Theresa May as PM: A Victory for One Woman, Not All

25/07/2016 12:16 | Updated 25 July 2016

When May and Leadsom were the last (wo)men standing in the race to Number 10, the headlines proclaimed triumphantly, 'The next Prime Minister will definitely be a woman!'. In Cameron's final PMQs, he boasted about the Conservatives' track record on female Prime Ministers, 2-0 up on Labour. And when Theresa May took her place in office, she began appointing fellow women to key positions, with Amber Rudd in the Home Office and Liz Truss as the first ever female lord chancellor.

This has been lauded as a great feminist victory, and when you take it for face value, it would be easy to believe it was such.

In some respects, it is a step in the right direction - showing that it is possible for a woman to make it to the top job, not once, but twice (even if it is by less-than-democratic means). Thatcher wasn't just a one-off blip in the male-dominated order of things; another woman has managed it too. And while Thatcher was notoriously bad at promoting other women, appointing just one female cabinet member over her 11 years of premiership, May has at least made some effort in this regard.

But in other respects, the victory extends no further than the two women it concerns.
This month, Professor Sarah Childs of the University of Bristol has published her report 'The Good Parliament', concluding that "the House (of Commons) remains unrepresentative and its working practices continue to reflect the traditions and preferences of Members who have historically populated it." While measures have been taken to make Parliament more women-friendly, she notes, such as the use of gender quotas by political parties, the establishment of a parliamentary nursery, and the provision of childcare vouchers for MPs, still a very masculine culture exists, and women are chronically underrepresented.

Even when female politicians succeed in being selected, elected and promoted, they are subjected to different standards than men. As Jo Swinson points out, "the media covering our politics is much more of a boys' club than Parliament itself". And when the media is so pivotal in shaping our perceptions of Westminster and the wider world, this matters perhaps just as much as the gender balance of the House.

For instance, it continues to remain the case that female MPs are much more harshly judged by their looks and appearance than their male counterparts. It's the archetypal sexism, its pettiest form - women judged by their prettiness, rather than their intellect - and yet it continues to permeate the media in 2016.

In a more serious vein, women MPs also face a disproportionate barrage of abuse and threats online. 44 female Labour MPs recently signed a letter to Jeremy Corbyn prompting him to take action on this issue, claiming there is a "worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility towards MPs", and it is women and BAME women who are the hardest hit. I wouldn't call that a climate of gender equality.

And finally, the current trend is to pit our two female PMs against each other: 'Is this the new Maggie?'. It's as if to say, 'wow, TWO women have made it, they must share some rare, magical gene that makes them as good as men, because this isn't meant to happen'.

But more importantly, inequality runs much deeper than liberal feminism's 'add women and stir' approach can handle. Thatcher and May did well for themselves, sure, but their policies do very little for women at large. To consider their victories a victory for all women is to ignore the many more cleavages in our society - can this truly be considered a victory for LGBT women, migrant women, working class women, when Leadsom opposed gay marriage, May has deported women facing rape and violence, and Thatcher 'smashed the glass ceiling and pulled the ladder up after her'?

Not only does May's premiership offer no reflection of equality in Parliament, but it actively impairs progress towards equality in society at large. And the kind of feminism that considers that a huge victory is not a feminism of which I want to be a part.