Far too often in politics, women on the centre-right find themselves labeled as the ‘wrong’ sort of feminist, or even worse, told their political views aren’t compatible with the main principles of feminism. It is a general attitude which not only affects everyday women but has followed the most successful women in politics, all the way to the top and into Downing Street itself. Yes, even Theresa May, the country’s second female Prime Minister, has to put up with the accusation that her politics undermine her credibility as a feminist. The most recent accuser was none other than Labour MP and Mother of the House Harriet Harman, who yet again repeated one of her favourite claims that Theresa May is not a ‘sister’ to the cause of feminism, and not a ‘daughter of the revolution’.
Sorry Harriet, but you’re wrong. You shouldn’t be throwing any women under the bus. Even if it is pink. Feminism is not a political party issue. Being a feminist and being a conservative are not mutually exclusive. No one woman nor one party has the right to claim a movement for themselves and attempt to redefine it in their image, much less have the authority to determine who is and who is not a champion of the cause. So watching one highly successful female politician publicly attacking another in this way was deeply disappointing. Especially considering that it was supposedly being done in the name of feminism. But it got me thinking, why is this attitude still accepted? Why don’t we know more about the achievements of the country’s second female leader? And why are the achievements of conservative women in general dismissed when it is time to celebrate women in politics?
Watching the mainstream media’s approach to celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of votes for women is starting to feel like an exercise in not only rewriting history, but in misrepresenting the present.
One of the most significant figures in the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankurst, was a conservative and stood as a Conservative Party candidate for Parliament; a fact often forgotten or ignored by certain feminists. The Suffragette movement was led by a conservative woman, and now a hundred years later, the government is, for the second time, led by a conservative woman. You can’t discuss the progression of women’s rights in this country without mentioning conservative women. And who better to start with than our second female PM?
As we mark a hundred years since the passing of the ‘Representation of the People Act’, we should be coming together to applaud our achievements; applaud female MPs on every side of the house, applaud women like Theresa May and Harriet Harman who have both been instrumental in inspiring generations of women to get into politics. So, let’s set the record straight. Theresa May is a feminist, and she is a sister to the cause.
As a newly elected MP, Theresa May’s first experience with the ‘sisterhood’ was not particularly welcoming. In a quote provided for Rosa Prince’s book, ‘Theresa May — The Enigmatic Prime Minister’, Anne Jenkin describes May’s early experience in Parliament:
‘When Theresa first arrived she started to do more of what you could call the feminist end of politics. Of course, in ’97 Labour suddenly had hundreds of women…so Theresa would turn up to these meetings….on equality-type issues….and they would be pretty snooty to her, and said things like: “What do you think you’re doing here? You’re a Tory.” She would go to these things and be completely on her own.’
She experienced issues within her own party when trying to raise women’s issues to give them a platform during her early years, both from the old guard and new modernisers alike. Andrew Griffiths is quoted in Prince’s book as saying:
‘I remember her desperately trying to get Michael Howard to support policies for more flexible maternity leave for women, increased maternity pay, and getting real difficulty in (persuading) modernisers like David and George, who when they were in power might have done a lot of these things, but at that stage she had to really battle to get them to understand these issues and take them seriously.’
In feminism, ‘deeds not words’ are required to advance the rights of women; Theresa May did not shy away from making her views known on women’s issues early on. In 2001, she left the Carlton Club, a major donor to the Conservative Party, when women were unable to have a full membership, saying:
‘I dislike the fact that lady associate members are treated as 2nd class citizens.’
When May was elected as an MP in 1997, she was one of only thirteen women on the Conservative Party benches. From early on in her parliamentary career, she began exploring ways of increasing female representation within the party. In 2000, while she was shadow minister for women and equalities, she published a policy document called ‘Choices’, in which she first set out her ideas, with an initiative called ‘Women in Public Life’. This was aimed at encouraging an increase in women being added to shortlists and offering mentoring schemes that would later be adapted for her organisation ‘Women2Win’.
In 2002, May was appointed the first female chairman of the Conservative Party. She insisted on being called ‘chairman’ as a sign that she expected to be treated like her male predecessors.When she was reshuffled out of the chairman position to shadow secretary for transport and environment and replaced by two men in the position of ‘joint’ chairmen, May noted that:
‘Yes, it takes two men to step into the shoes of one woman.’
In 2005, she argued in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that what the party needed was ‘more women candidates, more women MPs and more senior female faces appearing on television, on the radio and in the newspapers’, and suggested that the party should be encouraged to select women to run in the party’s one hundred most winnable seats at the following general election. This was the ‘A-list’, the approach of which was first suggested by May and Andrew Lansley in 2001, where the candidates were split fifty per cent men and fifty per cent women for the selection of marginal seats.
In December 2005, after the general election had produced a total of only 17 female Conservative MPs (nine per cent of the parliamentary party), May partnered with Baroness Anne Jenkins to establish ‘Women2Win’. Its primary purpose is to support Conservative women in being elected to the House of Commons, and encourage them to stand for public office.
