There is an odd phenomenon in the way feminism is popularly understood. Many people seem to think that any woman who succeeds in a male-dominated field is a feminist icon and that her success is a victory for feminism. In case we needed a textbook demonstration of why this isn’t the case, the gods handed us the Conservative leadership election.
Right from the start, the coverage of the contest between May and Leadsom has been deplorable. Tabloid headlines comparing the two women to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and referring to them as ‘girl’s filled the newsstands. The media really did not need any fuel for their sexist fire. But boy did Leadsom give it to them anyway.
In an interview with Times journalist Rachel Sylvester – who doubtless has experience of and is sympathetic to the plight of high-profile women – Leadsom said:
“genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She [May] 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."
Her comments are not just a kick in the teeth for May – to who she has since apologised – but also for women everywhere. Your womb is no-one else’s business and the detail of whether or not it has produced offspring is irrelevant in any job interview. Even if that interview is a nine-week campaign for the biggest job in UK politics. Many people, Sylvester included, consider Leadsom’s comments to be ill-judged rather than malicious; the result of a lack of experience in dealing with the tricky beast that is the UK national press.
Having caused a major ruckus, this so-called ‘motherhood row’ was not finished claiming casualties. Leadsom pulled out of the contest on today, citing her lack of support in the Conservative party. David Cameron has announced that Theresa May will take over as Prime Minister on Wednesday and praised Leadsom’s ‘decision to stand aside’ to avoid prolonging the leadership campaign.
A desire for the Conservative party to regain some stability was almost certainly one of Leadsom’s motives for pulling out of the campaign. However, on Sunday afternoon she told The Telegraph that since the fateful Times interview she has felt 'under attack, under enormous pressure. It has been shattering'. It is surely naïve to think that her retreat from the campaign has nothing to do with the backlash against her.
The way the press has treated Leadsom is a sad example of how far we have to go in fair, respectful representation of women in the media. The fallout from her comments is arguably just as worrying as the fact that she made them in the first place. If May and Leadsom were men, it’s fair to assume that the issue of family would barely have been mentioned let alone made into front page news. The way Leadsom has been vilified since is a deeply concerning demonstration that exposing your flaws carries a higher price for women than it does for men.
Whether or not you agree with Leadsom that being a mother gives you more of a stake in the future of the country (and it would seem most don’t); consider the message this sends out. We should be encouraging young women and girls to say what they think, test their ideas in conversations, challenge themselves and others and shout louder about their experiences. Instead, this episode warns that making a misjudged comment about a controversial topic can ruin your career.
The Conservative leadership election was one of the highest profile moments for powerful women that this country has ever had. It was a wonderful and rare opportunity for two talented women to be seen and heard by the next generation of leaders - of any gender. But it has been squandered; turned into yet another reason for talented girls to shy away from the limelight for fear of not being perfect.