The XX Factor

When Women Take Power, It’s Usually Because Men Have Made a Big Mess

Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. One of these women will be Britain’s next prime minister.

Reuters Staff/Reuters

It is now absolutely certain that Britain’s next prime minister will be a woman. Every male candidate for party leader was eliminated after Conservative members of Parliament voted to narrow the field to two nominees. Grass-roots party members will decide between Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom in an election that will last until September. Elsewhere in Britain, the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and the Scottish Labour and Conservative parties are all led by women. The left-wing Labour Party has never had a female leader, but Angela Eagle is expected to challenge Jeremy Corbyn if he ever opens his eyes, takes his fingers out of his ears, and stops saying, “I’m not stepping down! I’m not stepping down! I’m not stepping down!”

It’s hard not to notice that this blossoming of female political power comes at a time when British politics is in a stonking great mess. The June 23 referendum vote to leave the European Union means that the next prime minister will spend half her time negotiating with Europeans who want to boot the ungrateful Brits out of their union and the other half calming down Brits who want to kick Europeans out of their not at all united kingdom. In other words, the gig is a poisoned chalice. And that list of women-led U.K. political parties is less impressive when you realize that with the notable exception of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (and possibly the Greens, who have had more than one female leader), the women took the top spots when their parties were in crisis.

In the business world, this phenomenon is known as the “glass cliff,” a concept described as follows by journalist Bryce Covert: “[W]omen are more likely to get promoted into leadership during particularly dicey times, then, when fortunes go south, the men who helped get there scatter and the women are left holding the bag.” All in all, that seems like a pretty good description of U.K. politics in recent weeks.

Looking at the infuriatingly short list of women who have served as heads of government, many do seem to have found themselves in their exalted positions after leaping off a glass cliff. There are exceptions, of course: Family connections are largely responsible for women leading Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh; female technocrats have led several Caribbean nations; and on very rare occasions—I’m looking at you, creatively coiffed Ukrainian Yulia Tymoshenko—women are just more charismatic and popular than the bland (and often corrupt) dudes in suits and ties. Nevertheless, elsewhere, a pattern emerges.

Not only do women take over when things are looking bad for their party—or the country as a whole—they often follow unpopular men. Take Britain’s original Iron Lady. When Margaret Thatcher put her hat in the ring to become leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, she was, as her most accomplished biographer Hugo Young put it, a “rank outsider and mere curiosity.” Still, she spotted an opportunity to take advantage of long-simmering resentment against her predecessor. Edward Heath had lost three of the four elections he’d contested, but he still refused to step down. (Although there’s no rule that party leaders must resign when they lose an election, that is the longstanding convention.) As Young put it, “The chief agent of her victory was, without doubt, Edward Heath. But for his stubbornness, his incorrigible self-belief, his refusal to release any of his lieutenants from the bounds of personal loyalty to himself, it may be doubted whether Mrs. Thatcher would ever have entered the contest.” With the help of a master tactician who had offered his services to other potential challengers before he finally reached out to Thatcher, she outsmarted the other candidates and won the leadership—which she then held for 15 years, including 11 as prime minister.

When Angela Merkel, who has served as Germany’s chancellor since 2005, took the reins of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, she, too, was considered a clean break from the male establishment and their bad habits. After party leaders Helmut Kohl and his successor Wolfgang Schäuble were involved in a party-funding scandal, Merkel was seen as “a woman on a white charger” who could provide a fresh start. According to Der Spiegel, she broke with her party’s establishment by writing a letter to the editor of a German newspaper in which “she was very critical of Kohl, saying that the new generation of politicians in the CDU needed to distance themselves from him, in the same way that teenagers must distance themselves from their parents if they are to become adults.” She’s been her country’s leading grown-up ever since.

Canada’s Kim Campbell took power in similar circumstances, but with less impressive results. Campbell held important positions in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, including attorney general and defense minister, but Mulroney, who served as prime minister from 1984 to 1993, became increasingly unpopular the longer he stayed in office. When he finally announced his retirement shortly before an election was due, Campbell was a popular choice as leader because she was so unlike the reviled Mulroney. In the end, her term as prime minister lasted for just 131 days, since her party lost the election that was called soon after she took office. She ran a poor campaign, but the bigger problem was that the country was heartily sick of her party. As Will Ferguson put it, “Taking over the party leadership from Brian [Mulroney] was a lot like taking over the controls of a 747 just before it plunges into the Rockies.” Campbell lost her seat in the general election—and the Progressive Conservatives were routed, going from nine years in power to controlling just two seats in the Canadian House of Commons.

Neither May nor Leadsom is thought of as being particularly charismatic—indeed, May is the prohibitive favorite because she is considered capable and drama-free. A similar line of reasoning was behind Golda Meir’s selection as leader of Israel’s Labour Party in 1969. Although she had enjoyed a long political career, she had retired when Labour Party leader Levi Eshkol died of a heart attack. As the BBC declared at the time, “Because of her age and condition, her appointment is regarded by many as a stop-gap, intended to maintain national unity.” Acting Prime Minister Yigal Allon and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who were considered the front-runners, both declined to run so as to avoid an intra-party fight before the general election. Meir went on to govern until 1974. Norway’s Gro Harlem Bruntland, who served three terms as prime minister of Norway, also first took over her party when its leader was taken sick and prominent men chose not to contest an election they didn’t think they would win.

Whether they’re sorting out men’s messes, becoming the adult in a room of badly behaving boys, serving as a caretaker, or taking over from an unpopular jerk, there’s another thing female leaders tend to have in common: They’re often presented as a kind of harsh mother figure. When Conservative elder statesman Ken Clarke was caught dishing on the leadership candidates earlier this week, he described May as “a bloody difficult woman”—an insult May turned into a résumé-booster when she declared, “Ken Clarke might have found me to be a ‘bloody difficult woman.’ The next person to find that out will be [European Union President] Jean-Claude Juncker.” Or as Tory peer Lady Jenning of Kennington put it when it was pointed out that her party would likely be choosing between two female leadership candidates: “I think the whole country feels rather relieved … I think there is a feeling of, ‘Yes, nanny, please come and tell us what to do.’  ”