Nearly a month after the referendum on Brexit, the dust is starting to settle on the country’s decision to exit the EU. The UK is still to depart, but as the path to exit came into view, two female power players emerged from either side of the House of Commons, in the form of Theresa May and Angela Eagle. Though their fates differ hugely.
Theresa May is now the UK’s second female prime minister. May’s leadership contest against Andrea Leadsom was cut short following the uproar sparked by Leadsom’s comments suggesting that her motherhood (as opposed to May’s childlessness) gave her “a real stake in the future of our country”. Days later Leadsom dropped out of the race, saying it was “in the best interests of the country”.
In her first speech, May addressed social justice, mentioning: equal marriage, the class divide, racism in the justice system, the gender pay gap and the housing and mental health crises. The speech was such a “[clear] rejection of the years of Etonian privilege,” according to The Guardian, that former Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted his appreciation for it:
Although it was rumoured that May might address the lack of gender equality in the UK Parliament (women make up just 29% of MPs) via her cabinet reshuffle, the cabinet remains only one third female. There were however some notable female appointments to May’s cabinet: Amber Rudd, taking over May’s old job as Home Secretary; Andrea Leadsom, who will head up the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Liz Truss was appointed the first female Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State of Justices Priti Patel, a former tobacco lobbyist who is now set to work in International Development and Justine Greening, who takes up the mantels of Education and Women and Equalities. Greening’s appointment is groundbreaking for two reasons: she will be the first out LGB person to hold the Equalities role and is the first state-educated person to head up Education. She has already called for the reinstatement of grammar schools.
May isn’t only the UK’s second female prime minister, but the second provided by the Conservatives, as highlighted by David Cameron in his final Prime Minister’s Questions: “When it comes to women prime ministers I am very pleased to be able to say that very soon it is going to be 2-0! And not a pink bus in sight!”
The pink bus jibe was directed at Labour, who in 2015 deployed a pink bus to dispatch campaigners across the country as part of the “Woman to Woman” arm of the General Election campaign. This female-specific campaigning, says Sophy Ridge, was “slightly troubling” and gave “the impression that women are a niche group of homogenous people who care about the same things”.
The launch of Angela Eagle’s campaign for the Labour party leadership (Eagle resigned from a senior position in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet shortly after the Brexit result) was similarly criticised. Dressed in pink, standing in front of pink signage bearing a hand-written “Angela” in front of a pink Union Jack, The Telegraph was prompted to run the headline, “Is Angela Eagle launching a political career - or a perfume?”
Sadly, image is disproportionately important for female MPs. Timing is also key regardless of gender: Eagle’s campaign launch coincided with Leadsom’s announcement that she was bowing out of the Conservative leadership race, causing journalists to leave Eagle’s press conference early. Still, as the first challenger to Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, and the first LGB person to run for its leadership, Eagle was a woman making a strong point.
However, shortly after Owen Smith entered the race, and polls showed that neither would be able to defeat Corbyn in a leadership election, Eagle stood down. This came a day after Smith suggested he should lead because “I am normal. You know, I grew up in a normal household. I've got a wife and three children." This was read as a homophobic barb against Eagle, who refused to respond. Eagle also suffered online abuse from the left of the party, threats of deselection from Momentum, a group set up to propel Jeremy Corbyn’s career, and received a brick through the window of her constituency office in Wallasey, Merseyside. Throughout, she has maintained: “I’m not a Blairite, I’m not a Brownite and I’m not a Corbynista. I am my own woman – a strong Labour woman.” However, as Evan Davies, presenter of Newsnight put it: “There’s no formal rule against a woman rising to the top of the Labour party it just never seems to happen.”
While May’s approval ratings are such that 40% of those who voted Labour in 2015 would vote for her in a general election, she is still viewed by some under the same sexist microscope applied to Eagle. May’s reshuffle, her first major task undertaken as prime minister, was illustrated by tabloids as one of her kitten heels squashing the mostly-male cabinet members who were sacked or who resigned. This depiction is a sad reflection of how women holding positions of great power are still viewed.
Yet, the struggles all female ministers face, regardless of their policies and consequent actions, can unite: when May met with Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon to discuss Brexit and its implications for the Scots (many of whom are seeking a second UK independence referendum on the basis that it voted to remain in the EU), the latter posted a tweet of the pair holding hands along with the caption: “Politics aside - I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits for them.”
And that’s something we can all get behind.
Photo Credit: Kitwood/Getty Images; Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg; James Glossop/AFP/Getty Images