By Lauren Apfel
In July, the UK got a new prime minister and I will readily admit that Theresa May’s gender matters to me—especially as a mother. We’ve had an elected female leader before in Britain, to be sure. Margaret Thatcher was PM for 11 years, from 1979-1990, a decade when it was rare indeed for a woman to hold such elaborate power. But when May took office recently, edging out another woman for the job, it felt different. With Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany and the United States having seen its first female nominee for president, maybe the tide has finally turned. The fact that my children consider a Prime Minister in high heels as normal as normal can be gives me hope that women really are going to start running the world alongside men.
My kids might think this is par for the course, though, because it’s already the norm where we live in Scotland. Here the three major political parties (SNP, Conservative, Labour) are all spearheaded by women. At five, eight and ten years old, my kids are routinely exposed to a political situation in which females are at the helm. They take it for granted by this stage, but I never do. Every debate we watch on TV that features the party leaders, five politicians on display in a horseshoe, is noteworthy to me, it moves me for the simple math that the women outnumber the men.
This keen interest in who’s on the political stage is relatively recent. I’ve been an inward-looking person for most of my life, but raising kids makes one inherently more aware of the wider world—especially as those kids age into cognizant social beings themselves. Certain issues have taken on new meaning when viewed through the lens of my children’s futures: motherhood, I discovered, has turbo-charged my feminism. And this year, my husband became a Member of the Scottish Parliament. As a result, politics trickle into our house on a regular basis. Sometimes they flood it.
“Daddy works at Parliament,” my daughter says and she’s right. “His boss is Ruth!” she says and she means Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative party. I’m thrilled she has this model of a woman in a position of high political power right under her nose, even if she doesn’t understand the exact dynamics. Because, yes, there is a large extent to which I want women leaders simply because they are women. Their qualifications matter, their stances on the issues matter, it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But representation matters too, the idea that our governing bodies should adequately mirror the population they are meant to serve. So does history: it has been a long march for women to get to where we are.
As Jill Filipovic brilliantly articulates in an article entitled Go Ahead, Play the Woman Card: “Fighting these pervasive, subconscious prejudices [in which men are systematically perceived as more competent than women] requires not only being aware of them, but also changing the archetypes of power. The only way to do that is to put more women…in positions of influence and authority…We can’t change longstanding assumptions about what a leader looks like unless we change what leaders look like.” This has to be true. And it follows that if our children continually see women in power, women in power will become the norm for them.
Filipovic is writing about Hillary Clinton, for whom I voted in November. The possibility that there was going to be a female president of the US and a female prime minister of the UK at the same time was particularly poignant to me, tied as I am to both of these countries. When I talked to my ten year old about it, though, he was nonplussed, which both annoyed me (can’t he see how momentous this is!) and reassured me (things will be different for the next generation!). As with so many points of tolerance and equality, our kids are miles ahead of us. Gender, from his point of view, is just not a determining factor for or against an individual candidate. But as a Gen X-er and perhaps an American, it still plays a big role for me. A female President is symbolic of what we’ve been “fighting” for all this time. The loftiest glass ceiling duly shattered.
Even if Clinton had been elected in tandem with May and Merkel, there’s a long way to go for women in politics. Females are woefully underrepresented at Westminster (191/650) as well as Holyrood (45/129), despite the gender balance of Scottish party leaders (3/5). In both British cases, women make up about 35% of the Parliament, while the US fares worse: women constitute only about 20% of Congress. So too the preponderance of childless women in politics leads one to believe that the lifestyle is not overly compatible with motherhood. As Margaret Thatcher said: “Yes, I wish I saw more of my children…I took a different life.”
In the wake of the news about who the new prime minister was going to be, Ann Marie Slaughter tweeted: “Women often joke that we are finally given the top job when things are so screwed up no one else will take it. Best of luck to Theresa May!” With the aftermath of Brexit weighing heavily on her shoulders, May has a big job to do, no doubt. But the fact that she is the one doing it is no small thing. Nor is the fact that it is a woman who our kids will see as rising to the challenge. Let’s hope American children will one day have the very same privilege.
UPDATE: Four years later and while neither Britain nor Scotland has any female party leaders at the moment Kamala Harris has just become the first female Vice President of the United States. It’s a huge deal, I could not have been happier on Saturday when the results were confirmed. Yes, I am thrilled to see the end of the Trump era with all the hope that entails. But it was Kamala who brought tears to my eyes. A hundred years after women got the vote in America, we have finally put one in the White House. It’s been a long time coming. It’s also just the beginning.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is an American who lives with her four children in the UK, and is devastated that Hillary Clinton did not win in November. Connect with her on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram.