There is something curiously powerful about a woman who doesn’t need to be liked. To watch Theresa May let rip in parliament this week – denouncing her successor’s casual willingness to break international law, with an authority that can come only from having confronted very similar choices – was to realise the advantages conferred by no longer craving other people’s approval.
That she chose to remain in parliament at all is testament to her particular brand of imperviousness. Given the humiliations heaped upon her by her own party during her time in office, she might have been particularly tempted to crawl off and lick her wounds rather than stick around as a jobbing backbench MP. But May does not seem troubled by that kind of pride.
She won’t be remotely bothered if she is cold-shouldered by old colleagues for making life difficult for her party; it’s not, to be blunt, as if she had many friends on the backbenches to lose. And I doubt she was denouncing Boris Johnson for the sake of a flattering headline, having always approached the media with the enthusiasm of a cat on a trip to the vet.
Unusually for a politician, she has sought to be taken seriously throughout her career but not to be loved. It was a weakness in some ways, since elections are popularity contests in which people who can’t, or won’t, try to make people like them generally fare badly. But out of power, and in wider life – my God, it must be liberating.
Women’s endless desire to please is part of what makes the world go round. It drives us to run around after our children, partners, friends and our own parents; it’s what makes us volunteer for good causes, perhaps what makes us even more likely to obey Covid restrictions, since that is at root about being seen to care for other people. But the fear of getting it wrong does rather less good, perhaps, for women individually.
“Forget about likability,” the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told younger female writers in a speech to an awards ceremony a few years ago which promptly went viral. “If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”
It’s not only women who twist themselves out of shape because they can’t bear the idea of not being liked, of course. Time and time again, Johnson has muddled the government’s coronavirus message because he can’t quite bring himself to say something he knows people are going to hate without injecting a note of false hope. Yes, things are bad, but we’ll send the virus packing in 12 weeks. Never mind, it will all be over by Christmas! Well, spring. Or maybe summer. Just as soon as the moonshot pays off, anyway. He is a needier leader than May ever was.
Yet not wishing to offend, to upset, to say anything that might have you rejected by your peer group, is more often a habit ingrained in women from childhood. I spent much of last week interviewing older women about growing older and going through menopause, and time after time they talked about the relief of no longer worrying about what people think of them. But it had taken half a lifetime to get there.
Wanting to be lovable inhibits women from expressing opinions that other people might not like – especially online, where to be female and have forthright views on anything is to invite derision from a certain kind of man – and sometimes from expressing opinions at all, in a climate where everything is polarised, and someone will reliably hate whatever you say. It ties us up in knots at work, where to be successful is not always the same as to be popular.
It makes us bend over backwards to accommodate others, which is a fine thing until the point it leaves us with no room to breathe ourselves. It holds us back in relationships where, as younger women especially, we nod and smile and pretend to hang on the every word of men who palpably don’t know what they’re talking about; for to argue back is to be judged prickly, shrill, exhausting, even (perhaps especially) if you are right.
There is a telling passage in Sasha Swire’s now notorious Diary of an MP’s Wife when, over yet another of those endless kitchen suppers chez her good friends David and Samantha Cameron, at which everyone apparently eats caviar while discussing how to stop Brexit, she goes uncharacteristically quiet. Her MP husband, Hugo, has asked her to keep her awkwardly pro-leave views to herself around the Camerons and, she writes: “I comply, as I’m not one to let off fireworks these days; I’m too old and unsexy to carry it off.”
She didn’t want to be dismissed as a battleaxe, no longer fun at parties. Although maybe even Swire had enough of worrying about that in the end, given her diary positively screams from the rooftops every unspeakable thought she’s ever had.
Yet arguments, and the willingness to risk being thought unlikable for having them, can sometimes be the only means by which we progress. As the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it, when asked why she was so often the lone voice on the US supreme court stubbornly disagreeing with the rest: “Dissent speaks to a future age.”
It was never about being difficult for the sake of it, but about hoping that today’s minority view would eventually become tomorrow’s mainstream wisdom; not about being liked at the time, but about being acknowledged in retrospect, however grudgingly, to have been right.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist