We need to stop obsessing over women’s tears and what they might mean

The clamour around Theresa May’s resignation is subsiding, with the new Conservative leadership election well under way. But Twitter continues, rather sadistically, to pore over that haggard image of Theresa May crying outside No.10. Whether you think ‘sympathy’ for this crying woman is justified, or the sobs were legit, is totally irrelevant. By even analysing her ‘self-indulgent’ tears – and more specifically, her lack of them at times ‘when it mattered’ – we perpetuate damaging stereotypes about ‘expected’ female behaviours and personality traits. She cried at this juncture because she felt like it. The other times she didn’t. Let’s just leave it at that.

It is claimed that crying ‘humanises’ a politician, but this is stupid, because emotions are subjective and personal, and the ‘humanising’ process is only really open to young or liberal individuals. Successful criers and sympathisers are typically affectionate, liberal men (and the occasional liberal woman, such as Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s current Prime Minister, seen hugging victims and crying in a motherly manner after the Christchurch terror attacks, or Hilary Clinton, who broke down during her 2008 Presidential Campaign and swept up the female vote). Male examples include Gordon Brown, when speaking about the death of his daughter on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories; Obama, when he cried during a speech against gun violence and the death of his grandmother; and Justin Trudeau, publicly crying as he met a Syrian refugee.

Unsuccessful or ‘heartless’ displays of emotion, meanwhile, have emanated from older, Conservative women: Margaret Thatcher as she was extricated from office; Angela Merkel when she ‘welled up’ after Obama’s scathing criticisms in a Eurozone Crisis meeting in 2011 but failed to be moved by the plea of a young Palestinian refugee; Theresa May’s most recent public address. A double-standard is in operation, and you can recognise it without agreeing with their politics: while the public go mad over chivalrous outpourings of emotion by stoic political men and the occasional down-to-earth liberal heroine, older, more reserved women are unfairly attacked for failing to be consistently vulnerable, or false when they are. They become ‘head-mistressy’, ‘robotic’ or ‘witch-like.’ 

The way the media has responded to May’s speech exposes the dichotomous patriarchal constructions that dictate female roles in a male political world, of which even Liberal women are not exempt. On the one hand, women who cry are irrational and unfit for leadership. On the other, women who don’t are typically seen as inhumane and frigid, forfeiting their femininity. They can’t win. The new mural of Theresa May’s face on Digbeth Street in Birmingham encapsulates this paradox. Beneath a drawing of her crying sobs is written ‘STRONG AND STABLE’ in mocking terms. While the words point to the strong-willed political vision she attempted to offer the nation, her tears are weaponised as symbols of its inevitable failure: pathetic manifestations of her female weaknesses.

But at the same time, many other individuals were praising Theresa May for her tears, frustrated that she hadn’t cried sooner. Heidi Allen questioned why Theresa May ‘hadn’t shown that emotion more? Things could have been so different…’. An Independent columnist, likewise, argued that Theresa May’s resignation speech ‘finally did something good for women’, because her cries showed that ‘she’s just another human being’ who actually ‘really cared.’ These comments suggest that as a woman, you must cry to show you care, and you’ll be supported if you do. That seems to be as equally sexist as the presumed link between female tears and fragile irrationality.

In fact, demanding tactical tears for every occurring tragedy or political manoeuvre is absurd: it’s a standard we wouldn’t hold men to. Mrs May’s policy record is poor – there’s no denying it. Her decision to continue depriving Universal Credit of necessary investment has disproportionately affected low-income single mothers, while her ‘hostile environment’ policy criminalised refugees. But having said this, it is still hypocritical to expect May – and other female leaders – to cry at such daily injustices. While many of us feel desperately for the plight of those suffering in society today, we might not necessarily cry for them. Those calling out false equivalences between May’s ‘selfish’ job-loss tears and the dry-eyed face she presented to Grenfell Tower and Windrush victims probably don’t cry about such scandals either. If they do, well good for them. Showing your emotion isn’t an objective science: just because we don’t cry it doesn’t mean we don’t feel.  

By expecting female politicians to be pure, affectionate, and conveniently-emotional (lest they otherwise be portrayed as cold-hearted, power-hungry, spinster-like iron ladies), we make the office even less attractive for female political hopefuls both left and right-wing. In craving emotional displays, we simply demonstrate a weird fetishisation of watching people suffer. Better to just not talk about the crying at all, because then we can’t set up impossible emotional conditions for female leaders to meet.  Crying says nothing about a person’s humanity. It’s just a topic loaded with sexism and ageism. 

