Boris Johnson’s comments about single mothers have gone viral, but what do they really tell us about our PM?

Boris Johnson: “Why we can’t ignore the prime minister’s comments about single mothers”

The prime minister said that something needs to be done to “restore women’s desire to be married”. Yes, really.

I’d like to, if I may, take you back to 1995 for a moment. Clueless is on in cinemas, Princess Diana is baring her soul in an unprecedented Panorama interview, Nicole Flender has welcomed a baby son named Timothée Chalamet, Philip Pullman has given children a fearless feminist icon in Northern Lights’ Lyra, and a little-known show called Friends just aired in the UK for the first time ever.

It feels like the world is changing, and for the better. Amongst all of this, though, one of The Spectator’s newer columnists has penned a dystopian diatribe worthy of a Gileadean commander in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The writer – one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite journalists, no less – has branded the children of single mothers “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”. He (because obviously it’s a he) goes on to insist that it’s “feeble” for a man to be reluctant or unable to “take control of his woman”. That it’s “outrageous” of the government to expect married couples to fund “‘the single mothers’ desire to procreate independently of men”. That “nine times out of ten these girls will go on having babies out of wedlock not because they want to qualify for some state hand out, but because, in their monotonous and depressing lives, they want a little creature to love”. That, above all else, something needs to be done to “restore women’s desire to be married” and address the “feebleness of the modern Briton, his reluctance or inability to take control of his woman and be head of a household”. 

You read it. You put the magazine down. Then, unable to believe that someone really wrote – let alone published – these awful, hateful words, you pick it up and read it all over again. It’s all there, in black and white. The tone is serious, measured, pompous: this has been written to provoke, sure, but it’s not a joke… and it’s definitely not funny. In fact, it’s nothing short of terrifying. How can it be that someone with enough clout to warrant an actual column in The Spectator genuinely seems to believe that a woman’s primary goal in life is to breed? That we are walking talking wombs, and all of our decisions are determined by some incessantly ticking clock buried deep within our bodies? How was this ever allowed to make it past the editors?

Sadly, that’s not the worst of it: not by far. Proving how very out-of-touch with the rest of the UK he is, the Oxford graduate (you know the sort: went to Eton, member of the Bullingdon Club) informs his readers that it’s “no use blaming uppity and irresponsible women for becoming pregnant in the absence of a husband”. Why? Because all working-class men are “likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”, of course. “Given their natural desire to have babies, and the tininess of what the sociologist William Julius Wilson has called the ‘marriageable pool’, it is the only answer [for these women],” he adds, before pompously suggesting that a liberal society is to blame for all the absent fathers of the world. 

“He feels depressed and emasculated by the state’s superior ability and willingness to provide for his womenfolk,” the author suggests. “I have no idea.”

Finally, something we can all agree with. But who wrote this abhorrently sexist drivel, you ask? Who, in a world filled with good, decent people, would ever dream of publishing an article which dismisses women as mindless chattel? And who would ever dare to suggest that a government which empowers a woman with the tools she needs to raise a child, regardless of her marital status, is a failure?

Why, it’s the very same man who will go on to have an illegitimate daughter with a mistress, deny paternity, then seek an injunction to prevent it ever being reported on. It’s the very same man who will, in 2007, wholeheartedly blame women for driving up the house prices. And it’s the very same man who will, in 2019, become prime minister of the United Kingdom.

That’s right. The author of this disgusting article is none other than Boris Johnson, of course. 

With the 2019 general election looming, prime minister Boris Johnson has done his best to emphasise how much he has to offer female voters. He’s pledged to establish a new £1billion fund to help create more high-quality, affordable childcare, including before and after school and during the holidays. He has vowed to bring in support for those receiving universal credit (although, as Stylist’s political writer previously flagged, what form this support will take – and how the party are going to tackle the administrative problems associated with universal credit – remains unclear). And Johnson has promised to help women “reach their full potential” if the Tories win, launching a fresh push to recruit female Conservative activists.

“Whilst we might have led the way in terms of female representation, it is vital we keep that up,” the prime minister said this week. “That is why I am committing to the biggest drive of female member, activist and candidate recruitment, and why it is my ambition that half of Conservative candidates on our list for future parliamentary elections are women.”

Johnson added: “I have often said that talent and brilliance is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. I will make sure that women are supported to take up the opportunities that politics presents.”

Boris Johnson faces sexual harassment claim
Boris Johnson said that it’s “outrageous” of the government to expect married couples to fund “‘the single mothers’ desire to procreate independently of men”.

There is no doubt that this all sounds positive, at least on the surface. Unfortunately for Johnson, however, his attempts to woo the female electorate have been somewhat overshadowed by that outrageous 1995 column – which has, helpfully, been brought to light by those who oppose the Tories, presumably as a way of discrediting the PM.

Speaking about the article, shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti said: “These unearthed comments further reveal Boris Johnson’s contempt for women and families, as he hypocritically attacks what he appallingly describes as ‘illegitimate’ children.

“From attacking single mothers working hard to raise their kids, to advocating sexual harassment in the workplace, his sexist comments are an affront to women everywhere. He has no right to attend or have any involvement in this event.”

Damningly, Chakrabarti added: “Someone whose attitudes towards women are straight out of the Dark Ages is not fit to be prime minister of our country.”

As previously noted, The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985 – a decade before Johnson penned this outrageous piece. Likewise, the UK signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981 and ratified it in 1986. The real-life Erin Brockovich – a single mum herself – built a brilliant case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993. And a landmark court judgement in 1991 changed the law on marital rape forever when the House of Lords ruled that “it cannot seriously be maintained that by marriage a wife submits herself irrevocably to sexual intercourse in all circumstances”.

Essentially, in 1995, the UK was not the sexist cesspit that people defending Johnson seem to think it was. But even – and it’s a big even – if we ignore this, this 1995 column serves as a timely reminder that Johnson’s comments about women didn’t start when he entered the world of politics. Because, for all those claiming that Johnson has changed since then, and that the world is a “very different place” now, I have a question: have you so easily forgotten all of the other disparaging remarks our PM has made about women?

For those with selective amnesia, let me jog your memory with a few choice soundbites. There was that moment in the 2005 election, when Johnson insisted that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”. Just a few years later, at the 2012 Olympics, he somehow felt it appropriate to describe professional female volleyball players as being “semi-naked” and “glistening like wet otters”. And, when launching the World Islamic Economic Forum at London’s City Hall in 2013, the then-mayor insisted that the role of women in Islamic societies is “to find men to marry”. Which, you have to admit, sounds overwhelmingly similar to the sentiment expressed in that 1995 article, doesn’t it?

Just a few more examples of Johnson’s views of women, if I may. Three years ago, he compared presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”. In 2018, just months before he was named prime minister of the UK, he insisted it was “absolutely ridiculous” that Muslim women “choose to go around looking like letterboxes”. And, as an MP, Johnson has always abstained from Westminster votes on abortion, including those related to Northern Ireland where abortion was only decriminalised last month.

Please leave my town Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson said: “I have often said that talent and brilliance is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. I will make sure that women are supported to take up the opportunities that politics presents.”

In short, Johnson’s name has become synonymous with sexism and chauvinism. He, and only he, is to blame for that fact. And, sure, some people make mistakes. Sure, the internet has made it all too easy for us to screenshot every single mistake a person has made. Sure, the world has changed since 1995. And, sure, these comments were dug out by those who want to see Johnson unseated as PM in the upcoming general election.

But will I ever agree with a prime minister who speaks about women like they’re chattel at best, dumb docile cow-like creatures at worst? Absolutely not.

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