‘As a woman, I’ve never wanted to get anywhere because I was part of a quota. I’ve wanted to get there because I’d worked hard for a job and because I deserved it.’ — Theresa May
In an interview for Women’s Hour in 2013, May defended her disapproval of gender quotas, arguing that we can ‘achieve significant increase in the number of women coming into Parliament through positive action rather than all women shortlists’. While gender quotas can easily be viewed as a quick fix solution, I believe that the success of Women2Win and the fact both female Prime Ministers have been Conservative are evidence enough for her argument against them.
Rosa Prince sums up the significance of May’s contribution to the growing presence of women in the Conservative Party, saying:
‘It is said that no Conservative woman elected to Parliament since the launch of the group she helped found, Women2Win, has got there without its help. Their triumphs and glories over the coming decades, as well as those who follow them, will stand as one of May’s great legacies.’
The combination of the A-List and Women2Win resulted in the election of forty-eight female Conservative MPs at the 2010 election. It is important to note that such women include the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and even Theresa May’s former leadership rival, Andrea Leadsom. The majority of the female ministers who sit on her front benches have found their way to Parliament through Women2Win. Amber Rudd described May as ‘an inspiration…she made a personal effort to meet candidates, advise them and then quite often call us on the day of selection to give us a motivating pep talk and push’. The woman who warned that the Conservative Party was being viewed by many as the ‘nasty party’ has undeniably modernised her party and changed its political landscape for the better.
Throughout her time in the shadow cabinet, May spoke often about her support for equal pay, and ran a Facebook campaign to tackle the issue, ‘Theresa May for Equal Pay’. Not afraid to call out and criticise the approach of the then Labour government, May particularly targeted the approach of her opposite number, Harriet Harman, arguing that ‘too often women’s issues are reduced to a “men v women” debate’ and that ‘we need policies based on choice for women — free and empowered to make their own decisions.’
In an article written for the Guardian in 2007, entitled ‘Fair Play on Women’s Pay’, May criticised Harman for failing to produce any proper policy to deal with the gender pay gap. In this, she broke down the causes of the pay gap into four categories: outright discrimination, the need for women to have flexible/part-time work, the difference in educational and work-experience attainment and the career decisions women make early on in life. She recommended increased legislation against outright discrimination and suggested a ‘package that addresses the deeper systematic and attitudinal problems’. She followed this up with two further articles in 2008 dealing with the same issues, one in which she called for women and men to have the right to ask for flexible hours — a policy that has come to fruition with shared parental leave. We’ve seen this now in practice through the introduction of shared parental leave, and the extension of free childcare hours, with a record £6 billion investment in childcare every year by 2020. In the other article, she advocated for compulsory pay audits for employers found guilty of discrimination. Currently, all employers with over 250 employees now have to publish their data on gender pay by April following a new legal requirement introduced by May’s government. While the pay gap fell to a record low of 9.1 per cent in October, the Prime Minister insisted that there was still a need for ‘sustained action’ to eliminate the pay gap.
When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed in 2010, Theresa May became the second female home secretary in British history, becoming the longest serving home secretary of the modern era. Alongside her Home Office brief, she retained the women and equalities brief that she had held in the shadow cabinet.
A woman of her word, when she became home secretary in 2010, she brought forward a number of measures to tackle the issue of violence against women. Domestic Violence Protection Orders and Domestic Violence Disclosure Schemes were rolled out across the board in England and Wales in 2014, allowing domestic victims ‘breathing space’ from their abuser by preventing contact between them for up to twenty eight days, while providing a ‘right to ask’ if an individual has a history of domestic abuse. She introduced the new offence of ‘Controlling and Coercive Behaviour’ which criminalised psychological abuse in relationships, recognising it ‘as tantamount to torture’.
In 2011, she raised awareness of the issue of young women being used as weapons between rival gangs, ‘they would find themselves being abused and sometimes being used as weapons — raping a rival gang leader’s girlfriend to get back at that gang‘ and pledged £1.2million over three years to improve services for young victims of sexual violence.
Her support for ending FGM and forced marriage predates her tenure as home secretary, documented in a 2010 article for the Guardian, where she argued that ‘we as a society still have a long way to go before women feel safe and have choice over their own lives.’ She went on to co-host the 2014 Girls Summit and spoke out against both forced marriage and FGM. In an article she wrote for the Telegraph to commemorate the event, she spoke about the criminalisation of forced marriages but recognised that ‘legislation alone is not enough’, and that perpetrators of FGM must be brought to account in court.
In the same year, she appeared in an campaign video for #Freedom2Choose and described forced marriage as ‘a fundamental breach of human rights that robs people of the opportunity to choose their own future’.
