I’m racing across the central belt to cover Ruth Davidson’s resignation, a row for missing an important email from my son’s nursery ringing in my ears, when I realise I’ve been reporting on women’s difficulty balancing work and family for what feels like two centuries. No wonder I’m feeling so ruddy tired. It’s the sheer unwieldy intractability of the dilemmas posed. It’s like getting stuck behind a motorhome on a Highland road: the progress is teeth-grindingly slow, you get tired of hearing yourself complain, then suddenly you’re forced to reverse into a ditch.
At a press conference in Edinburgh on Thursday, the now former Scottish Conservative leader, who is widely admired for transforming her party’s fortunes north of the border, explained that she was leaving frontline politics because she had been “a poor daughter, sister, partner and friend”, and that the birth of her son last October had caused her to “make a different choice”.
It was impossible not to empathise acutely from the midst of one of those failing-at-everything days familiar to many working women, highlights of which included leaving a valued contact waiting for me in the street in Glasgow because I’d forgotten to cancel our meeting, and not noticing my toddler was having a renegade shit on the bathroom floor because I was checking my phone – for a reply from the newsdesk about my Ruth Davidson coverage, naturally.
But Davidson deserves more than a mumly eye roll of commiseration at the brutal pace of politics as she hands over to – probably – yet another middle-aged, middle-class white guy. The former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander, who stood down from the position following a donations controversy when her children were young, tweeted that she admired Davidson’s candour and recognised her dilemma, noting: “The overwhelming family sacrifices required for serious party leadership only make sense when you harbour no doubts about the prevailing strategic direction.” Davidson was not coy about the political calculation involved in her decision, although it was notable that she did not use what was a dignified and collegiate resignation statement to criticise Boris Johnson’s prorogation plans.
She has stated clearly that her decision was motivated by a range of personal and political factors, the precise percentages of which we shall never know, but let’s not gloss over the boring balance stuff in the race to uncover a juicier explanation. And let’s be clear, too, that she did not suggest women can’t do top jobs and have young children. When I interviewed her just before the birth of her son, she was frustrated that the memoir she had written about her struggles with mental ill-health and her insistence that she didn’t want to be prime minister (10 months ago, how fast the landscape shifts these days!) had been conflated, and interpreted as suggesting mental illness precluded sufferers from high office. I’d guess she is feeling the same frustration now. It has long been a beef of mine, that way in which women in public life are held accountable for choices they may not even remember making, their individual fixes or failures extrapolated out to speak for their entire gender.
She spoke only for herself when she said she was done with it, for now. For Davidson, it would seem the sharpening of priorities brought about by motherhood no longer tallies with the relentless, terrifyingly capricious environment she has been gamely inhabiting for nearly a decade.
And how quickly Scottish politics has changed since the independence referendum of 2014, when Davidson came to prominence, and the ensuing years when female leadership appeared to have become the norm at Holyrood, with Nicola Sturgeon, Johann Lamont then Kezia Dugdale and Davidson sparring across the chamber.
Sturgeon and Dugdale did much to champion the Women 50/50 campaign for equal representation across Scottish public life, bringing women into politics from council level up, though some worry these quotas just boost the options of middle-class women while failing to address underlying structural inequalities. It’s still a battle to encourage more women into local council politics: the family-unfriendly hours, social media aggression and, in some cases, lack of maternity leave policies, begin their winnowing effect at the foundations of the political pyramid. At national level, Women 50/50 points out that the Scottish Tories are the only party not doing some form of positive action such as twinning or zipping for candidates for the 2021 Holyrood election. And at home there’s an urgent need to bring 50/50 equality to division of household labour between men and women.
What has been magnificent about reporting on these recent female leaders, a number of them openly lesbian, is how unremarkable their presence had become. What is painful about the aftermath of Davidson’s resignation is being reminded that in reality they remain the exception.
• Libby Brooks is the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent