We Have A Female Prime Minister But This Is No Feminist Victory.
The Debrief: Tomorrow Britain gets a female Prime Minister for the second time in our history. However, we should never forget how and why we got here, we must remember that she was not elected and commit to scrutinising her policies going forward.
Today David Cameron chaired his last cabinet meeting. As you read this removal vans are outside Downing Street, back doors opened as the former Prime Minister’s possessions are placed inside. Our new Prime Minister will be Theresa May, former Home Secretary. She is a woman.
The number of female leaders across the globe has grown in recent years, but they’re still a relatively small group. Most of the world has never had a female leader. Sadly, the fact that Theresa May is a woman is still remarkable in 2016. She is our second ever female Prime Minister. It’s been 26 years since Margaret Thatcher held the post, meaning that if you’re a similar age to me (28) there hasn’t been a woman in number 10 yet in your lifetime. We’ll know that our society has really made it when this is no longer an unusual, epoch making moment or historical rarity. The fact that, despite the fact we’ve already had a female prime minister, equality between the sexes is still very much a live issue, demonstrates that, like wealth, equality at the top doesn’t necessarily signal progress for all.
May’s leadership has been widely discussed in terms of women coming in to ‘clean up the mess created by men’ with the inevitable and lazy comparisons being drawn with Maggie Thatcher and Angela Merkel. When the Conservative Business Minister announced that she was backing May last week she said ‘we’ve had enough of these boys messing about.’ Having a woman in charge is by no means a feminist victory of any kind in its own right and the suggestion that she her very existence somehow fulfils the stereotype of the sensible woman coming in to clear up a man’s mess is pretty depressing. Such headlines read like a bad rewrite of Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.
It is important that we have another female leader, regardless of what you think about May’s politics this is significant. It shouldn’t be, but it is and there’s no doubt about that. Seeing another woman speaking as the ‘Prime Minister’ is a positive signal for women everywhere. However, it’s not enough. In order for true progress we need to have a female Prime Minister who is focussed on and committed to policies which promote true equality.
Theresa May has done some good work on supporting victims of domestic violence, she also acted on FGM. However, during her tenure as Home Secretary she has presided over those infamous ‘Go Home’ vans, the detention of pregnant women at Yarl’s Wood and the indefinite detention of women at the facility where there have been repeated accusations of sexual abuse.
Attitudes to women have come a long way but we’ve still got a long way to go. Indeed, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his new podcast Revisionist History electing a female leader can actually backfire because people get so excited by how progressive they have been that they neglect to keep pushing things forward. He cites the example of Australia first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who was elected in 2010. Throughout her time in power she was subjected to horrific sexism. Remember her speech about misogyny, directed at Tony Abbott? She stepped down in 2013.
Of the 63 countries to have ever elected female leaders, very few have followed up with another. From Brazil to Canada, Costa Rica to Pakistan, France to Turkey, Latvia to Panama, Gladwell argues that we move forward, only to take a step back. 'A woman gets accepted into a man's world she thinks that somehow something has changed but nothing has changed. The men pat themselves on the back and then they slam the door shut again.'
The fact that so much of the debate about the post-Brexit Conservative leadership race has revolved around gender as opposed to policy confirms this. It would be a mistake to confuse having a female Prime Minister with proof that feminism has worked, it’s job done to the extent that, like Nigel Farage, it can be retired to the history books. No. This has only just begun.
As of tomorrow we have a female Prime Minister. However, we should never forget how and why we got here, we must remember that she was not elected and commit to scrutinising her policies going forward. It's not the fact that she is in office but what she does with her power that will determine whether times are actually changing.
As an aside, for as long as Theresa May is in charge please can we all refrain from calling her ‘fierce’ or ‘badass’. Ever.
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