May, Sturgeon, Merkel: women rising from the political ashes of men

Theresa May MP

There was a time when German political commentators loved to compare Angela Merkel to Margaret Thatcher.

When the German chancellor first took office more than a decade ago, admirers and detractors alike wondered whether she would be her country’s Eiserne Frau or Iron Lady.

No one makes that comparison any more. With Theresa May the current frontrunner to become Britain’s next prime minister, commentators in Germany have been wondering, mostly approvingly, whether it is the British home secretary who could be “a duplicate of the German chancellor”. Like Merkel, the German TV commentator Wolfram Weimer noted on Tuesday, May “operates in an aloof and sober way, but … always knows what she wants”.

But she is also, of course, a woman, and in a piece for the German daily newspaper Die Welt, the writer Mara Delius expressed an increasingly widespread sense that May, along with Merkel and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, represents part of a new “femokratie”, coming to “clean up the mess created by the men”. They were, she said, “postmodern Elektras in trouser suits and rubber gloves”. Thank goodness, the piece suggested, Europe looked at last to be in safe (female) hands.

Certainly these might seem to be remarkable times for female political leadership in Britain and across the world. May is joined at the front of the Conservative leadership race by Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and former banker. 

Should Labour MPs ever decide to move against Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Eagle has declared she will challenge him. Aside from Sturgeon, the Conservative and Labour party leaders in Scotland, the first minister of Northern Ireland and the leader of Plaid Cymru are all women. The Green party has been led by a woman for almost a decade and its former leader, Caroline Lucas, is running again as a job-share candidate.

Internationally, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is the favourite to take the US presidency in November, and could even pick another woman, Elizabeth Warren, as her running mate. The head of the International Monetary Fund and the US attorney general are women, and the next UN secretary general, due to be chosen later this year, may well be too.

Is this all a happy coincidence? Has the glass ceiling blocking female power finally been smashed? Or is the world in such a parlous state that troubled nations have realised they need a woman to clear things up? As Iceland’s first female prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, suggested in an article in response to the referendum result, quoting lines by the Icelandic poet Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir: “When all has been said / when the problems of the world / have been dissected discussed and settled ... – a woman always arrives / to clear the table / sweep the floor and open the windows / to let out the cigar smoke / It never fails.”

That explanation finds resonance with the Conservative peer Lady Jenkin of Kennington who, with May, founded their party’s campaign to elect more female Tory MPs, Women 2 Win. Of the fact that two of the most favoured candidates for the party’s leadership were women, she said: “I think the whole country feels rather relieved … I think there is a feeling of, ‘Yes, nanny, please come and tell us what to do.’

“I think they feel that at a time of turmoil, a woman will be more practical and a bit less testosterone[-driven] in their approach. More collaborative, more wiling to listen to voices around the table, less likely to have an instantly aggressive approach to things.”

The business minister, Anna Soubry, said similar things last week when she apologised to the British people “for the state our politics is in … We’ve had enough of these boys messing about.” Soubry is backing May.

But women, self-evidently, are not all the same, as Sturgeon noted in a frustrated tweet on Monday, when a viewer protested at hearing a BBC journalist say: “May and Leadsom may both be women, but they have quite different views.” 

Retweeting the quote, Scotland’s first minister wrote: “Attitudes to women have come such a long way, but this shows they’ve still got a long way to go.” One can imagine what she would have made, too, of Delius’s observation in Die Welt that “Merkel and Sturgeon appear to employ the same stylist and hairdresser”, suggesting that there is “a uniform phenotype of the successful political ‘powerfrau’”.

Plenty of others will balk at any suggestion of a feminist breakthrough just two weeks after a female MP was murdered, and while many of Jo Cox’s peers are forced to endure daily tirades of violently misogynistic abuse on social media.

Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, expressed frustration that the debate about May and Leadsom’s pre-eminence in the Conservative race has focused more on their gender than their policies. “It really matters to have the people who represent you look like you, and so for women it’s important to see other women in positions of power and leadership. But it’s also important that the women in positions of power and leadership are focused on women, not just power.”

Leadsom, she notes, has previously called for women working for small businesses to be stripped of maternity rights, while May – to whom she gives credit for supporting victims of domestic violence – presided over the detention of pregnant women and others with mental health conditions at Yarl’s Wood. “You need to really question their policies. You need to ask what they are going to do to make women equal in this country.”

Having two prominent female candidates in the race, she said, offered an opportunity for May and Leadsom “to use their experiences as women to create policies that speak to the inequalities experienced by half the population. It’s disappointing to me that that conversation has not started yet.”

Powered by article was written by Esther Addley in London and Kate Connolly in Berlin, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th July 2016 19.20 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010