Whether you were a Remainer or a Leaver, we all now have to live with the consequences of Brexit and the people of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. And one of those consequences is a race to be Tory leader and the next Prime Minister. That race has now whittled down to two female candidates. Cue much feminist rejoicing and headlines – with a nod to the US imminent election and the German Chancellor – about women taking over politics. Only, according to one of the candidates for Tory leader, Andrea Leadsom, if you’re not a mum, you don’t really have the nous for politics.
“Being a mother gives me the edge on May – Leadsom”,
tweeting that it is “gutter journalism” and saying that “In front of the Times correspondent and photographer, I made clear repeatedly that nothing I said should be used in any way to suggest that Theresa May not having children had any bearing whatever on the leadership election. I expect the Times to retract the article and the accompanying headline.” The journalist who interviewed Leadsom, Rachel Sylvester is reportedly baffled by the prospective Prime Minister’s response, saying that the interview was fairly written up.
The Times has since published the transcript of the interview in which Leadsom is quoted as saying:
“So, really carefully, because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focused on what are you really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind, ten years hence it will all be fine, my children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”
An immediate piece of advice to the prospective Prime Minister regarding this nasty little skirmish from anyone who has had so much as a sniff of political journalism is likely to be “You’re always on the record when you speak to a journalist. They quote for the story, not what you want them to write.”
So what is the story here and what does it mean to us, women without children?
The story that matters here is that we need to get beyond the poverty of politics we have sunk into and kick identity politics out of the public arena. I don’t – and never have – given a fig that Leadsom and May are women. I have despised May for suggesting that she will use 1.2million living souls, EU citizens currently residing in the UK, as bargaining chips in post-Brexit negotiations with the EU and sided with Leadsom’s position that she would not do this.
The status and fate of immigrants living in this country or trying to gain residency here are real political issues, with conflicting interests – and I will return to that question of interest, particularly self-interest – in a minute. Whether or not Theresa May has kids and Andrea Leadsom’s is ‘sad’ over her rival’s child free life should have nothing to do with politics.
Playing the identity card is not the same as arguing for individual or group self-interest. Again, we see the dire quagmire that political debate is in when Leadsom makes the fatuous argument that she is more invested in politics because she has kids and has an eye towards future generations.
It is the true mark of impoverished political thinking when anyone says “I speak for future generations.” No. You speak for yourself. You speak for your supporters. You speak for your constituents. As current living, breathing, thinking, political creatures, looking, with understandable self-interest, to make the best life for themselves and the people they love. And that includes me, Andrea, as a woman without children.
Let me give the last word on the issue of female political leaders and children to Bernadette Devlin, who was at the time the youngest ever female MP to be elected to the House of Commons in 1969 standing as an independent Unity candidate for the seat of mid-Ulster in Northern Ireland. When asked in a 1971 interview for a New Zealand student newspaper if she was ever treated unfairly in Northern Ireland because she was not a man, she replied:
“I do find that when people can’t win an argument with me, when they run out of something better to complain about, they’ll say something to me like: “You ought to be at home having children!” I tell them I oughtn’t be at home having children. I ought to be fighting the revolution! Why should I be having children just because I am a woman?”
The feature image is of Dr Shirley Dent, tlfw editor.