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Why has it taken this long for another woman to rise to the top of UK politics?

theresa may prime minister.jpg

In little under a month since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, Westminster has witnessed a seismic shift. There have been more MP resignations than at any other period in history, as well as dramatic races for leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties. Now, after Andrea Leadsom cut short the battle for No.10, Theresa May has been announced as the 76th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Here, Professor Claire Annesley, head of politics at the University of Sussex, explains to Ask a Feminist why she believes May is the best person for the job, and asks why, 26 years after Margaret Thatcher stood down, it’s taken so long for another woman to rise to the top of UK politics.


Professor Claire Annesley

Feminist Claire Annesley says:

In the fast moving world of post-Brexit politics we now have a new prime minister. As everyone knows, as of Wednesday 13 July, Theresa May will be the UK’s second ever female leader. Let’s pre-empt the inevitable question about the new PM’s gender. In every discussion about women reaching senior political positions someone always raises the need for jobs to be awarded on merit.

So did Theresa May get there on merit? Is she the best person for the job?

May’s political experience far exceeds her former competitors for the top job: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. An MP since 1997, she has headed up the trickiest of the big “beasts” of government – the Home Office – for a record six years. She has shadowed three other ministries in opposition and served as chair of the Conservative party and shadow leader of the House of Commons. With that CV she has, without doubt, the political skills to navigate the country through the fallout of Brexit.

In fact May’s experience and skill is so much greater than her competitors for the top job that I question why others – Boris Johnson included – were ever seriously considered to be in the running. Despite zero cabinet experience, flip-flopping policy positions and a haphazard political style, he was fully expected to succeed David Cameron. Johnson was the opposite of Theresa May; a man with little merit, but he was the right gender. The sense of elite male entitlement surrounding politicians like Johnson is palpable.

Theresa and Philip

Theresa May and her husband, Philip

Ultimately – and thankfully – experience trumped entitlement and Theresa May got the job. But there were three additional gender tightropes she had to navigate to prove she was up to it.

Firstly, there was the inevitable discussion about children. We know that in the UK female MPs are less likely than their male colleagues to have children. The job is a nightmare for work-life balance. Yet childlessness is used as a mechanism to disqualify senior women. It happened to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Australian PM Julia Gillard too.

Secondly, we were warned about May’s temperament. Ken Clarke described May as a “bloody difficult woman” and we weren’t sure if that was a compliment or an insult. Sadly, women in politics are chastised for being too tough and woe betide them if they ever show emotion (see Jon Humphreys' questioning of Angela Eagle on the Today programme).

Thirdly, we had the inevitable, tedious reminder from the national press that women such as Theresa May have cleavages, choose nice shoes and wear their designer dresses more than once. Talk about how to trivialise women’s contributions to public life.

Despite Theresa May’s gender and the baggage that it always (unnecessarily) brings, she has become PM. Genuine political experience has won over elite male entitlement. How was this possible?

angela eagle

Angela Eagle MP launched her campaign to lead the Labour Party on 11 July

Political leadership contests offer a rare opportunity for women MPs to put themselves forward for promotion. When Cabinet is being formed, ‘wannabe’ ministers cannot submit their CVs to No. 10 or lobby for a job. They wait for the call from the PM, hoping that he has spotted their talent. Often though, prime ministers appoint from their high-trust networks and just don’t see talented women outside them. It’s different when a party is looking for a leader. The rules change and talented women are free to self-nominate liberated from patronage. In these rare moments women have more control.

A political crisis – like Brexit – offers a good opportunity for talented women to shine. A crisis removes male incumbents (e.g. David Cameron), and ambitious male rivals often decide to bide their time and wait for a better opportunity (e.g. Boris Johnson). The removal of tarnished male politicians opens up an opportunity for the previously “unseen” women to come in and sort things out. That’s precisely how Chancellor Angela Merkel came to power in Germany, and she’s now deemed the most powerful woman in the world.

We should stop being surprised when women like Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon – and maybe even Hilary Clinton – rise to the top of politics. There are plenty of talented women in our parties and parliaments, waiting in the wings. It’s time to drop the questioning about whether they reach the top just because of their gender and ask instead what’s been holding them back for so long.


Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.  

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