I can recall vividly the day Theresa May became prime minister. I was working in a newsroom at the time so her appointment was all the more prescient, as we workers foraged through statements to find an appropriate soundbite for a headline.
I don’t remember the soundbites we chose (three years down the line, does anyone remember anything Theresa May has said?) but a quote from someone else did etch itself on my memory. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, tweeted underneath a photograph of her and May at Downing Street:
It was a strange and uncomfortable notion: the idea that May was de fact a role model for young girls, by virtue of her sex. The idea that this woman, one of the most ruthless home secretaries in history, who had sent countless women fleeing violence and oppression back to the countries they’d left, was now – somehow – part of the feminist narrative.
I’ve been battling with the contradictions that lie within feminism ever since. Who deserves the label of feminist, and why? Does a woman making it to the top of her game – whatever that game is – automatically qualify her? Do tweets about equality from cabinet members on International Women’s Day negate the policies they’ve concocted, which have left many women in the UK in more vulnerable positions than ever? To put it bluntly: does feminist rhetoric - which is easy to partake in and becoming more mainstream by the minute – mean that those in power can shun the responsibility of bringing about real change?
Here are some facts for you: In the UK, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner; one in six women are raped and one in four sexually assaulted; 50% of sexual assault survivors are turned away from refuge centres because there isn’t space; funding for women’s refuges has been cut by 25% since 2010 – with as many as 50 councils receiving no funding at all in this time.
What this means, in practice, is that if you are a woman who has suffered violence or sexual assault, your chances of recovery are slim. The acts themselves, barbarous as they are, merely fire the starting gun for the tragedy that ensues. 98% of women who are raped suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder. These women – and there are a lot of them – face a life of constriction, panic, fear, and emotional distress. All of which are not insurmountable - with the right help and support they can be overcome and life can be bright again. But, with half of these women being turned away from refuges, and with waiting lists for mental health services on the NHS an average of nine months long, how can we guarantee that they stand a chance of a future worth living?
After I was raped in 2017, I registered myself at The Haven in London – one of three NHS-funded centres in the city offering support for sexual assault victims. I was grateful for the services they provided: a mediator through which to report to the police, a one-off one to one with a councillor, and – eventually – a place at group therapy sessions. But all of this was not enough. I was traumatised, grieving, in acute amounts of mental pain – I needed specialist treatment. I was lucky enough to be able to afford it, finding myself a therapist from the Priory specialising in PTSD. And so recovery began.
By my own admission I am in the 1%. What about the other 99%? How are these women supposed to get their future back?
The only chance they stand is if we bring this austerity to an end. I can no longer let people casually refer to themselves as feminists, while supporting a government that is doing nothing to protect the most vulnerable women in society. If you are a feminist, you must campaign to bring about political change. This is urgent. 179 women were killed by men in the UK last year. And this number – though big – is just a number. Each number is a woman. A life lost. Friends and family thrown into grief – more counselling needed; no services to provide it. The circle continues, and it’s more than policy or crime. Violence against women is a public health disaster.
I don’t care what Theresa May wears or what she looks like. I resent the journalists that do, and I resent the fact that they wouldn’t’ care if she was a man. But do I feel sorry for her? No.
And do I think she’s a feminist? Absolutely not.