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Does it really matter that the next Prime Minister will be a woman?

Published 09/07/2016

Home Secretary Theresa May
Home Secretary Theresa May
Andrea Leadsom
Nicola Sturgeon
Angela Merkel
Margaret Thatcher
Hilary Clinton
First Minister Arlene Foster

In nine weeks' time, Britain will have only its second female PM - 37 years after the first. Should this still generate (some very dodgy) front page headlines? Eilis O'Hanlon on why it is still a talking point, while (overleaf) Alex Kane insists gender is now irrelevant.

Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘One day, we might not notice the sex of our leader, but we’re not there yet’

When the Tory leadership was reduced on Thursday to a straight choice between Home Secretary Theresa May and staunch Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom, one newspaper headline in London declared: "The next British PM is guaranteed to be a woman". Put that down as a classic example of what Basil Fawlty once called Stating The Bleeding Obvious.

A more interesting question is: does it matter that they're women?

It shouldn't, but does it?

Yes, it does.

It matters just as much that the next PM will be a woman as it does that President Barack Obama is black. He may have been a weak and ineffectual US President, and being black certainly shouldn't shield him for being held accountable for his failings; but the very fact that an African-American held the highest office in the world was significant enough in itself to count as an achievement worth celebrating. One day, we might not notice the sex or skin colour or sexual orientation of those who run the country, but we're not there yet, which is why these symbolic milestones are so important.

Having a second female PM is every bit as historic as the first. The third will be notable, too, and here's hoping that doesn't take another 26 years, which is how long it's been since Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street.

By the fourth and fifth, people may be starting to shrug and say "So what?" - and that will be a welcome development, too.

But it will only be possible because we did treat it as a big deal in our time as those old barriers were coming down.

It isn’t a one-off, either. Northern Ireland’s First Minister is a woman. The First Minister in Edinburgh is a woman, as are the leaders of the Opposition Scottish Tory and Labour parties.

The Green Party in England is led by a woman, as is Plaid Cymru in Wales. The German Chancellor is a woman. The next US president ... fingers crossed ... will be female, too. Wherever women stand politically, Left or Right, there are prominent politicians who now look and sound like them.

For girls growing up in previous generations, there weren’t so many role models. These days there are.

It’s hard to think of a downside to that.

Sadly, there’s a tendency among more militant feminists to dismiss figures such as Mrs Thatcher, or Arlene Foster, as the “wrong” sort of women.

One writer in the Guardian even proclaimed that May and Leadsom only got to the top because they “took the same shape” as men. That’s not only insulting, it totally misunderstands the lesson of their success.

The barriers to female advancement in politics have been so great historically that only the toughest and most steely characters were ever going to make it.

To get to the top of the Tory party takes a certain toughness; the DUP is no place for shrinking violets. If women were to break the glass ceiling anywhere, it was here that you’d expect to find candidates with the right combination of iron hand and brass neck to do it.

The great bastions of male power were never going to be overcome by the political equivalent of a simpering heroine in a Victorian novel.

You don’t have to like the women who’ve made it to hail them as pioneers. You just have to be grateful that they did it. That they’re there.

So, does the fact that the last two women standing in the Tory leadership contest didn’t get there by positive discrimination and all-female shortlists mean we don’t need quotas at all?

There’s definitely a strong argument that you shouldn’t fiddle the rules to benefit women. Increasingly, though, it seems just as valid to argue: why not?

It’s not as if men in the past always made it purely on merit. They were helped along by a million small, unseen advantages.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to load the dice ever so slightly in favour of women for a while, anymore than there is in actively trying to encourage those from more modest socio-economic and less-privileged educational backgrounds into politics.

They’re flip sides of the same coin, which is why it’s equally welcome that Thersea May and Andrea Leadsom are both former grammar school girls — a fact worth considering when meddlers start eyeing up Northern Ireland’s school system.

What’s far more worrying is how female politicians who get to the top are still expected to represent and speak for all women in a way that male politicians are never required to represent those who also share the same biology.

No one ever says, “Gordon Brown was useless, so best not have another man in charge for a while”, do they?

It could be that the current crop of female leaders will be even more inept, but that’s alright, too.

All woman want is the right to be just as rubbish as running the country as the men who came before them.

Alex Kane: 'In political arena, it's clear... both genders are cut from the same cloth'

Margaret Thatcher didn't win the leadership of the Conservative Party in February 1975 because she was a woman. She won because she dared to challenge Edward Heath (who had won only one of four general elections) and because she was the only one of the six candidates who represented a genuine alternative to the policies and direction of Heath.

She won, in other words, because she offered something entirely different. As she noted during the campaign: "As a Conservative I'm very tired of being on the losing side after an election. I think I can change that."

We don't remember Thatcher because she was a female prime minister: we remember her because she was an extraordinary politician and the sort of leader who never shied away from difficult decisions and potential unpopularity.

Yes, there may have been times when she used her handbag as a wonderful prop and when she was clearly flirting with Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, but that was just one of her personal tricks of the trade; in precisely the same way that Clinton and Reagan would either hug, or do the double-handed handshake, with certain people, or bestow upon them their dazzlingly twinkly smiles.

So, I don't buy into the notion that Thatcher's gender defined and shaped her role. She was a political/electoral animal by instinct.

She relished a fight, she was an ideologue, she had a very clear vision, she had passion, she wasn't afraid of polarising and she inspired fierce loyalty and equally fierce hatred.

The only way to judge her is as a leader and as a politician. Being a woman didn't make a huge difference - other than the fact that she was the first female prime minister.

Some people argue that women "do politics differently". I remain to be convinced.

It strikes me that Arlene Foster, Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton - along with quite a few women further down the political power ladder - "do politics" in precisely the same way as every other politician I've ever known, or observed.

They take sides. They have opinions. They have arguments. They bear grudges. They want to rise up the greasy pole. They keep one eye over their shoulder. They brief against opponents and rivals. They dissemble. They do what is required to secure their seat and their career.

It's called politics: and the demands of politics are blind to gender.

The fact that the next prime minister will be a woman has raised questions about whether the gender will make a specific difference to the Conservative Party, the UK, or politics in general. Well, unless either Theresa May, or Andrea Leadsom, decide to make their pitch as a "champion for women and women's rights" - which I think is unlikely - then I don't think their gender matters.

They come from different wings of the party. May has served in the Cabinet and been an MP for 20 years, while Leadsom has been an MP since 2010 and only been a fairly junior minister.

But this leadership contest is not going to be about Cabinet experience, or what they would or wouldn't do for women: this is going to be a bare-knuckle fight about the UK's future relationship with the EU and it is going to be brutal, divisive and potentially catastrophic for the Conservative Party.

It will be an old-fashioned blood-and-bone battle for the heart and soul of the party and the winner won't just be a woman, it will be the woman who proves themselves to have the qualities required of any leader at a difficult time.

And the next and immediate battle the winner faces will be with Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel; but if anyone thinks that negotiations will be gentle or more civilised because they are all women, then they really don't understand politics.

All three will be fighting for their own cause, beliefs and long-term goals. There will be no sotto voce conspiracy to "prove that we're so much better at politics than those testosterone-fuelled men".

Politics is combative. It is about winning and losing. It is about persuading a majority to back you rather than someone else. It is about triumphalism.

Most important of all, though, the rules of politics apply equally to men and women. Man, woman - it doesn't matter: politics is politics.

Belfast Telegraph

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