Why May’s rhetoric does not reflect reality
It is 100 years since the Representation of the People Act granted women over the age of 30 the right to vote, and Theresa May has given a speech applauding the work of the suffragettes, claiming pride and encouraging women into politics; “I think the important thing for women in politics is be yourself,” she said. “Women’s way of doing politics is sometimes different from men; it’s the same in business. But that doesn’t mean they’re not just as good, they are just as good. So I would say: don’t feel like you have to be a stereotype of a man in order to get on in politics. Be yourself and believe in what you are doing.”
Despite her inspiring words, May holds a mixed record in pushing the feminist agenda. On the one hand, she has done an excellent job of giving women representation in cabinet, as well as supporting the introduction of shared parental leave, which is instrumental in reducing the wage gap. She has introduced new laws against domestic abuse, campaigned against FGM and is currently proposing legislature to criminalise threats made over social media, a platform which is often used to target vulnerable women.
It would be wrong of me to deny her merits, or that she must have worked exceptionally hard to make it to the top in what remains a male-dominated field. It would also be wrong of me to pretend that feminism is exclusive to the left, or deny the sexism of so-called ‘brocialists’. Despite women’s significant contributions to the trade union movement, they were often excluded from negotiations. After all, it was the trade unions who campaigned for a ‘family wage’ for the ‘average working man’ whilst denying the possibility of economic emancipation for women.
However, I cannot discard of the notion that neo-liberalism and feminism are incompatible. Watching women Tories make noises about ‘girl power’ reeks all too much of the form of commodity feminism emerging, just like all countercultures that are inevitably dumbed-down and commercialised. The celebrity trend of wearing the ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, made by women working in a Mauritian sweatshop earning 62p an hour; Kendall Jenner wearing a ‘we should all be feminists t-shirt’ worth $700. All of this a sign of celebrity culture attempting to exploit controversial causes for a profit, rather than offering activism of real substance. The original suffragette movement was not the sanitised version we are fed today, but a violent terrorist organisation that resorted to violence when democracy failed to work.
If Theresa May is such a feminist, then why does her economic plan not reflect it? Why has analysis shown that women bear the brunt of 86% of austerity? Women are more likely to depend on public services – so are are crippled by cuts. Single parents (90% of which are women) suffer from child benefits cuts. Furthermore, women consist of 67% of public sector workers, so their incomes suffer from the pay freeze. Therefore the widening gap between the public and private sector is a contributor to the gender pay gap. Weakened Trade Unions and the emergence of exploitative ‘zero hour contracts’ also disproportionately hurt women, as women form the majority of part time workers.
I have every bit of respect for May for the challenges she has faced as a female politician, but real feminism means equality for all women, not just a privileged few. Unless we can build an economy that is not based on exploitation then the gender gap is doomed to continue.