When I heard that Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom had made it into the final round of the Conservative leadership election, guaranteeing that our next Prime Minister will be a woman, I thought, oddly enough, of a man called Edmund Cooper.
Although he is almost totally forgotten today, Cooper was one of the most prolific writers of the Sixties and Seventies, churning out gigantic quantities of terrible pulp adventure and science-fiction novels. What made him briefly famous, though, was his low opinion of women.
At a time when all the talk was of women’s liberation, Cooper was determined to stand against the tide. In one book, published in 1972, he looked forward to Britain in the far future. The blackly ironic title says it all — Who Needs Men?
In his vision of the 25th century, the women are in charge. Lesbian orgies are all the rage, and Nelson’s Column has been renamed Germaine’s Needle, after feminist writer Germaine Greer.
Male readers should perhaps look away, but in this terrible future Britain, men have virtually been wiped out.
The only remaining specimens — weak, pitiful figures, like the defeated male Tory leadership candidates — have fled to the Scottish Highlands. And there they are hunted down by a woman called Madam Exterminator, who is essentially a futuristic version ofCooper died in 1982, three years after the advent of Britain’s first female Prime Minister. And whatever you think of his outrageously politically incorrect opinions, he was right about one thing: politically, at least, the future did belong to what people used to call the ‘fairer sex’.
For when either Mrs May or Mrs Leadsom becomes our second woman Prime Minister, she will be joining a host of senior female politicians. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to point out that in Britain in 2016, almost all the most impressive figures in our public life are women.
There is Nicola Sturgeon — one of the ablest and canniest operators in these islands. There’s the most impressive rising star in British politics, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. Even the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, is a woman.
Of course it would be premature to suggest that the historic imbalance between men and women is a thing of the past. Although millions of women have flooded into the workforce in the last half-century, they tend to be concentrated in low-paid, part-time jobs.
Tellingly, of the directors of the 100 top companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, only 17 per cent are women.
In politics, meanwhile, only one in three local councillors is a woman. And in the current House of Commons, only 191 MPs are women, less than a third of the total.
Even so, the unprecedented prominence of so many women at the top of our political system tells its own story.
We may not yet have put up Germaine’s Needle, but femininity is no longer the insuperable obstacle to leadership that it was in the past.
And this is not just a British story; indeed, if you look beyond our shores the picture is all the more convincing.
Europe’s most powerful politician is Angela Merkel. The overwhelming favourite to become the next President of the United States is Hillary Clinton. Indeed, when you consider that the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, is also a woman, then it is perfectly possible that within a few months, almost all of the most powerful people in the world will be women.
(The exception, of course, is Vladimir Putin. But I doubt I am alone in thinking that he is not a terribly good advert for the male sex. As for France’s Francois Hollande, he is about as far removed from the ideal of strong, masculine leadership as it is possible to imagine.)
What explains all this? There has to be more to it, after all, than mere coincidence.
Many of the suggested reasons for the rise of women in politics are, to put it mildly, extremely unconvincing.
A study for U.S. website Business News Daily, for example, suggested that ‘women make great leaders’ (what — all of them?) because, among other things, ‘they make great listeners’, ‘they value nurturing’, ‘they’re flexible’ and ‘they can wear many hats’.
Apart from being pretty vacuous, this seems perilously close to the sort of stereotyping that women fought for so many years to defy.
In any case, nobody would vote for Theresa May or Nicola Sturgeon because they think they make great listeners or they value nurturing.
One obvious answer is that these women leaders have succeeded simply because their male rivals were so flaccid.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago you could have got very tempting odds on Mrs May becoming our next Prime Minister, and even better odds on Mrs Leadsom.
If David Cameron had not walked away, if Boris Johnson had not disintegrated, if Michael Gove had not stabbed friends in the back before shooting himself in the foot, then we might well have been looking at another male Prime Minister — and then, no doubt, critics would moan about the inbuilt misogyny of British politics.
But the women who have risen to high office have something in common.
To put it simply, they represent a generation of women who needed to show exceptional spirit, ability and resilience in order to overcome the residual sexism of their colleagues — particularly when they were starting out.
It is true, of course, that for the last half-century we have lived in a nominally egalitarian age. Even the oldest of the women I mentioned — Hillary Clinton, who was born in 1947 — grew up in an environment where girls were told they were just as good as boys, and when opportunities for young women were immeasurably greater than they had been a generation earlier.
Even so, Mrs Clinton still had to overcome far more obstacles than if she had been a man.
