If your politics are anything remotely close to mine, you’ve very probably also spent today in a cyclical state of delirium, heartbreak, confusion and fiery rage, wondering where on earth all these bloody Tories crawled from. If your extended social circle is anything remotely close to mine, you probably don’t even know where to start; I identified perhaps one solitary happy Tory this morning and promptly deleted him with a particularly aggressive click, boosting my mood for all of 0.25 seconds. The truth is that my entire inbox, newsfeed and twitter timeline is filled with bemused and dismayed people – the overt right-wingers and their sympathisers are hard to find in the cocoon I’ve diligently built myself over the last few years. Easier to identify, though, are the well-meaning liberals; those who know that voting Conservative isn’t the done thing but who uncritically buy into centre-right alternatives without a second thought for their conscience. And falling firmly into this category are the horde of twitter feminists lamenting last night’s election result, but taking small solace in the fact 1 in 3 seats in the House of Commons are now held by women – a record increase in representation.
What these commentators fail to acknowledge is that when your life is being ruined and your livelihood threatened, its not much consolation for it to be ruined and threatened by a woman instead of a man. Yes, we elected a record number of women MPs last night, but they will sit in a House of Commons governed by a majority Conservative government who have already destroyed the lives of women around the UK with reckless abandon and who will continue to do so. Apparently contrary to the beliefs of many white middle-class feminists, not every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice by virtue of her being a woman; last night Northern Ireland elected Sylvia Hermon and Margaret Ritchie, both of whom have previously voted in Westminster for the tightening of abortion law – brought to the table by Nadine Dorries, a senior woman Conservative. Women’s representation was also up in Westminster in 2010 – albeit not to the same level as this time round – but it led to the same Nicky Morgan who voted against equal marriage being made Minister for Women and Equalities, and Rachel Reeves posturing against Ian Duncan Smith as to who could inflict the most devastating rollbacks to the welfare state.
Celebrating an increase in women’s representation with no regard for the women themselves is a stance cut from the same cloth as those who nod along to the tune of feminism with a wave to Hillary Clinton and a smile at Sheryl Sandberg, but never have to interrogate their own behaviour or the part they’re playing in perpetuating the inequality of women worse-off than them. We now risk a situation where David Cameron can claim himself a pro-feminist Prime Minister by carving a reputation as someone who has created opportunities for and encouraged women into senior political positions. Meanwhile his government have harmed many thousands more than the equivalent of them amongst real women on the ground who have been disproportionately hit by austerity cuts to public services like childcare, decreases in wages, and the closure of domestic violence refuges.
The fact remains that this feminist focus on leadership and power is a comfortable one for the status quo; it’s easier to believe that trickle-down feminism actually works and that role models are an important facet of it than to interrogate and dismantle the structures which have kept the privileged privileged for so long. In the meantime we hold up white, wealthy women with backgrounds alien to the majority of the population and tick it off as a success when one makes it into a boardroom – all this in spite of the telling truth that the sample size of CEOs in total is so small as to render a gender difference statistically insignificant. Mainstream feminism constantly celebrates women who are largely unthreatening to sexism and capitalism alike, while the rest of us flounder – even in the language of ‘Lean In’ is implicit reference to adapting yourself in order to fit into a structure that fundamentally isn’t built for you. Most galling of all is the political convenience of this line of argument for the right-wing. After all, it buys directly into the rhetoric that you can have it all if only you work hard enough, if you’re a striver and not a skiver. The Tory-created world in which you strive or skive doesn’t play into it.
An increase in representation, then, can be spun however you like, but David Cameron is not a pro-feminist Prime Minister and a Tory majority is not a win for women. There were some small moments of relief amongst the wreckage of last night – Caroline Lucas retaining her Brighton seat and Naz Shah ousting literal fedora-wearing misogynist George Galloway in Bradford spring to mind – but the overall picture is a bleak one and improved gender balance has come from the success stories of a few rather than any concerted effort to make the system and structures any more welcoming to those who aren’t white men. Against the very tenets of feminism, it is individual women alone – some of the most privileged in our society, at that – who are being celebrated when we hold them up as its biggest win of the night.
In light of this sombre backdrop it is vital over the years ahead that we amplify the voices of those the Tories are determined to silence, but even that will be difficult for many whose first priority is struggling to survive. I hope to see women getting involved in their trade unions, their student unions, in donating to food banks and campaigns and leading grassroots movements like Focus E15 which has produced some of the most incredible women leaders of modern politics against the most desperate of circumstances. But more than anything I hope to see concerted efforts to make these spaces and campaigns accessible and welcoming to those who need them most. Women must be a strong voice in the resistance against Tories, but we must be so by forging out our own spaces and changing them for those who come after us. For too long, feminist successes have been measured by how well women can fit into spaces built by and for men – the result is that those succeeding in politics are largely smashing the glass ceiling but forgetting to open the door, while even supposedly left-wing spaces of opposition are too often dominated by misogynists, overbearing men, and the most privileged of women.
Consigned to 5 more years of a Conservative government, this has to change. Women have to be heard, but vitally we have to be heard on our own terms. Only then will be be able to truly celebrate a politics that does anything close to representing us.