extremely controversial father and former party president, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Both promote the same exclusionary, racist, and protectionist policies. Voters for the daughter thus get the father’s policy in a more palatable package. It might be the case that for voters women appear less bellicose and therefore less threatening when championing radical politics.
Although Theresa May voted against Brexit, she is no liberal. May’s tough stance on immigration notwithstanding, she once argued that Britain should ditch the European convention on human rights. Yet even liberal British news outlets like the Guardian describe May as “calm”, “thoughtful”, and “the vicar’s daughter…with a puritanical streak.” As much as we may poke fun at the Daily Mail, it is the world’s most read news outlet, and their main feature story on Theresa May is titled, “How Theresa May will makeover Downing Street kitchen.”
Although it remains to be seen how Theresa May will be portrayed by the media and understood by UK citizens in the days and years to come, it is worth examining the tropes of female conservatives and how differently they are understood than their male counterparts. While Boris Johnson was often ridiculed as a buffoon prone to outbursts, his policies are not radically different from May’s, who instead of being ridiculed for her hair, is lauded for her “love of leopard print and penchant for a splash of color.”