The incoming British Prime Minister, Theresa May, who will become the UK’s second female head of government on Wednesday, had no competition for the job after her rival, fellow conservative Andrea Leadsom, made the mistake of suggesting that she was better suited to lead the government by virtue of her experience as a mom.
The mythological furies, goddesses of vengeance, had nothing on those tweeting Brits who tore into Leadsom after she told the Times of London that while May “possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people,” she herself had a bona fide biological stake in the future: “I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.’’
The soon-to-be former energy minister should have known to run for her life when the reporter asked if she felt “like a mum in politics.” Instead, like the guileless toddlers she claims to know so much about, she stumbled straight into the net, muttering about how “very sad” May must be about her childless state.
“But genuinely,” she said genuinely, “I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.”
She also gave herself high marks for empathy, though perhaps not for self-awareness: “I think when you are thinking about the issues that other people have, you worry about your kids’ exam results, what direction their careers are taking, what we are going to eat on Sunday.”
After the backlash, Leadsom quickly announced that in the interest of party, country, and what was left of her dignity, she was withdrawing from the race. “The abuse was simply too much,” a colleague told the BBC.
And from there, it was all over but the four rounds of banging on the table by colleagues who wished David Cameron well at his farewell Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
We’ve seen a glimpse or two of this “Mummy Wars” dynamic in American politics, too: In Oklahoma in 2010, Republican Rep. Mary Fallin was asked in a gubernatorial debate what set her apart from her Democratic female rival, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins.
“First of all,” Fallin said, “being a mother, having children, raising a family.”
Askins, a former judge with no matrimonial or matriarchal experience, objected, but went on to lose the election.
(In Cleveland next week, Fallin will be on a Roll Call panel I’m moderating on women in politics, and governor, I am eager to hear more about what you were thinking during that debate.)
Male candidates in this country have also made a selling point of their parenthood — Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman seemed to be competing on that front for a few years.
And it isn’t only some Republicans who think of parenthood as a must.
When I first moved to D.C. in 1995, to cover the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut congressional delegations for the New York Times, one of my first interviews was with then-Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who asked right away whether I had kids.
Nope, I said, at a time when I was very sorry indeed that that was the case. “But, that’s what makes life worth living!” he said unhelpfully, and my eyes did leak a little, though he didn’t seem to notice.
Of course, that was a long time ago — my twins are 20 now — and people evolve, right? They do, but not that long ago, a much younger journalist was telling the identical story about the Senate majority leader in waiting — and said that Schumer had asked her the identical question, followed by the same criminally clueless piece of “procreate or what’s the use?” advice, at the same time in her life, and with a similar result. (Amy Schumer, can you do nothing with your cousin?)
Back across the pond, Leadsom, who wanted to leave the EU, is leaving center stage now, while May, who sort of wanted to stay in the Brussels club, gets the job of overseeing the UK’s exit from it.
And the one thing that we can conclude from their pageant in one act?
Kids are great, but just like rejection and cancer, they don’t necessarily make us better people. Or better public servants, so don’t make a martyr of a rival by suggesting that they do.