Do parents make better political leaders? – BBC News

1 month, 1 day ago
Image copyright Getty Images

Theresa May’s status as a married woman with no infants came into focus during her leadership campaign. But does being a mother build you a better political leader?

As Mrs May prepares to settle in to Number 10 and David Cameron moves his family out, “were not receiving” denying the prime minister’s mansion will shortly be a quieter place, without young children living there.

Mrs May joins a number of female political leaders who do not have children of their own, including the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Yet topics over the influence of household on a politician’s leadership have led to fierce debate.

Mrs May’s Tory leadership challenger indicated it did matter. Andrea Leadsom claimed that “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake”.

An angry backlash among MPs and on social media indicated however that many people did not agree that being a parent made a difference to a leader’s credentials.

Deputy Commons Leader Therese Coffey, a friend of Mrs Leadsom, told: “I don’t think it matters whether someone has children.

“Everybody has different life experiences … of course this gives you a perspective but we are talking about someone who has to lead our country. I genuinely think we should be looking at the bigger issues facing the country.”

Image copyright Getty Images

But Mrs Leadsom is not the only one who believes being a mother is relevant in politics.

In last year’s Labour leadership contest, Yvette Cooper was backed by fellow MP Helen Goodman because “as a running mum, she understands the pressures of modern life”.

She believed being a mother meant Ms Cooper would “know what challenges ordinary people face day to day” and would “champion families”.

‘Flaw in personality’

The emphasis on a politician’s family life is certainly nothing new, and not only waged at women.

When Iain Duncan Smith campaigned to become Conservative party leader in 2001 he was championed as being “a remarkably normal family man”, equally adept at changing nappies as he was at changing social policy.

Elsewhere, former PM Gordon Brown’s love life was the cause of much speculation where reference is became Labour’s chancellor.

Questions over why he was unmarried and childless at persons under the age of 46 led to a run-in with Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs.

“People want to know whether you’re gay or whether there is some flaw in your personality, ” she told, forcing Mr Brown to reply: “I’m not married because I’m not married. It merely hasn’t happened yet.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Once wedded and in office, Gordon Brown maintained his family out of the public eye, offering a rare photo with his children only when he left Downing Street

Nick Jones, political author and commentator, tells such household scrutiny began in the 1970 s when Ted Heath’s prime ministerial qualities were called into question because he was a single man.

“He was out and about and in the public eye much more than his predecessor Harold Wilson, and there was much more focus on his personality, ” he says.

“It was indicated not having a wife and children meant he couldn’t associate as well to the everyday person in the street. It wasn’t seen as the norm and people felt there was a gulf between them. Being relevant gives authority.

“He tried to show off his love of yachting to demonstrate his life outside politics.”

Image caption Ted Heath’s bachelor life was discussed when he was PM in the early 70 s

But how do childless legislators appear in the eyes of the voters now?

Peter Kellner, former president of polling organisation YouGov, believes it is not a critical factor.

“There isn’t much specific polling proof but I don’t think it makes any difference. There are many single MPs and leaders, and quite a lot of examples of lesbian legislators, and they have suffered no disadvantage from having no children.”

But Nick Jones says there is PR power in being watched at home with a family.

“The TV media wants those cut-away shots of the legislator doing something in their home, and the kitchen interview has become central to indicating their human side. We insured Tony Blair making a coffee at home, David Cameron cooking while his children sat around doing their homework. They are reassuring images.”

Mr Blair and Mr Cameron both added to their families while in office.

When the Blair’s had their fourth infant, Leo, in May 2000 it was the first time a serving prime minister’s wife “ve been given” birth for more than 150 years, while Mr Cameron become the first British prime minister to take statutory paternity leave following the birth of his daughter Florence in 2010.

Media captionDo the public think mothers make better leaders ?

Mrs May will join Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood, Arlene Foster and Ruth Davidson as women in leadership roles in British politics – but four of the six do not have children. So got a problem combining high office with the responsibilities of parenthood?

Maria Miller, former Conservative equalities minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was an issue not exclusive to politics.

“While Theresa May may have shattered another layer of the glass ceiling, I think females will be thinking there are a lot more glass ceilings out there around the country often linked to their child caring responsibilities and their elder care responsibilities. So it is about modernising the workplace not just in Parliament but around the country.”

Image caption Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously made out at questions over why she does not have children

In her pitching to become leader, Mrs May portrayed herself as capable and strong with ministerial experience. “I’m not a showy politician”, she said, but someone who “just get on with the job”.

But she has also discussed her family situation, explaining in a newspaper interview that it had not been possible for her and her husband to have children.

Cultural commentator Kate Maltby says it shows there is still a lot of pressure on females to explain their personal choices.

She told the BBC: “One of the saddest things for those of us who consider ourselves feminists is the way in which women in leadership still seem to be forced to apologise for not having children.

“Theresa May has always been expected to act like it is a terrible misfortune rather than a personal choice.

“There seems to be an attitude, particularly among the older generation I would say, that to be a woman without children is somehow unnatural.”

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously made out at similar suggestions.

“People sometimes presume I made a cold, calculated decision to set my career ahead of having a family and that is not true, she explained on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. “Sometimes things happen in life, sometimes they don’t.”

Read more: