Theresa May, 2015; picture courtesy of the UK Home Office

Look At Life: Powerful Women

14th October 2016

Holding Out For A Heroine

By Jennifer Lipman

I wasn’t quite four when Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street and, as such, my memories of her time in power are dim; most of what I know about her, from her politics to her legacy and her shoulder pads, came later. But as a child of the 1980s, one thing I was always sure of was that girls – or women – could be Prime Minister.

In the 26 years since Thatcher hung up her handbag, not only has Britain failed to elect a woman to the highest rank, but none have really been in the running. Instead, we had the fratricide of Ed and David, we saw Tony and Gordon quarrel, and endured David and George’s political bromance. We had ‘Blair’s babes’, ‘Cameron’s cuties’, and what the Mail dubbed the Downing Street catwalk.

Harriet Harman was Deputy Prime Minister, of course, and several women sought to win the Labour leadership last year, only for it to be secured by – shocker – a middle aged white man.

And while generally equality in public life has increased – there are now 192 female MPs, ‘perks’ like flexible working are widely accepted, and the idea of a woman in a top business position is no longer cause for comment – it’s remained rather blokey at the top.

So it’s refreshing, a generation on, to see another woman shatter the Westminster ceiling (albeit without a general election). It’s especially refreshing to see this in light of a number of other impressive female leaders, from Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson in Scotland, to Angela Merkel in Germany, Christine Lagarde at the IMF, and (I hope and pray) Hillary Clinton in the White House.

That’s not to say I agree with all of them, of course, nor that I would support them just because they’re women. While women may be more disposed to pursue feminist policies, for example on abortion rights, there’s no guarantee. Just being female doesn’t automatically make someone worthy of respect – just as being a man doesn’t make them better qualified to be in power (are you listening, Donald Trump?). Equally, while it’s claimed that had women been in charge in the run up to the financial crisis, it wouldn’t have happened, because women tend to be less reckless, it’s also fair to say that female leaders are just as capable of terrible decisions.

Indeed, there are plenty of successful women who don’t live up to Madeleine Albright’s wise words that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Not every female leader is out to support their sisters; for some, even admitting to be a feminist is a bridge too far.

In truth, I disagree with Sturgeon on Scottish independence and am no fan of May’s position on Brexit – and if I had the chance, I’d express that through the ballot box. I’d vote for Hillary in a heartbeat, certainly, because she’s an incredibly qualified, competent and principled candidate.

Still, there’s something incredibly powerful about picking up a paper and seeing ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’ written next to words like Prime Minister or President, rather than ‘princess’ or ‘pop star’. There’s something inspiring about seeing women who can do it, and are doing it, rather than listening to the endless debate about whether women can have it all, or should want to.

Because role models matter. It’s much harder to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ if you can’t visualise yourself as ‘b’; it’s challenging to achieve without a prototype for what success looks like. For the longest time, the only women regularly making the front page have been the Duchess of Cambridge and the Kardashians. I’d rather my little niece grows up seeing female leaders on the news, as I did when I was a child.

As I found early on in my career, seeing women at the levels above me is motivating. If they can achieve, and be the voice of reason on the call, or the person bringing in clients, then why shouldn’t I? If they can juggle motherhood and a job (and with aplomb), maybe I’ll manage too, when the time comes. While I’m not personally aspiring to join the highest echelons of political power, I’m glad those who want to now have such a rich array of role models to look to.

Who knows what the era of May, Merkel and (maybe) Clinton will bring? All I know is that 2016 feels like the moment when, at long last, the balance of power has shifted.

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