It is telling that despite her prodigious ability as a student — she was one of the stars of her generation at Yale Law School — she was nevertheless expected to subordinate her career to her husband’s.
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his wife was even forced to reinvent herself as a cake-baking housewife, which she must have found immensely demeaning.
And whatever you may think of Mrs Clinton, the fact that she has picked herself up after so many setbacks — not least the colossal public humiliation of her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky — speaks volumes about her sheer guts and resilience.
Even now, Mrs Clinton has to put up with abuse — ‘Iron my shirt!’ one heckler famously shouted at her — that would never be directed at a man.
And I just wonder how much of Angela Merkel’s drive to get to the top in Germany was fuelled by the fact that when she first entered Helmut Kohl’s cabinet in the early Nineties, he used to call her ‘my girl’, which she must have found hugely patronising.
The problem for so many women, of course, is that if they refuse to laugh along with this sort of talk, their male colleagues dismiss them as hatchet-faced harpies.
When Tory grandee Ken Clarke jovially referred to Mrs May this week as a ‘bloody difficult woman’, millions of working women around the country probably bristled with recognition.
It was revealing, by the way, that Mr Clarke likened her to his old boss, Margaret Thatcher, by far the most celebrated ‘difficult woman’ in our history.
For if you wanted to find somebody who embodies the kind of thick-skinned drive and stamina that a professional woman needs to get to the top, then Britain’s first female Prime Minister is surely the obvious candidate.
When Mrs Thatcher died in 2013, the Labour MP Glenda Jackson delivered a parliamentary diatribe that ended with the unsisterly words: ‘A woman? Not on my terms.’
At the time, this struck me as absolutely wrong. Mrs Thatcher never described herself as a feminist, and indeed most card-carrying feminists utterly detested her. But her femininity was one of the most important things about her.
As a young woman embarking on her political career, the young Margaret Roberts had to endure endless slights, setbacks and sexist remarks.
It took her more than a decade to get into Parliament precisely because she was a woman, and even after being adopted as the Conservative candidate for Finchley, she told a friend that she was suffering from the ‘anti-woman prejudice among certain association members’.
Over time, though, she turned her femininity into a powerful asset. The Grantham grammar-school girl inevitably stood out from all the men in grey suits around her, just as the state-educated Mrs May stood out from the identikit public schoolboys in Mr Cameron’s Cabinet.
And, as Mrs Thatcher’s biographer, John Campbell, points out, she was brilliant at playing a host of familiar female roles: the headmistress, the nanny, the nurse — authority figures who commanded instinctive respect among large swathes of the electorate.
Mrs May, by the way, has something of the headmistress about her. And I just wonder how much she deliberately plays up to it, knowing that it will secure her a kind of automatic authority.
But although Mrs Thatcher broke new ground in becoming our first woman Prime Minister, she was far from being our first woman leader.
No account of England’s history, after all, would be complete without the tremendous story of Elizabeth I defying the Spanish Armada in 1588 and telling her troops at Tilbury: ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too . . .
‘I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.’
Stirring stuff indeed. In fact, isn’t it striking how many of history’s notable women have been made of similar mettle?
Just think of Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, resisting the might of the Roman Empire to the bitter end. Or think of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, seizing the throne from her own husband and conquering vast swathes of land from the Poles and Turks.
The explanation is obvious. For most of human history, you only got to the top as a woman if you had something special. And even now, as recent events have shown, the calibre of our most senior female politicians is far higher than that of their male counterparts.
But if there is one model of female leadership that really stands out, then it is surely the one female politician whom we so often overlook and tend to take for granted — the Queen.
After 64 years, our current monarch has ruled longer than any sovereign in our history. Yet she took the throne at a time when sexist prejudice was still widespread, and when most women did not even have their own bank accounts.
As late as 1961, when she was in her mid-30s, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, thought he was paying her a compliment when he wrote that she had ‘the heart and stomach of a man’.
Of course, the Queen never gives her private convictions away, but I sincerely doubt she’d ever call herself a feminist.
Even so, if you want an example of somebody who, in her calm, courage, application and self-discipline, has provided the perfect example to millions of British women, then you could hardly find a better model of leadership.
It is true, of course, that the Queen’s relationship with her first woman Prime Minister was not exactly sweetness and light. Still, after the experience of her last four male premiers, I can’t help suspecting that she is looking forward to having a woman back in charge.
She probably can’t wait to wave goodbye to Mr Cameron and sit down with a woman who talks sense for a change.
After all, to borrow a phrase from that misogynist Edmund Cooper, who needs men?