Lucy Mangan is sick and tired of the narrative surrounding Prime Minister Theresa May
“Running through wheat fields with a friend,” was the answer mustered by (the country-bred daughter of a vicar) Theresa May when asked last year by a journalist what the naughtiest thing she’d done as a girl was. A question whose magisterial irrelevance was topped a few days ago by one posed at the end of another long, serious interview, this time about the government’s proposed new bill to protect victims of domestic violence. How, wondered ITV News’ Julie Etchingham, two times – as the Prime Minister sought to bring the discussion back to the fairly pressing issue of the 95 (mostly) women killed by their partners every year and the estimated two million people currently being abused in their own homes – did May “let her hair down […] with her girlfriends”?
Predictably, after mumbling something about not really having the time to let her hair down, May was ridiculed in the press as “the Maybot”, malfunctioning yet again, her inhumanity and out-of-touchness evident, a pathetic figure who couldn’t even respond to a friendly, softball question.
Except it was anything but a friendly, softball question. It was irrelevant, patronising, sexist and surely asked in the assumption that May would be caught off-balance and flounder.
I am no apologist for May as a politician. I have never voted Tory, I’m a Remainer and view most of the policies her government has presided over with abject horror. But this is about the disparity in treatment between her and her male colleagues and the harm it does women.
In this specific instance, May’s stumbling reply to an irrelevant question overshadowed the announcement of possibly radical reforms of domestic violence law. The proposals include: tougher sentences in cases involving children; allowing police to disclose more information to women about previous violent behaviour from their partners; protection orders that can be issued at the application of a victim, family member or support services without police intervention.
This is all good stuff, and needs public attention and support. But we didn’t hear much about it.
In addition to this particular harm, there is the general antifemale culture which May’s treatment exacerbates. No male politician would have been asked, after an interview about new penalties for child-grooming gangs, say, what he does to relax. It would have sounded absurd. But May was expected to answer because, despite holding the highest office in our land while trying to run the country during Brexit – the most seismic national event since the war – she is still seen as a woman first and a politician second. And women must prove they haven’t lost their common touch nor their femininity when making quaint forays into professional careers. If they don’t pass the ‘normal’ test, they can be held up to public derision.
We women at large see this and take note to be more careful ourselves. Keep on with the people-pleasing. Stay within as many conventions as possible. We move and speak a bit less freely. We watch ourselves. Always watch ourselves.
Just as the media has been urged to #askhermore and not simply talk to female actors about their clothes, we need interviewers to stress-test the politician, not the woman. And get us all some answers.