It’s a simple but incredibly important statistic; that in a nation of empowered, educated women, we are still vastly underrepresented at the helm of British politics.
But in the past year, a new generation of female politicians has taken the stage. Hillary Clinton is running for office in the US, Nicola Sturgeon is First Minister of Scotland and Theresa May is the second woman to become Prime Minister in Britain (as David Cameron put it, ‘it’s two nil’ to the Conservatives).
Despite the growing number of women in power, many female politicians are still at a disadvantage within their world of work.
Because of their gender and limited number, society analyses how women in politics act, dress, speak – and who they marry. Female MPs are traditionally expected to be caring, motherly figures and cannot appear overly powerful or ‘masculine’.
So do women in politics have to conform to stereotypes to be successful?
30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first female Prime Minister and she seemed like the perfect figurehead for a new generation of women to break the glass ceiling.
And yet Thatcher did not fulfil this expectation. She had voice coaching to make her sound deeper and more authoritative (expert vocal coach Dee Forest claims that, over ten years of her political career, “there is a marked change in vocal delivery… the tone or resonance has become very slightly deeper”).
Furthermore, only one woman was ever appointed to a position in Thatcher’s cabinet.
But Thatcher was also criticised by many women growing up in the 80s for embodying ‘feminine’ stereotypes; rushing home to cook her husband dinner or doing housework in her spare time. Whilst trying to connect with female voters while at the same time being a strong, ‘masculine’ politician, Thatcher ended up blurring the lines of her own identity.
Although certain parallels can be drawn between Thatcher and Theresa May, the new prime minister seems more committed to women’s interests. As May herself says, in response to Kenneth Clarke’s claim that she is a “bloody difficult woman”:
“My whole philosophy is about doing, not talking. I’ve always championed women in politics. We just get stuck in.”
May’s quiet succession to power has normalised women in politics, making it more accessible to young girls.
Hillary Clinton also presents a dilemma for American voters. On the one hand, she could be the USA’s first female president, and this alone makes her a popular role model for women. Yet voters are cautious of getting caught up in ‘identity politics’; that is, voting for Clinton simply because she is a woman.
The prospect of Hillary as president also raises the interesting question of what a president’s partner does in their wife’s political career.
In America, the role of ‘First Lady’ traditionally consists of flower arrangement and hosting parties.
Melania Trump, whose role in her husband’s campaign is limited to looking nice and reading speeches from autocues, seems to live up to this stereotype. On the other hand, recent First Ladies like Laura Bush and Michelle Obama have campaigned for issues like literacy and healthy eating. Michelle’s most recent campaign is ‘Let Girls Learn’.
However, Clinton recently told voters that Bill would be “in charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it.”
To concede such an important part of American politics (ambiguously described as the ‘economy’) to her husband seems to undermine her authority before she’s even got to the White House.
Noticeably, many of the women recently claiming power are older. As middle-aged women are a group often overlooked by the media, in film, TV and advertising, it is an empowering message that so many women controlling the world are having their career peak at an age when they are traditionally expected to retire.
A new generation of women taking power is definitely a positive thing. But ‘Girl Power’ isn’t just about having a woman running the country, as Thatcher showed.
Identity politics is not enough. We need politicians who embrace their identities, and who can be the role models that young people in our society need.