Elaine Crory looks at Theresa May’s record before becoming PM and asks if this is really a clear victory for feminism.
So the UK has a new Prime Minister.
Ever since David Cameron took the unusual step of declaring that he didn’t intend to run for a third term – before he had even won his second – his presumed successors have been jostling for the position, displaying varying degrees of loyalty and tactical manoeuvring.
Two months is a long time in politics, the past two months even longer than normal, but I invite you to cast your minds back to a very clever advert produced by the Green Party ahead of the local elections in May, based on Channel 4’s The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds. In the ad, we see young Boris and George yelling, “I’m going to be the next Prime Minister”, and we all smiled in recognition; everyone presumed that one of them was right. We all thought the Bullingdon Boys had it sewn up somehow. Either the referendum would keep us in Europe, and George and his long term economic plan would win, or the country would vote for Brexit, and Boris would get his chance to shine. Where was Theresa May in all of this? The child version watched George and Boris silently, and then took on her Home Secretary duties with ruthless efficiency, dealing with stuffed toy non-EU citizens: “It says here you’re a nurse, but I don’t think you’ve got enough money, so get out of the country!”
It’s telling that the recent referendum, whatever the talking heads may try to persuade us, was widely seen as a referendum on immigration. Those who voted to leave Europe were often motivated by a fear that immigration was out of control and that it would continue to get worse; that David Cameron’s government had failed to curb immigration numbers like he had promised. Perhaps Cameron failed to grasp how deeply the numbers upset some people, and has paid the price with his premiership. Interestingly, the cabinet member with ultimate responsibility for immigration, whose child avatar tosses teddy bears and dolls out on their rears and who delivered an unequivocal speech on the topic at last October’s Conservative party conference, was Home Secretary Theresa May. How is it that she didn’t suffer for the failures of her office over the last six years and for her ‘Remain’ stance?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. Most of her rivals shot themselves in the foot spectacularly or knifed each other in the back like vaudeville villains. May barely had to campaign. She hardly outlined her views, never mind set out a programme for government. And yet here we are. With so much still up in the air, there is already talk of how the Conservative Party has slipped out of the control of the old Etonian gang and, of course, talk of this as a victory for feminism and the inevitable comparisons with Thatcher. Those of us who identify as feminist and look at politics through this lens have heard it all, and we have seen the photo of May in a (sweatshop produced) T-shirt proclaiming ‘This is what a feminist looks like‘ more times than we can count. And we have some thoughts on the topic.
Becoming Prime Minister is never especially easy, but some things certainly smooth the path a little. An Eton and Oxbridge education, personal wealth and connections, and being male definitely help. In comparison with her ostensible rivals, May certainly lagged behind on all of these fronts. Angela Leadsom torpedoed her own campaign and handed victory to May, mainly by suggesting that she herself had a more immediate stake in the country’s economic stability because she had children, while May does not. The distaste was immediate and almost universal – without the word ‘feminism’ being used, there was almost immediate consensus that using May’s family status against her was unacceptable, and that the same line of argument would never be used against a male candidate. Much of the nation also rolled its collective eyes at the inane talk of her leopard-print shoes, at the weird tabloid talk of her cleavage during the budget address. Satirical news sites have already parodied those same tabloids with accounts of her husband’s body and style of dress that mock how tabloids talk about the wives of male politicians. All of these things are, in their own way, tiny victories for feminism. But does the credit for this go to May herself, or to the maturation of society more generally?
Let’s be unequivocal – she doesn’t hold many feminist credentials based on her voting record. Her speeches, including her flagship speech as she stood outside Number 10 as PM for the first time, present her as a Prime Minister who will be concerned with equality and justice. But speeches are speeches: they are written by professionals who value quote-ability over consistent policy positions. May has spent the last six years as a key part of a government that has implemented harsh austerity policies, which have affected, and continue to disproportionately affect, women. As Home Secretary she has presided over an immigration policy which is harshest on the lowest paid in society and continues to support Yarl’s Wood detention centre despite the appalling allegations of abuse within its walls. Her voting record on equalising the age of consent, on same sex adoption rights and IVF access for lesbian couples, and her hawkish views on foreign intervention, will give many on the left and feminists in particular cause for concern. There are some causes for cheer; her office is responsible for the introduction of a law against coercive control in England and Wales (currently under consultation by the Department of Justice here in NI) and she has consistently been in favour of equal marriage, but what her views are outside of her Home Office remit is difficult to predict. (4)
We are encouraged by the fact that a woman has become Prime Minister for the second time in the UK’s long history, if only for the sake of visibility. It is not nearly enough for feminists, though, that Theresa May is female, and occasionally pays lip service to feminism when it seems to suit her to do so. Her voting record and party affiliations make most feminists nervous. Will she pull the ladder up after herself, as many fear? Her 35% female cabinet is better than any other recent cabinet, on one hand, but still it’s hardly a feminist utopia. Will she recognise the need for an entirely different economic strategy now that she has replaced the austerity figurehead, Chancellor Osborne? How similar are her new Home Secretary’s views on immigration? We just don’t know yet.
One thing we can be sure of, though, is that Theresa May is remarkably good at sensing which way the wind is blowing. She sided with the young underdog in the 2005 leadership election and when he won, Mr. Cameron rewarded her loyalty. She has been faithful always to the party line and devoted in her duties as Home Secretary. She stood back and let the old rivals and friends fight among themselves for the position of heir apparent, never making her own ambitions obvious or threatening. On Brexit, she was as soft a Remainer as it was possible to be, perhaps positioning herself as a compromise candidate in case the government lost – and we know how that has turned out. She barely needed to campaign for leadership at all, the expression swept to power has rarely seemed so apt. Perhaps this uncanny knack for reading the mood of the nation will serve women well, perhaps it will not. It seems like we can only be certain that it will serve May and the Conservative Party very well indeed.