Call it femocracy or gynocracy (my preference), or, a new age of women, as Justine Greening has it, the excited consensus is that we’re in for a benign new world of female governance. Hillary in the US, Theresa May over here, Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Angela Merkel in Germany…what could be more lovely? Except possibly the addition of Marine Le Pen at the helm in France, though oddly enough feminists rarely bring her into the new scheme of things… she’s up there with Sarah Palin as an female unmentionable. Oh and let’s not forget Angela Eagle as potential Labour leader, whose tearfulness as she knifed Jeremy Corbyn with her resignation this week was, I suppose, endearing to some.
Obviously, only Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon are actually in charge right now and Mrs Merkel’s performance has already rather clouded the notion that female governance equals competence… her catastrophic error of judgment in aggravating the refugee crisis by admitting 1.1 million refugees to Germany last year at a stroke undermined her reputation for stolid worth.
But the obvious point about the Women in Charge motif is that it doesn’t equate to Mothers in Charge. Theresa May spoke rather movingly in this weekend’s interview about being unable to have children…which hasn’t taken away from the stability and happiness of her marriage. Hillary Clinton has a single child. Angela Merkel is childless. Ruth Davidson (like Angela Eagle) is a lesbian, so different rules apply but still, her life experience is by no means representative of most women’s. Nicola Sturgeon is married and childless.
So the notion that this lineup somehow means that women have as a sex made it is some way wide of the mark; childless, or near-as childless, women have made it, which is not quite the same thing. Though I’ve always felt the notion that you had to be provided with a standard family in order to run for office is itself a kind of intolerance. There always were rumours about Edward Heath’s private life – and they’ve been stoked up lately – but he was proof that being a childless bachelor was no disqualification for the highest office – though Pitt the Younger was an instance too.
But in the case of women, the obvious reality is that children are an impediment to the ruthless, singleminded promotion of a political career, whereas for men they are an unequivocal asset, since women are, by and large, the primary caregivers. Mrs Thatcher was enormously helped by cannily having twins; an instant family as her biographer, Penny Junor, observed. So I shall be more impressed when women with three or four or five children become heads of government. The Queen, mind you, is a head of state with four children, but in her case, different rules apply.
Which leaves us with the second tier of politics: the female spouses and relatives of the men running for office. An interesting discussion on the subject between Edwina Currie and Shirley Williams on Radio 4 today included the now standard reference to Sarah Vine, Mrs Michael Gove, as Lady Macbeth (that was, I admit, my own instant response to the events in question), which is a new version of the old trope of women sating their thirst for power through their men. And that leaves Michael Gove as Macbeth, not a wholly happy casting. I don’t know about you but I personally am thirsting for Mrs G’s take on all this in the Mail, because she’s been dissed with characteristic vim by Rachael Johnson in its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, on behalf of her brother Boris … Antigone to his whatshisname … as being the cause of all the trouble. That kind of spat leaves us pretty well where we were before…women with no political careers in their own right who enter the fray on behalf of their menfolk, in this case, having a go at other women. Not really so inspiring, is it?