You wait 26 years for another female Tory leader and then two candidates come along at once. Between Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in 1990 andDavid Cameron coming to power in 2005, the Conservatives had seen six leadership elections featuring 14 candidates, with not a single woman to be found on the ballot. Yet here we are in 2016, with Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom fighting it out not just for party leadership but for the keys to No 10 too.
Much has been made of the fact that, for all its talk of feminism and equality, the left has returned a grand total of zero female prime ministers, in comparison to what will become the Conservatives’ two. Those on the right and centre who usually cling desperately to an apolitical feminism magically detached from society’s structures suddenly see politics as relevant again; now the Conservatives are the real feminists. Isn’t it funny how those who harp on about gender equality have never managed the same level of success?
Precisely because feminism cannot be divorced from the politics that render it necessary, the question of why the right – on paper at least – is better at women’s representation is one worth asking. What is the secret to its success? Is it a strong commitment from leadership to equal representation? A particularly good mentoring and coaching initiative? Positive action strategies?
Not according to the evidence. Despite their hit-rate on female prime ministers, women make up just 20% of the Conservatives’ parliamentary members, compared to Labour’s 44%. All-women shortlists and gender-balanced candidate lists favoured by Labour and the Green party are shunned by the Tories. A few lucky women have made it to the top, although fewer than probably should have done if we really did live in the meritocracy the Tories love so dearly. But did they fight their way there against the odds, forcing political structures to change to accommodate women? No, they took the same shape as the male leaders before them in order to fit the mould – anti-women policy positions included.
Take May, already lauded by commentators as a pioneer for women’s equality, a much-needed sensible voice, and a “woman’s woman”. But this feminist icon, lest we forget, has backed devastating austerity cuts that have disproportionately hit women. This social justice warrior has overseen the deportation of thousands of vulnerable women, including those deemed “not lesbian enough”. And this saviour of women has refused to reveal the extent of sexual abuse in the inhumane women’s detention centre Yarls Wood for fear of harming commercial interests. If feminist progress is measured in deeds not words, as the Suffragettes said, May’s speak louder indeed.
And yet it is these deeds that win elections. In a social order reliant on the continued subordination of women, it is unsurprising that a party that promises to sustain it will come out on top, regardless of the leader’s gender. Thatcher and May confirm all the stereotypes about women in politics that keep the electorate comfortable; hard-nosed, sharp-dressing, business-like. There on merit, disproving that leftie nonsense about women needing special treatment. They might be women, but the sexist status quo is safe in their hands.
The question, then, becomes whether representation alone is a marker of feminist success. It’s undeniable that it’s harder for women in general to make it to the top – a truly equal political system would surely see just as many incompetent women elected as there are men, after all – but it’s also true that women are not a homogeneous group. Those it is harder for still don’t fit the mould of a steely, white, rightwing woman with the interests of the privileged at heart. May might smash a glass ceiling in a moment of personal achievement, but the ruthless rightwing policies she will inflict on the country will ensure that it is fully repaired and back in place by the end of her term.
The feminist success of Conservative women leaders is something of a smokescreen. Reassuring as it may be to celebrate individual women leaders as beacons of progress, the fact remains that they benefit few but themselves. In a country so entrenched in inequality, it’s no coincidence that our female leaders have come from the right with an inherently sexist ideology of individualism and meritocracy. It’s that very inequality that ensures the system doesn’t fit women leaders of any other ilk.
So it’s true that the Conservatives might well be winning the race when it comes to female prime ministers. But feminist ones? We’re not yet out of the starting blocks.