During her tenure as home secretary and now as Prime Minister, it has been her ‘personal crusade’ to tackle modern slavery. Her 2015 Modern Slavery Act was the first of its kind in Europe and ‘delivered tough new penalties to put slave masters behind bars…with life sentences for the worst offenders.’ An independent review found 289 modern slavery offences were prosecuted in 2015 alone, with a 40 per cent rise in the number of victims identified by the state. Within weeks of becoming Prime Minister, she wrote in the Telegraph that ‘my Government will lead the way in defeating modern slavery‘. She formed the first taskforce on modern slavery to ‘co-ordinate & drive further progress in the battle against this cruel exploitation’, and appointed an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, the only position of its kind in the world.
During an interview with Tina Brown for Women in the World, May explained that it was important for her to meet victims and survivors of sexual abuse and to actually sit down and speak with them as ‘I want to better understand the impact that this has had…when I sat and listened to victims and survivors of abuse….people are living with this every single day of their lives…’.
During the 2016 leadership campaign, Ken Clarke described her as a ‘bloody difficult woman’, and yes, she absolutely is — in the best way possible.
Her idea of feminism is that you shouldn’t have to change who you are to meet the expectations of society, and to quote her ‘Desert Island Discs’ interview, ‘Women shouldn’t feel they’ve got to ‘walk like a man”. She has undeniably forged her own way in politics, leopard print kitten heels front and centre, to become the second female Prime Minister.
In her first major address to the United Nations General Assembly as Prime Minister in September 2016, she spoke about terrorism and migration while making sure to keep a spotlight fixed on the issue of modern slavery. She advocated the need for a new network to deal with modern slavery in a manner similar to terrorism and cyber security as ‘victims will only find freedom if we cultivate a radically new, global and co-ordinated approach to defeat this vile crime’. The following year in New York, the Prime Minister hosted an event at the UNGA to develop ideas for ending modern slavery, announcing additional policy developments such as an international summit of chief prosecutors this spring, and a doubling of the UK’s aid spending for modern slavery to £150 million.
As Prime Minister, she has already laid out her intention to carry on her work in ending violence against women. In 2017, she announced plans for a major consultation expected to result in a ‘Domestic Violence and Abuse Act’ with the ‘potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence‘.
In recent weeks, she has spoken out against the behaviour of the President’s Club, saying that ‘I thought that sort of attitude of the objectification of women was something that was in the past,’ and that as a result, ‘sadly, what that event showed is that there is still a lot more work for us to do’. This all links back to the need for a change in attitude and culture that she has been speaking about since becoming an MP twenty years ago. There’s more still to be done, the President’s Club is proof of that, but it is my firm belief that Theresa May is the woman to see such change through.
Her first cabinet in 2016 was comprised thirty per cent of women, and her latest reshuffle in the New Year saw a major shakeup of the junior ministerial ranks — while six women were promoted to the Whips’ office, with Nusrat Ghani appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, making her the first Muslim woman to speak from the Government dispatch box.
‘It’s important to be that role model so that people can see what women can achieve’ — Theresa May
Theresa May is very much the ‘right’ sort of woman — she has never fallen into the trap of changing herself to meet a certain perception of feminism or how a woman should be. When asked about her thoughts towards the running commentary on her fashion choices, she argued that ‘one of the challenges for women…in all walks of lives…is to be ourselves, and to say, you know what?, you can be clever and like clothes, you can have a career and like clothes — these are not separate’. Her determination to pursue a political career while remaining true to herself has inspired a generation of young women, including myself.
She is one of the most important role models in my life; I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have without her. Theresa May’s sense of public duty, her resilience and determination is something to admire. That’s why today, a hundred years since women got the right to vote, we should celebrate the women who have inspired us; who have given us the resilience, the strength and the self-confidence to go out there and fight for what we believe in.
Praise for Theresa May’s feminism isn’t something new, and this article isn’t revolutionary — it is a consolidation of what many of us already know (or what some of us really ought to know). Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that Theresa May is ‘just as aggressive as Harriet Harman was on women’s equality’. The Liberal Democrats leader, Vince Cable, described her as ‘one of these top women who believe in promoting other women…she supports the sisterhood’.
As much as Theresa May has criticised the approach of the Labour Party in dealing with women’s issues such as equal pay, she recognises the broad church of feminism and the fact that the ‘sisterhood’ should extend, now more than ever, across party lines. Criticise the failings in policy and approach when you see them, but attempting to take a superior moral high ground by claiming your approach to feminism is the only acceptable one does nothing but marginalise and sow division.
As disheartening as comments like Harriet’s are, some good can come out of them if they provide an opportunity to be reminded of the achievements of conservative women. It can allow us a chance to restore balance to the narrative whilst educating and hopefully inspiring a new generation of girls to pick up the baton and run with it. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been. Happily, the bloody difficult woman responsible for the progress of many of today’s female MP’s, is also leading us, and them, into the future.
This post originally appeared on Medium