LONDON – A wave of women are taking power in Britain: the country will soon have a female prime minister following the Brexit vote while Scotland and Northern Ireland already have women leaders.
In the race to succeed David Cameron, who resigned as premier after last month’s vote to leave the EU, one thing has been certain since Thursday — the next leader will be a woman for the first time since Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party since 2014, while Ruth Davidson leads the Conservatives and Kezia Dugdale heads up Labour.
In Northern Ireland, the first minister is Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionists while one of Wales’ main parties, Plaid Cymru, is also led by a woman, Leanne Wood.
“That suggests that what might have been barriers to high office have completely evaporated,” said professor Iain Begg of the London School of Economics.
Thatcher, who became Conservative leader in 1975 and prime minister in 1979, opened the door for the current generation.
Her rise to power came nearly 60 years after the first woman took her seat in the House of Commons — Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.
The Conservatives have been slower than the main opposition Labour to recruit large numbers of female MPs, though.
In 1997, they only had 13, including May. By 2005, the figure stood at 17 and today the figure is 68 out of 330.
Cameron has pushed for more women MPs while groups such as Women2Win, founded by May and Anne Jenkin, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, has helped the push, supporting figures like Leadsom.
“We’re getting there. We are still miles behind Labour (who have 99 female MPs out of 230), even though we will have produced two female prime ministers before they’ve had one woman as permanent leader,” Jenkin said.
Labour could soon get its first permanent female leader too.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is facing a huge rebellion by his MPs and the leading contender to replace him if he falls is Angela Eagle, an MP since 1992 — who finally announced Saturday that she will stand in a leadership battle with Corbyn.
“In parallel we’ve got that societal evolution which says that being gay, being a woman is no longer an obstacle,” added Begg. Eagle, Davidson and Dugdale all have female partners.
Evening Standard journalist Rosamund Urwin drew a parallel with the current situation in Britain and the success of Hillary Clinton in the U.S. and Angela Merkel in Germany.
“Merkel, May, Clinton and Eagle seem to come from a similar mould. They’re authoritative, tough, have far more impressive CVs than their rivals … the kind of person you want at the tiller of the boat during a perfect storm,” she wrote.
Business minister Anna Soubry told BBC radio: “Perhaps we’ve had enough of these boys messing about.”