On Monday it was confirmed that Theresa May will succeed David Cameron as Leader of The Conservative Party and therefore she became Prime Minister by Wednesday; in what seasoned political commentator Nick Robinson has labelled a ”ruthlessly efficient” transfer of power. In the context of the recent turbulence of British Politics, media commentators have increasingly spoken of her premiership marking a juncture of distinct change. With Nicola Sturgeon and Arlene Foster holding the position of First Minister in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively, Natalie Bennett as the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Leanne Wood as leader of Plaid Cymru in Wales and Angela Eagle now formally bidding for the leadership of The Labour Party and Theresa May now appointed Prime Minister, many have speculated that there is an ongoing women’s movement in British Politics.
Whilst it is true that women have never enjoyed so many executive positions in the UK, have no doubt that May’s ascension to power has nothing to do with the rise of a more feminist mainstream politics. As opposed to rejecting discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or gender, May has repeatedly reinforced such discrimination, apparently on the grounds of good old pragmatism and common sense: the best friends of a conservative politician.
May has historically been sceptical of challenges to the traditional family unit by rejecting the repeal of section 28 of the Local Governments Act in 2000, upholding the belief that homosexuality should not be promoted schools. Moreover, in 2002 May rejected the notion of gay adoption and in 2008 voted in favour of a bill to ensure that IVF rights were restricted to families with a male role model, discriminating against lesbians. Admittedly, there have been points at which May has endorsed LGBT rights, such as proclaiming her support for Civil Partnerships in 2004 and in promoting Same Sex Marriage in 2013. The mind wonders as to whether these acts of support represent genuine belief or an attempt to climb to the top of British Politics, following broader societal shifts. Furthermore, such acts of support are a thin veil for the direct and clear impact that policies directly supported by the Prime Minister have wreaked on marginalised individuals.
May has historically been sceptical of challenges to the traditional family unit
One of May’s first acts as Home Secretary was to forcefully abandon the clause of Labour’s Equalities Act (2010) which forced public bodies to take measures to reduce inequalities in the policies that they promote, attempting to tackle deep structural inequalities in society. This was done on the grounds of a warped concept of fairness, citing what she bizzarely called “prescriptive equality” to be contrary to this.
As Home Secretary May was responsible for the Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, the location at which most female asylum seekers are held whilst attempting to gain residence in the UK. With shocking reports of women being forcibly handcuffed, poor healthcare and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety being rife due to the appalling living conditions at the centre, the chief inspector of prisons labelled the centre a “place of national concern” last August. What is significant about the women held at Yarl’s Wood is that they do not have a vote, are marginalised and largely out of the public view. A cynic would argue that this invisibility could possibly provide an explanation as to why abhorrent practices were allowed to carry on unchallenged for years. Despite frequent calls, May has refused to close the centre and has failed to implement a complete ban on pregnant women being detained.
In her leadership acceptance speech, many have noted that May seems to have deviated from the pro-austerity agenda and to have adopted a more ‘One Nation’ approach. I’m sceptical.
Perhaps most significantly, May was an ardent supporter of the Bedroom Tax and of the broader policy of austerity. The gendered impact of this is significant, with 72% of the impact of austerity felt by women, due to there being a higher concentration of women in the public sector and in receipt of benefits, due to childcare responsibilities, for example. This is something that the government would have realised if they had followed the reporting obligations of the aforementioned Equalities Act. In her leadership acceptance speech, many have noted that May seems to have deviated from the pro-austerity agenda and to have adopted a more ‘One Nation’ approach. I’m sceptical. Whilst stating that she will build a country that doesn’t just work for “the privileged few, but every one of us”, she has simultaneously pledged to help people “take back control over their lives.” Now I might be alone here, but whenever I hear a Tory politician pledging to give people more control of their lives, I take this to mean ‘you’re on your own’ and have the insatiable urge to check that the NHS still exists.
Beyond May’s historical stance on issues of gender, we should also look at May’s political conduct. During the referendum campaign, May was shy in her support for remain and was sure not to provoke Brexiteers, placing her in a strategic position to take maximum advantage from a Brexit. This has indeed worked but does this strategic game-playing mark an alternative from the status quo of masculine power politics? Furthermore, she has been criticised for being difficult in her style and approach by Ken Livingstone, who himself drew parallels between her and Margaret Thatcher, another ‘difficult’ woman who is often heralded as a Feminist icon.
Given that Thatcher failed to promote women around her and failed to advance any kind of pro-women agenda, it would not be ludicrous to suggest that the women in the Tory party who do well are those who emulate the style of masculine politics whilst dressing it up in a more glamorous form. Take Thatcher’s combination of looking flawless whilst having a huge enthusiasm for militarism, as evidenced by her electric aura during the Falkland’s War. Could such enthusiasm could also be seen in May’s insistence that the UK should renew Trident? This weapon has little strategic value, has the potential to destroy populations of millions and costs the taxpayer an extortionate amount – the ultimate symbol of hegemonic masculinity.
Theresa May might tick the box of being a woman in power, this does not necessarily mean that she will empower women.
It is not that attention should be drawn to Ms May’s appearance whatsoever, as I indeed find recent attempts to do so by the media disparaging, implying that because she is a woman she should primarily look good over anything else. What I do seek to do, however, is to highlight the fact that women can forward a masculine form of politics, too. Whilst Theresa May might tick the box of being a woman in power, this does not necessarily mean that she will empower women. Having proven to support policies which wreak social havoc, with the greatest impact felt by marginalised groups, I fail to see how her premiership represents any kind of women’s movement in politics. By contrast, I feel that we May be set to endure more of the same in British Politics.