The traditional histories of feminism situate the rise of organised movements advocating women’s rights to emerge from the Liberal Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. The key figure, it is argued, is Mary Wollstonecraft, a radical progressive activist. Yet the story of feminism in the United Kingdom is not necessarily one dominated by the politics of the left. In Wollstonecraft’s era arguably the conservative voices of Hannah More and Maria Edgeworth were more influential in raising issues concerning women’s role in the newly industrialised nation. They were followed by other little known conservative campaigners such as Emily Davies, co-founder of Girton College Cambridge; Frances Power Cobbe, pioneering journalist and activist; and Lady Constance Lytton, suffragette and hunger striker.
So what does this tell us about Theresa May, a self-identified feminist?
Role models are important but being feminist is not about being the first to the top, rather about advocacy of equality for all women.
It is important to note that she is not revolutionary but one of a long line of Conservative women taking leadership roles: for example, Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament; Katherine Stewart-Murray, the first female Scottish MP and the first woman to serve as a junior minister in a Conservative government; Florence Horsburgh, the first Conservative woman cabinet minister; and of course, Margaret Thatcher, the first UK female prime minister. May herself has contributed to this trend by appointed a woman, Amber Rudd, to one of the four major offices of state, as Home Secretary. The problem is that the party easily forgets this proud heritage and focuses instead on personal and individual achievements. Role models are important but being feminist is not about being the first to the top, rather about advocacy of equality for all women.
It is here that Theresa May’s record is more mixed. She founded Women2Win, an organisation to encourage the selection of more women parliamentary candidates for the Conservative party. In her parliamentary career she has also raised awareness of and campaigned on issues such as domestic violence and female genital mutilation.
Her keen advocacy of policies such as the forcible detention of vulnerable female asylum-seekers and her support of spending cuts which have a disproportionate impact on poor, non-white women illustrate that at best her commitment to feminism is only partial.
However, her hard-line stance on issues such as immigration and welfare benefits demonstrate that on key and substantial policy matters she is gender blind. Her keen advocacy of policies such as the forcible detention of vulnerable female asylum-seekers including those who have suffered sexual violence and her support of spending cuts which have a disproportionate impact on poor, non-white women illustrate that at best her commitment to feminism is only partial.
Conservative feminism should be more than a celebration of the individual achievements of already privileged and powerful women. Theresa May should look to the past and consider emulating the unsung conservative women who devoted their lives to labouring for the rights of all women. It is only then that she can claim to be a feminist.
See more by Dr Sarah Richardson here.