Andrea Leadsom's motherhood insult shows power of parenting myth

Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom's withdrawal from a dirty battle is cause for muted celebration, even if it does wipe out the homeopathic quantity of democracy offered by a contest between her and Mrs Theresa May. She threw herself into post-truth, street-fighting politics with appalling gusto, and it is a relief not to have to watch that play out.

Mrs May is set to take over as Britain's Prime Minister today after her sole rival, Mrs Leadsom, withdrew from the Conservative Party leadership race earlier.

Mrs May is no stranger to the street-fighting side of politics. Who could forget her famous fantasy cat - star of her 2011 speech to a Conservative conference - which prevented the deportation of a heinous Bolivian criminal, because of Europe. "I'm not making this up!" she finished, gleefully, to which all the forces of justice and human rights responded, agape, "But yes, you are making it up." (It had nothing to do with Europe; it had nothing to do with a cat.)

She was also the driving force behind the "Go home or face arrest" vans - racist vans, for short - in which the truly seedy detail was that there were only two, one for the press call and another just so that they wouldn't have to admit to only having one. It would have been terrible policy, had it been a policy; but instead it was just a stunt, a flash of hostility, like baring your teeth or getting "hate" tattooed on your knuckles.

However, her promulgation of UK Independence Party-flavoured untruths was only sporadic and never looked heartfelt. She was always a bit-part player in the "Lynton Crosbyfication" of politics - where the more wrong it is, the more you should say it, because unbridled nastiness reaches places that mere reason won't reach.

In the leadership contest, Mrs May was the non-pig in writer George Bernard Shaw's axiom: Never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it. The pig, stalking off the stage, didn't seem to enjoy it very much, but did the other part hold? Has Mrs May been sullied by any of the wrestling? Specifically, the notion that, being childless, she is a sad woman with no stake in the future?

Mrs Theresa May is set to take over as Britain's Prime Minister today after her sole rival, Mrs Andrea Leadsom, withdrew from the Conservative Party leadership race earlier.
Mrs Theresa May is set to take over as Britain's Prime Minister today after her sole rival, Mrs Andrea Leadsom, withdrew from the Conservative Party leadership race earlier. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The childless woman in politics is seen simultaneously to have sacrificed her chance of motherhood at the altar of her ambition, and therefore to be too serious and not relatable enough, while being flighty and living in an eternal present. It is contradictory and often unspoken, like all the best misogynistic slurs; you can rarely take it on directly, and when you do, you are dragged down by its own incoherence.

HAVE A REAL STAKE IN THE FUTURE

I don't really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn't have children so I don't want this to be 'Andrea has children, Theresa hasn't', because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She 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. So it really keeps you focused on what are you really saying, because what it means is you don't want a downturn but never mind, 10 years hence it will all be fine, my childen will be starting their lives in that next 10 years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.

MRS ANDREA LEADSOM, in The Times interview, on the difference between her and Mrs Theresa May, and on being a mum in politics.

Mrs Leadsom's remarks about Mrs May were distinctive more for their lack of sophistication than for any new content. The same critique emerged from MP Yvette Cooper's camp about Ms Liz Kendall in the Labour leadership battle last year. Ms Cooper herself was too smart to allude to Ms Kendall's child-free status directly. Instead, a supporter, Ms Helen Goodman, was deployed to write a piece that climaxed: "Much, much more important to me than being an MP and shadow minister is that I am a mum. I have two children and although they are both grown-up (supposedly), once a mum always a mum." I'm a mum. She's a mum. We get it. We get stuff that you ice-cold career harridans with your box-fresh lady parts don't get.

It is beneath contempt for women to do this to one another. The one uniting fact of sisterhood - if solidarity based on gender can exist at all - is that regardless of parenting status or stage in life, irrespective of political leaning, we all know what it's like to be reduced to our sexual characteristics and then remorselessly judged on how tidy we keep them and what use we put them to. We all know that much, and we all - surely? - hate it.

Yet it is rife across the political spectrum; there is something talismanic about the place of motherhood in politics, the preference for women who have borne young, that is accepted, then post-rationalised by those minded to speak it out loud, with the idea of children as the motivating force in the creation of a better future.

It is never levelled at childless straight men: technically, this is because men are never called childless until they're dead. Yet it is levelled at gay men, and the underlying assumption is that straight men are automatically far-sighted.

This is the patriarchy at its simplest - they are already father to the future, by default. Women and gay men, meanwhile, are lesser by definition. Their sense of civic duty is never a given, and must always be proved.

Parenthood is complicated - it gives you a stake in the future in the sense that you would put your children's wellbeing before your own, but it seems to manifest more in mawkish hand-wringing than in concrete action. If it did have a positive iteration, we would be able to see it in voting patterns. MPs with children would be more worried about climate change, more in favour of renewable energy, more invested in international peace and cooperation, more concerned about the feedback effects of increased inequality; none of these things seem to be true.

This wouldn't be a very easy rhetorical space for Mrs May to occupy - "If you parents, of whom many are in my own party, are so long-sighted, why are all your decisions so pathetically short-term?" Perhaps this is something the rest of us could do on her behalf, in the spirit of cross-party sisterhood.

Mrs May seems already to be gravitating towards the space of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose child-free status, once a handicap, evolved to play in her favour. Over the past decade she has become "Mutti" Merkel ("mutti" being a familiar term for mother in German), which carries its own tang of sexism: that her authority can be understood and accepted only in a maternal framing (you don't find many male premiers in advanced democracies with the nickname "Daddy"). Yet she wouldn't have become mother to the nation if she had children of her own; the maternal projection required the vacancy.

The abstract motherly traits attaching to Mrs May at the moment - morality, sobriety, maturity - are ones she has gained more in the comparison to her colleagues than she has actually earned. Yet they may well enable her to rise above the fetish for reproduction, and thereby neutralise it.

I hold out no hope at all for her furthering the lot of women generally, but this might be one helpful thing she does by accident.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Leadsom's motherhood insult shows power of parenting myth'. Print Edition | Subscribe