LONDON — It was a historic moment in British politics, and Andrea Leadsom relished being at the center of it.
"The great news is we have an all-female shortlist with no positive discrimination or anything, isn't that fantastic?" a beaming Leadsom told reporters shortly after it was announced that she would be one of two women vying to become Britain’s next prime minister.
But not everyone is as enthusiastic as Leadsom, a perpetually upbeat politician.
Some in Britain are celebrating how the next British prime minister will be a woman, but others aren't convinced that the two contenders for the job carry the flame of feminist values that match their own.
I just told my 5-year-old daughter the next Prime Minister will be a woman and her face lit up. (Didn't tell her the maternity rights stuff)
— Jane Merrick (@janemerrick23) July 7, 2016
Yay female prime minister / nay to both of them. Being a feminist is hard.
— yasmin lajoie (@yasminlajoie) July 7, 2016
The race turned personal on Friday with Leadsom reportedly suggesting that she has an edge in the context because she is a mother, and that means she has “a very real stake” in the country’s future.
Her rival, Theresa May, Britain’s long-serving home secretary, has recently talked about not being able to have children.
According to the Times of London, Leadsom said that May must be “really sad” not to have had kids.
“Truly appalling and the exact opposite of what I said. I am disgusted,” responded Leadsom as she retweeted the cover of Saturday’s edition of the Times of London.
It's the latest drama after weeks of political bludgeoning and backstabbing within the top ranks of the Conservative Party that ultimately left two female candidates standing in the contest to be the next leader.
It is perhaps one of the great ironies of the leadership election that the party most closely associated with old boys clubs — the Conservative Party — will have produced the only two female prime ministers in British history.
“It’s symbolically important to have women represented at the top of politics,” said Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party. “But while it’s important to have someone who looks like you represent you, it’s as important that the person is creating policies in a way that answers your experiences.”
She contrasted May and Leadsom with Hillary Clinton, who has won backing from many women's groups for her long track record in standing up for women's rights.
“Hillary Clinton is standing on a manifesto that states clearly she wants to stop the pay gap, she wants to invest in child care, that she will defend reproductive rights, that she sees that women’s issues aren’t women’s issues, they are everyone’s issues," she said. "And that’s precisely what we are not seeing from either May or Leadsom. We need to see a better understanding in their policy proposals for life for women in Britain."
To be sure, May, the early favorite to be the next prime minister, is also an advocate for women’s rights.
She was unafraid to be snapped in a T-shirt reading “this is what a feminist looks like,” and she once rebuked a male colleague for writing an article in which he stated that feminists were obnoxious bigots.
“Labeling feminists as 'obnoxious bigots' is not the way forward,” she told him in the House of Commons, with classic British understatement.
“I’d say her record is mixed,” said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights charity. She said that May has played a leading role on such issues as domestic violence and the gender pay gap, but she has also backed calls to reduce the time limit on abortion.
May is a cautious, pragmatic politician but was known as more of a modernizer earlier in her career. In 2002, she gave a speech at a Conservative Party conference in which she noted that in a previous general election, only one of the 38 new Tory MPs elected was a woman.
“Is that fair? Is one half of the population entitled to only one place out of 38?” she asked. “That's not meritocracy — that's a travesty and it will never be allowed to happen again.”
She later co-founded Women2Win, a Conservative Party group that campaigns to get more women elected to Parliament.
But as home secretary, she has been at the heart of a government whose austerity policies have disproportionately affected women, according to charities. She has taken a tough stance on immigration, and also ignored calls to close Yarl’s Wood, a controversial immigration detention center where female asylum seekers are held.
Less is known about Leadsom, a former bank executive who only recently launched onto the national stage as a leading light in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. She has unnerved some women’s groups by saying she doesn’t like gay marriage and would like to scrap minimum wage and maternity pay for companies with three employees or less.
Whoever gets the nation’s top job will of course be following a path already worn by Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to shatter the glass ceiling when she became prime minister in 1979.
Thatcher was said to have bristled at the idea of being labeled a feminist. (She once declared: “I owe nothing to women's lib.") But her legacy still looms large in Britain, and references to the Iron Lady were scattered all over the front pages of Friday’s newspapers.
“Who'll be the new Maggie?” asked the Daily Mail. The Daily Express ran pictures of the two leading rivals with the headline: “Battle of the Iron Ladies.” The Sun, which has endorsed May, ran a headline that read: “Iron Mayden.”
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) July 7, 2016
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) July 7, 2016
Like Thatcher, whoever gets the keys to 10 Downing Street will be working in a world dominated by men. Only 29 percent of lawmakers in Westminster are women.
The next leader will also have to navigate choppy waters as they negotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce from the E.U. in upcoming talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders.
Perhaps that's a role better suited for a woman?
“On the one hand, they could hardly do worse; on the other, the mess is monumental,” wrote Laurie Penny in a New Statesmen report titled “A Tory leadership race between two women is not a feminist revolution.”
She added: "whoever is in charge … will doubtless face precisely the public opprobrium that both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have proven too cowardly to contemplate, with some additional press commentary on their shoes, haircuts and outfit choices to distract us all from the collapse of civil society. I can hardly wait.”