For Theresa May, alientating the ERG is an inevitability. Why not reach out to Labour?

It’s regrettable, but if there’s one thing that Jacob Rees-Mogg and I have in common, it’s an undying love for historical analogy. Today marks nearly 8 months since the ERG-frontman advised Theresa May against relying on Labour votes to push her Brexit deal through Parliament, with a disparaging comparison to prime-ministerial forebear Sir Robert Peel. Thankfully, though, mine and Mogg’s similarities end there.

Rees-Mogg reckons Peel is the archetypal example of what-not-to-do as British Prime Minister In Crisis. I happen to disagree.

On 15 May 1846, Peel’s successful repeal of the Corn Laws came at the cost of fracturing his own Conservative Party. While they stood for the protection of agricultural interests and the Corn Law mechanism – which forbade the import of cheap grain from overseas – Peel emerged a crusading, Liberal-leaning Free Trader, with absolutely no desire to placate his country-dwelling colleagues. He gleefully teamed up with the opposition and consequently left his own party out in the lurch. Peel then resigned, and the Whig opposition saw an historic opening on the benches of Westminster (that just so happened to remain open until 1868).

In light of this, Rees-Mogg’s warning was clear: pursuing Peel’s ‘very dangerous’ path of cross-party fraternisation would be a strain-too-far for May’s wavering band of ministerial support.

Fortunately, the Moggite interpretation of history is only for men who care about power, Conservative majorities, and nothing of the national interest. And as Brexit edges ever-closer, it is one that Theresa May would do increasingly well to leave behind.

Most importantly, what Rees-Mogg’s half-baked characterisation failed to mention is that Peel’s actions – while ‘splitting’ the febrile opinion and allegiance of the privileged few – saved the Irish population from the disastrous potato famine, protected the working-class against unnecessary taxes, and avoided debilitating provincial unrest between landlords and city-dwellers. Yes, he lost his party and his decision cost him his career. But he saved millions, and could resign a man with principle and integrity.

As news breaks that the government is preparing a £1.6 billion package to Northern and Midland Labour-constituencies, it would seem the Prime Minister has already begun to renege on her promise that this will be a Conservative Brexit, pushed through by Conservative votes alone. But she needs to rethink the half-hearted element of the cross-party compromise, and replace it with something far more substantial.

Unsurprisingly, Labour, and indeed many of May’s own colleagues, have plenty to say about the insufficient care-package: not much of which is positive. Lib-Dem QC Lord Thomas of Gresford suggested on Twitter that May’s aid offering constituted a breach of the Bribery Act (2010), while John McDonnell publicly slammed the Prime Minister for only now trying to ‘tackle burning injustices.’ Anna Soubry, ex-conservative and Independent Group defector, claimed that ‘voters won’t be fooled by it’. Even Gareth Snell, who represents the constituency with the highest pro-Brexit vote in 2016 (Stoke Central) – and who has voted with the government against the Grieve, Cooper and Reeves amendments – asserted that ‘there is no price on my vote.’ 

On top of this, The Evening Standard reported another ‘sticking point’: funding was supposed to be meted out over four years, not the six the Prime Minister is now proffering. This means the fund works out at only £266 million a year, and doesn’t even scratch the surface of cuts to local council budgets. Neither does it come anywhere near the money invested in the UK’s regions by the EU.

At this point, it’s safe to say Theresa May is on the verge of precipitating national crisis. Not only are the ERG holding a gun to the government’s head with calls to meet unachievable ‘tests’ (like imposing a time limit on the backstop), as well as thinly-veiled threats to whip MPs against voting down no deal, but recent events show that the Prime Minister has managed to irritate literally everyone else with her bizarre and damaging aid-offering.

There is an ideological hypocrisy in the government that refuses to deal with its opposition on the one hand, but offers hush-money to pliable Labour ministers in the hope of turning heads. It makes absolutely no sense.

This being the case, it’s high time that the Prime Minister got on board with Peel’s strategic philosophy in the face of national calamity. It’s inevitable that Theresa May will have to alienate the ERG at some point, because their demands are unrealistic and their numbers do not constitute a majority in themselves. Like Peel, she must now fully embrace the opposition, as well as moderate Conservatives among her own ranks, with a genuinely acceptable deal that builds on the initial referendum result. That way, Labour lose their moral legitimacy in advocating a People’s Vote.

Peel was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of his Kingdom: Theresa May must now do the same. The ERG will feel betrayed, but at least the country won’t be reduced to a quivering wreck of regional division, unequal prosperity, seething hostility and total mistrust in our elected representatives.