A Tale of Two Women: A Comparative Gendered Media Analysis of UK Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May

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Four decades have passed since Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first woman Prime Minister and, in 2016, Theresa May won the Conservative leadership challenge to become the second. Is a woman leader’s gender still newsworthy when she is not the first, but the second to break the highest glass ceiling? Are subsequent women leaders still regarded as novelties – or anomalies – if they are not the original trailblazers?

I recently published an article in Parliamentary Affairs that investigated and compared newspaper coverage (The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Financial Times) of Thatcher and May during their first three prime ministerial weeks in 1979 and 2016, respectively. I analysed newspapers as they remain an important source of news for many British people and often dictate the daily news agenda for other media.

Women politicians have historically experienced sexism and misogyny from their peers, the public and the media, which has been termed ‘gendered mediation’. Gendered mediation occurs when the media representation of politics reinforces, rather than reflects, gendered and sexist stereotypes, norms and assumptions. Through such a lens, women politicians’ gender is emphasised, and they are often regarded as novelties or trivialised while their male counterparts are portrayed as the norm. While men are expected to adhere to the stereotypically masculine behavioural norms of politics, when women adhere to these norms they are perceived to be cold, aggressive, bossy or ‘bitchy’. However, they are caught in a double-bind as when they act too ‘feminine’ they are seen to be ineffectual, weak, incompetent and overly emotional.

Additionally, politics is increasingly becoming a form of mediatised entertainment. This often means that the media constructs political leaders in a personalised and presidential style. This sort of construction can be beneficial for male politicians, creating an affable and approachable image. For women politicians, however, it can draw attention to any subversive gender choices that might otherwise have remained hidden, such as whether they have children or if they’re married. Though it is possible for women politicians to use their femininity or gender to their advantage, there is a risk that it can instead be used against them by the media. For example, many women politicians use their clothing to send subtle signals of authority or certain political messages which can aid them, but it’s a risk as the media can focus on their fashion over their policies and subject them to impossible beauty ideals that are never placed on their male counterparts.

My analysis showed that in the first three weeks of their respective terms as PM, on average, Thatcher’s gender was mentioned in 40.8 percent of the articles surveyed, while May’s gender was mentioned in 45.7 percent. The Daily Telegraph, however, mentioned May’s gender the most, in 67.9 percent of its articles in the sample (compared to 36.2 percent for Thatcher). Even though the Financial Times discussed both leaders’ gender the least of all seven newspapers, such use more than doubled in their coverage of Thatcher to May. This indicates that the more renowned conservative broadsheets, such as The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, have increased their focus on the leaders’ gender.

  Gender Femininity
Newspaper: Thatcher May Thatcher May
Guardian 51.8% 46.5% 42.9% 37.2%
Telegraph 36.2% 67.9% 29.3% 66.1%
Mirror 40% 36.7% 36% 33.3%
Sun 50% 42.4% 26.5% 57.6%
Daily Express 47.2% 45.8% 52.8% 54.3%
Financial Times 16.7% 36.3% 33.3% 59.1%
Daily Mail 36.8% 40.1% 47.4% 54.2%
Total: 40.8% 45.7% 38.3% 53.4%

Table 1. Percentage of newspaper articles that mentioned gender or emphasised femininity

When analysing the data, I also identified that the media coverage accentuated their feminine traits. Such as: being ‘calm’, ‘conciliatory’, ‘warm’; feminine roles such as those of ‘housewife’, ‘mother’ or ‘daughter’; and portrayal of the subject in a sexualised manner. Thatcher’s femininity was emphasised on average in 38.3 percent of the articles, while May’s femininity was emphasised in 53.4 percent, including a startling 66.1 percent of Daily Telegraph articles. In fact, all conservative newspapers relied on this gendered trope in more than half of articles while it was present in only one third of articles in the progressive press.

A discourse analysis reveals that one strategy frequently deployed by the media to emphasise their femininity was to compare them with either schoolgirls or head girls. For example, one article called May a ‘head girl’, stating that ‘since Theresa took over, Boris has combed his hair … if the woman can get Boris to comb his hair, just think what she can do to Putin’. In this, she is not the prime minister – a job reserved for men – but a head girl, the feminine-marked other. Referring to them as ‘girls’ infantilises Thatcher and May as much as it patronises them. This type of discourse or language denigrates their skills as successful politicians and prime ministers.

Newspaper: Thatcher May
Guardian 14.3% 18.6%
Telegraph 19% 42.9%
Mirror 16% 26.7%
Sun 11.8% 23.7%
Daily Express 19.4% 31.4%
Financial Times 3.3% 15.9%
Daily Mail 26.4% 33.7%
Total: 16.2% 28.6%

Table 2. Percentage of newspaper articles that mentioned appearance

Interestingly, Thatcher’s appearance was only mentioned in 16.2 percent of articles while May’s was mentioned almost twice as often. While it appears that all UK newspapers had a slight increase in the frequency of mentioning appearance from Thatcher to May, the conservative press increased two-fold. The frequency with which The Daily Telegraph discussed appearance markedly increased – from 19 percent to 42.9 percent – while The Sun also doubled from 11.8 percent for Thatcher, to 23.7 percent for May.

Again, a discourse analysis exposes how the mainstream press are increasingly portraying political leaders, such as May, in a more personalised and celebritised style to such an extent that their representation can detract from their reputation as serious political actors. Despite being notorious for her handbags, hats and pussy-bow blouses, media discussion of Thatcher’s sartorial style was brief in comparison to that of May. May’s appearance, on the other hand, was frequently centred in news stories therefore distracting readers from more pressing issues.

Kitten heels became a symbol for May herself in political cartoons and were frequently mentioned in hard news articles that concentrated on her policies and the state of the new government, illustrating the extent to which the media use gender to undermine her authority and perceived significance. For example, when May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon met for the first time after May became Prime Minister, to discuss the Scottish and British union and EU exit process, their shoes were the main focus in the press. May and Sturgeon were arguably two of the most powerful people in the UK at this time, yet their shared gender and clothing choices were considered worthy of attention. This undue focus on footwear is trivialising, diverts attention from what they were saying while also belittling the severity of the situation that prompted their meeting.

As May is the second woman to be Prime Minister in the UK, and as there have been many social changes since Thatcher’s era, it could be expected that the first woman prime minister would receive more gender-based coverage than subsequent women leaders, as a trailblazer becoming the first woman in a highly masculine role. Yet this was not the case. In fact, it appears that women leaders are still seen as novelties and their gender continues to be newsworthy. This demonstrates how, frustratingly, the treatment of women in politics and leadership positions doesn’t just suddenly improve – nor should we assume that it will improve over time – but is only achieved through constant pressure and action.

Blair Williams is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR) at the Australian National University. This blogpost has been adapted from an article of the same title that was recently published in Parliamentary Affairs.