New York Times SundayReview | OPINION
14 MAY 2017
LONDON — Margaret Thatcher, it is safe to say, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a pair of trousers. Her successor as a leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, Theresa May, is far more adventurous. When she made her bid to head the country’s main center-right party last summer, she was wearing a tartan pantsuit by the onetime high priestess of punk, Vivienne Westwood. Ms. Westwood’s label is mainstream these days, but it was still a bold choice for a would-be Tory prime minister.
Some months later, Mrs. May lounged on a sofa in a pair of leather trousersfor an interview at the end of the momentous year that saw her move into No. 10 Downing Street. But why am I even talking about the prime minister’s wardrobe when she has called a snap general election for June 8?
This is the first time in three decades that a mainstream British political party has gone to the polls with both a female leader and a serious expectation of winning. Isn’t it demeaning, not to say sexist, to focus on how she dresses?
The problem for feminists like me, who would normally leap to a female politician’s defense, is that Mrs. May would never complain about any of this attention. She gives every impression of liking it. The public probably knows more about what she wears than it does about her policies, confirming just about every sexist stereotype.
Women and shoes, huh? But to dismiss any discussion of Mrs. May’s careful cultivation of image as trivializing or gender-biased is to miss how strategic she is. Her famous leopard-print heels have long been a form of camouflage, usefully diverting attention when she has unpalatable things to say (which isn’t very often). They made one of their first outings at the Conservative Party Conference in 2002, when Mrs. May told activists they needed to stop earning their reputation as “the nasty party.” She discovered just how easy it is to distract Britain’s popular press with an unexpected choice of accessory.
In the opening weeks of this election campaign, all we learned about the country’s second female prime minister is that she utters the words “strong and stable” at every opportunity. Public appearances have been carefully choreographed: typically, a tour of a factory filled with supporters, with the media kept well away.
And it has worked. Mrs. May’s personal popularity is at stratospheric levels, with some opinion polls suggesting she is even more popular than Mrs. Thatcher was in her heyday. Perhaps the prime minister was channeling her inner Iron Lady when she stood at a lectern in Downing Street recently and scolded the leaders of the European Union, demonstrating how effectively she hid her true colors in the past: She, too, can be nasty when she needs to be.
It is becoming clear that Mrs. May’s political views are farther to the right than her reassuring presence — the head teacher who always has time to discuss little Johnny or Jessica’s problems — would have us believe. When Mrs. May was home secretary and in charge of the country’s borders, she supported a wildly optimistic policy of Prime Minister David Cameron, whowanted to reduce immigration to a few tens of thousands a year. That undertaking was an abject failure by any standards — net immigration last year was just under 275,000 — but it doesn’t seem to have done her much harm.
Mrs. May has corrected course by adopting an even tougher stance on the international refugee crisis than Mr. Cameron. In February, she canceled the government’s commitment to allow 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children into Britain after only about 350 had arrived.
She has proved adept at shifting position without incurring political damage. Last summer, she supported the Remain side in the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, but she did it so quietly that she succeeded in seamlessly maneuvering into being the best-placed candidate to lead the tricky Brexit negotiations after Leave won.
For feminists, Mrs. May is no less troubling a figure than Mrs. Thatcher was, embodying many of the same contradictions. The fact that the current leader has been called “Maggie May” by the popular press is chiefly a reminder that there are still too few role models for powerful women.
In the 1980s, the media routinely sexualized Mrs. Thatcher in under-the-radar ways. For a generation of upper-middle-class men who had grown up with nannies and school matrons, Mrs. Thatcher evoked a potent mix of anxiety and fantasy and sadomasochistic scenario. The writer Christopher Hitchens, hardly a natural admirer, claimed that the prime minister had once spanked him with a parliamentary order paper, mouthing “Naughty boy!” as she walked away.
The subtle edginess of Mrs. May’s personal style seems to wink at this role of national dominatrix. Those leopard-print shoes of hers inspired anotorious photomontage in The Sun, a top-selling British tabloid, that showed a similar pair crushing the heads of Tory men under the headline “Heel, Boys.”
And she has done nothing to discourage the toxic sexism that swirls about her. When the Daily Mail provoked outrage by publishing a photo of her with the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, under the brazenly sexist headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” the prime minister’s spokesman refused to comment. For her part, Ms. Sturgeon was furious andsaid so.
When President Trump met with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, he conspicuously declined to shake hands and avoided eye contact. In stark contrast, when the president first met Mrs. May in Washington in January,he grabbed her hand in full view of the cameras. This was a power play none of her ministers back home would dare to attempt, yet Mrs. May did not demur.
She has done little to challenge even the most hoary, outdated assumptions. When she took part in a rare joint TV interview with her husband, Philip, last week, she caused astonishment by saying that they divide household chores, such as taking the trash out, into “boy jobs and girl jobs.” She also appeared to think she needed to explain the fact that she wasn’t a mother when, in 2012, she chose to reveal her disappointment about being childless – something that speaks volumes about the social values of the British Conservative Party, as well as the insularity of British politics.
Mrs. May is more modern in her attitudes than some in her party — and undeniably more collegial than Mr. Cameron, let alone Mrs. Thatcher. Mrs. May voted for gay marriage, has promoted women to top posts in her cabinet and has a longstanding interest in preventing domestic violence. Yet she presides over a government that has pursued a dismantling of public services that disproportionately affects women. And the calling card she used to signal a break with the stuffy Tory past — the eye-catching footwear, the leather trousers — has now returned to haunt public life with unsavory, sexualized expectations of women at the highest level of politics.
This is all the more disappointing at a moment when the Conservative Party has overturned the traditional order of British politics by fielding a competent, personable woman against a male opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who looks and sounds like a throwback to the 1970s. Mrs. May’s refusal to confront the infantile misogyny of the media leaves her open to the accusation that she got where she is not by challenging patriarchy, but by colluding with it. What does it say about gender equality in Britain that the politician tipped to win by a landslide in next month’s election is most famous for her footwear?