Did the politics of motherhood destroy Andrea Leadsom’s bid to be Britain’s next prime minister? Only last week, some Tory diehards were describing her as a new Margaret Thatcher, a figure to restore the soul of Conservatism and secure the nation’s future outside the European Union. Then, on Saturday, she told the Times that being a mother gave her a ‘stake in the future’ which her childless opponent, Theresa May, lacked. Roundly criticised by party colleagues as well as enemies, Leadsom backpedalled, first declaring she had been misquoted and demanding a retraction from the newspaper, then admitting she had ‘misspoken’ and issuing a sorrowful apology to May. She made no mention of the affair when she announced her withdrawal from the race today, but it seems inconceivable that Leadsom would have dropped out had she never made those comments.
Talking about the way motherhood shapes political sensibilities used to be simpler. Late 19th and early 20th-century feminism is saturated with maternalist statements. Women’s capacity for mothering, it used to be said, made them ideal social workers, committed humanitarians and natural pacifists, and reinforced arguments for giving them the vote. Once conferred with full political rights, the argument went, women would lift up and remoralise a militarist masculine polity, bringing human values to bear on the great affairs of state, nation and empire.
Such sweeping claims fall awkwardly on 21st-century ears. But one feature of that earlier feminist creed is worth remembering in the light of the Leadsom affair: it was a claim about the possibilities of a feminised politics, not about hierarchies of virtue among mothers and childless women. For all its problematic essentialism, maternalism as an ideology was capacious and inclusive; motherhood – whether prospective, actual or never-realised – enabled all women to see the world differently. The prime champion of family allowances (the forerunner of child benefit) was Eleanor Rathbone, a childless spinster. One of the key pioneers of nursery education was the never-married Margaret McMillan.
After Leadsom’s remarks were published, some commentators, faced with the unedifying spectacle of one female politician attempting to score points off another’s involuntary childlessness, took the line that all talk of motherhood should be banished from the leadership campaign. It was irrelevant to the serious business of selecting a prime minister, they said, noting that the subject wouldn’t come up in a race between male candidates. This argument may be superficially seductive but it’s mistaken; ‘don’t mention it’ is poor advice for any woman in the public eye wondering how to negotiate the minefield of gender, motherhood and politics.
We need a way of talking about the political importance of gendered caring roles that doesn’t naturalise sexual divisions or create hierarchies of feminine virtue. Not every woman looks after children, elderly parents or needy friends, but that care work has to be performed by someone, and historically it has fallen – and, overwhelmingly, falls still – to women. This is what those earlier feminists meant when they spoke of ‘mothering’ as a social and political act as opposed to a private and personal affair. Today’s politicians, too, need to make connections between the pressures that structure men and women’s family lives and the wider economy of care in which we all – parents and non-parents alike – have a stake.