Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer and classical musician, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
What was with last week’s post-ballot fuss over the assertion that our next Prime Minister would be a woman? Not only was this cheery realisation the most tediously obvious bit of political forecasting, but it also seemed to be being exploited in an attempt to avoid discussing something else. These complaints aside, it made me annoyed at myself, too.
Whenever I’ve been asked my thoughts on ‘the woman thing’ – calling it that probably reveals enough – I’ve usually relied on Theresa May’s forerunner. I’d respond: “When I was small, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, so why would I think I couldn’t do anything that my male counterparts could?” – and leave it there. Now, I’m forced to reassess my lazy argument, hating that I ever used it without clarifying what I meant.
Plainly, the point about Thatcher is not that she was a (insert your chosen supremely positive/negative adjective here) woman Prime Minister, but that she was a (ditto) Prime Minister who happened to be a woman.
Yet surely, you counter, doesn’t Margaret Thatcher having been Prime Minister say something important about women? Something important about women in Britain? No. I don’t really think it does; it says something about her. Yes, it demonstrates that British women are allowed to advance to high office. And, if we needed reminding, it forces us to recall that there are still countries where women might be termed political representatives, but are simply installed for show – and those where they can’t even vote. But why would we want our standards predicated on such comparisons?
And, ok, that we hadn’t previously had a female Prime Minister says something about how women used to be considered here, for sure. Condemning nineteenth-century Britain – or 1960s Britain – for its sexism is unhelpful, however, in the same way it is to condemn Cecil Rhodes for his racism: it doesn’t do anything.
I’m not being relativistic. Given our judgement is that sexism is clearly backward and wrong, then we should apply that judgement to everyone- anywhere, in any time. Yet we should also acknowledge that it’s partly thanks to awareness gained from living in an enlightened society that we feel certain of right answers to moral questions such as those of gender* equality. We can’t change the fact that while smart people in the past might have believed that we were all born equal, or that we should be treated as ends in ourselves, it didn’t stop them thinking that women deserved different treatment from men. All we can do is note their failings, to help us evade failure – and move on.
So my point isn’t about other places or times. And, of course, I know there are women in our country who don’t have the luxury of not having to define themselves through their gender: people who have grown up with the sense of it being all-important; people whose gender not only holds them back, it puts them in danger.
It always depresses me, however, when I realise that the idea of women being inherently ‘different’ from men is present among – I’m going to say it – people like me. People who don’t face restrictions. People who’ve benefitted from a similar upbringing. And I’m not just criticising those who’ve become so complacent about their relative fortune that they’ve turned it on its head to go off on a cultural Marxist bender, and thus miss focusing on the world’s real problems. Our obsession with Leadsom and May’s gender lets the rest of us down, too.
It’s unhelpful that we’re keen to categorise ourselves – a natural proclivity, I guess. But I’m emphasising ‘we’ and ‘ourselves’ because of a shift towards subjectivity. Increasingly, people are putting themselves into boxes, to try to prevent others doing it for them. The most topical of those boxes is gender, yet it’s also evident regarding class: the recent annual British Social Attitudes survey report claimed that: “People who see society as divided between a large disadvantaged group and a small privileged elite feel more working class, regardless of their actual class position.”
Is self-definition preferable to having definition forced upon us? We’re still accepting that we’re apportionable, rather than fighting to be seen as individuals who determine our own lives. Ok, there are those of you who are thinking, “But we’re constructed products of the system!” or, “Don’t we need the force of directed societal change to free us to become truly ourselves?” Well, if you’re convinced that you can engender some kind of zero-sum equality by affording particular groups of people extra freedoms at the expense of other groups, but also want to let people choose and switch between the groups into which they fit, your task is somewhat tricky…
I see that you might, sometimes, be able to predict my behaviour based on factors you know about me, in a stats-y polling sort of way. Being a woman might mean I’m more likely to do x; being from the North East might mean I’m more likely to like y; having a university degree might mean I’m more likely to think z; being white might mean I’m more likely to have a; and so on. But none of those predetermine my choices, or make me who I am. Sure, there are occasions when I may behave in certain ways partly because of societal norms, biology, or whatever. However, I can’t accept that I’m ‘me’ because, say, I’m a woman – above and beyond all the undefinable intricacies that, as a conscious human being with free will, constitute my self.
And that’s why I was most annoyed by the ‘we’re going to have another woman Prime Minister’ comments. Yes, this fact sends a nice-seeming message to girls today. But it also shows what a short distance we’ve come since Thatcher.
Theresa May now has the chance to be a great Prime Minister, holding together a much-needed unity government in a difficult time. Just “Prime Minister”, you’ll notice I wrote, not “woman Prime Minister”‘. Let’s see what she’s got.
*In this piece, I’m mostly (I think it’s obvious when I’m not) using the term ‘gender’ to connote both biological sex and cultural/social gender delineation, because I don’t have time now to get into discussing differing viewpoints on a distinction between the two.