Why It Matters That Theresa May Spoke About Her Own Experience Of Having A Smear Test In Parliament

David Cameron couldn't even say 'tampon' out loud

Why It Matters That Theresa May Spoke About Her Own Experience Of Having A Smear Test In Parliament

by Vicky Spratt |

Cast your mind, for a moment, back to 2015. It was BB (Before Brexit), Obama was still the US President which meant Donald Trump was just a right-wing pipe dream and our then Prime Minister, David Cameron, couldn’t say the word ‘tampon’ out loud.

Cameron was appearing on BBC Radio One’s newsbeat when he was asked whether it was ‘morally right to charge tax on tampons’. In response, he fumbled around and managed to answer a question which was explicitly about tampons without actually saying the word ‘tampon’ once. The result was this awkward and turgid response:

‘No, it’s not that – I wish, I’ll tell you as Prime Minister. If it was like that I’d do it [he then clicked his fingers] tomorrow. I’m very sad to say you’re wrong, I wish it was the case [that the VAT on tampons is dictated by HMRC classing them as a ‘luxury’ item] if it was, I would’ve done it by now.

Why, you might wonder, are we going back in time to revisit the Prime Minister who brought us Brexit in the first place?

Yesterday, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May spoke openly and directly about her own experiences of having a smear test in response to a question about cervical screening.

Whatever you might think of May, there can be no doubt of the significance of a woman Prime Minister standing up in the House of Commons – a space where men and women alike are not afraid to jeer at one another – and not only speak about the importance of having a cervical smear but reference her own experience of the procedure.

When the Prime Minister was asked by Labour MP Julie Elliot whether she would look into making smear tests available on the NHS to women under the age of 25, she said the government would look into it and urged anyone who does qualify for a smear to get tested. ‘It’s so important for women’s health, so I first of all want to encourage women to take the smear test. Have that test’, May said. She then added she was advocating the importance of smears even though they can be a little bit unpleasant – ‘I know it is not a comfortable thing to do’ she reflected ‘because I have [had] it as others do’.

Theresa May is only the second woman to ever hold the office of Prime Minister in our country’s history. She may not be perfect but her honesty about her own smear test experiences underscores the importance of having a woman in charge of the country; by speaking directly about her own experiences as a woman she can normalise the discussion of such subjects in a space such as parliament which has, historically, been dominated by men.

Perhaps it’s spurious to try and link May’s decision to reference her own smear to the #metoo and Time’s Up movements or, indeed, the outrage about the Presidents Club which took up much of the air time in parliament yesterday. But, is it possible that maybe, just maybe, the groundswell of public anger and outcry about sexual harassment which has started to make a solution to the previously inchoate forces of sexism feel more tangible has influenced the Prime Minister?

**READ MORE: The Debrief Investigates - Hormones And Mental Health **

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This matters because right now the number of woman taking up their cervical cancer screening appointments is at a 10 year low. When you think about the fact that cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under the age of 35, killing 1,000 young women every year (according to the Office for National Statistics) this is a troubling statistic.

Why are young women not booking to smear test appointments? According to a recent poll, conducted by the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, worries about body image and embarrassment are major factors which discourage young women from going to get a smear.

If young women lookup to see a Prime Minister blushing because he can’t say the word ‘tampon’ out loud, they too will feel embarrassed about the tampons they carry around with them and internalise a sense of shame about their vaginas, which is where those tampons are intended to go.

Cameron’s blunder spoke to the idea that vaginas are embarrassing and should never be spoken about in public.

However, if those same young women hear a Prime Minister talk openly and honestly about the importance of a routine and lifesaving procedure which too many people are squeamish about because it involves a stranger poking around your vagina, then they might learn that it’s nothing to worry or feel ashamed about. This, in turn, might mean that they go and get a smear test as soon as its available to them and that could very well save their life.

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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