Why have the UK’s female leaders been so bad for women?

Written by Laura Kelly on 5 June 2019 in Comment

The UK’s second female prime minister is no more a feminist ally than the first, says Laura Kelly

Laura Kelly - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Curse my empathetic liberal heart!

While many on the left were pleased to flaunt just how little sympathy they had for Theresa May, as her face, voice and career crumpled under the weight of our intransigent politics, I couldn’t quite stifle my fellow feeling for a woman defeated by an impossible job.

Because it is so frequently a woman left to do the job that no one else wants, isn’t it?

Many women who’ve found themselves in leadership roles – wherever they fall on the political spectrum – will have experienced an unpleasant jolt of recognition as they watched the man-boys around May tipping over the cart, then damning her for the bruised apples.

Theresa May’s liberal left opponents are right to criticise the lack of empathy from her government.

Yet between the racks of newspapers with their extreme close up of the moment the tears started to fall, and the laughter that filled my social media timelines, their response to her departure smacked not of anger at her law-making but school bully delight that the woman was crying.

It is true that you cannot be what you cannot see, and so a female leader has at least a totemic power for a country.

For a friend’s young daughter, May’s leadership was aspirational, showing that a girl can grow up to take over the highest position in the land.

She was genuinely upset when her dad told her that the new PM would likely be a man.

If May’s prime ministership had borne a stronger resemblance to the principles she avowed in her resignation speech, perhaps I could have joined this young fan in feeling the feminist pride I sorely want to.

“The unique privilege of this office is to use this platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society,” she told us, Trump-like in her disregard for reality.

May was no ally to those facing or fighting inequality.

Even the phrase ‘burning injustices’ was revealed as queasily breathtaking in its insensitivity, when she went on to claim the Grenfell Tower inquiry as a triumph of her leadership.

This was a tragedy, lest we forget, in which 72 people died in a horrific inferno – and which highlighted the deepening division between rich and poor in the UK’s capital city.

The people in the Grenfell Tower died, in large part, because their voices, their fears for the safety of their homes, were not listened to under successive years of Conservative rule.

Just days before she left office, a scathing UN report into extreme poverty in the UK said that, since 2010, the government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, meanspirited and often callous austerity policies.”

In a report that the UK Government deemed “barely believable”, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

Alston spent two weeks travelling the UK, visiting some of our most deprived areas and listening to people who are struggling to survive under a system that he likened to a “digital and sanitised version of the 19th century workhouse”.

He found people choosing between heating their homes or eating, children turning up to school with empty stomachs, increased homelessness, soaring food bank use, and “story after story” of people who had considered or attempted suicide.

Public policy is rarely framed on gender lines, but the truth is that changes to the social security net have a disproportionate impact on women.

The degrading, and rightly despised ‘rape clause’, which imposes a two-child cap on tax credits unless the mother can show a third or subsequent child was born through rape, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The decision to make one Universal Credit payment per household catapulted us back to a 1950s model of family life – and left women facing domestic violence vulnerable.

Universal Credit penalised single-parent families, with studies showing that they could lose up to £200 per month.

As 90 per cent of single-parent families are headed by women, these cuts have disproportionately hit mothers.

These same mothers are also more likely to face benefit sanctions, because although job centre staff can waive work requirements based on parenting duties, they are not bound to.

May has made no attempt to adopt a feminist perspective to try to correct this injustice.

Meanwhile, for political expediency, she has abandoned Northern Irish women to abortion laws that are so restrictive that the UN called them a daily violation of the human rights of women and girls.

May has chosen the precarious support of the DUP over the bodily autonomy of women in her own country – though they live under harsher laws than the Alabama legislation that has recently caused worldwide outrage.

So no, the UK’s second female prime minister is no more a feminist ally than the first – despite her much-publicised invite to celebrate ‘girl power’ at the Spice Girls’ reunion.

Feminists have long wrestled with the fact that it is not enough to have women in leadership positions.

There is a heap of structural reasons why the women who reach the top may pull up the ladder behind them, rather than raising up their successors.

The response to May’s tears proved that they are right to fear that many are waiting for them to show the slightest sense of weakness.

They may also have had to take on some of the characteristics we normally associate with men in order to get ahead.

Repeated studies have shown that workplaces tend to reward confidence over competence.

An array of self-help books, most notably Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, have aimed to help women project the confidence of their male peers.

These structural issues are naturally at play when it comes to the leadership of the country – but it would be obtuse to ignore the other thing that Thatcher and May have in common.

They are both Conservatives, both right wing and they both behaved as right wingers do.

We can be disappointed, even sometimes horrified, but we should not be surprised when they enact the kind of legislation their worldview supports.

We can, however, ask why the UK’s biggest left-wing party has never elected a female leader.

We can, sadly, only imagine what the country would look like if Yvette Cooper had faced Theresa May across the despatch box, rather than Jeremy Corbyn.

Last year, John McDonnell said that the next Labour leader must be a woman. He is right. It is time that we had a progressive woman in 10 Downing Street.

Labour has the talent. Unlike May, Stella Creasy has put her political and personal life at risk to continue fighting hard for the women of Northern Ireland, for no personal benefit.

In parliament earlier this year, Jess Phillips railed against the very cuts that the UN report decried, proving that she could wield emotion as a powerful weapon against injustice.

Whilst May crumpled as she wept only for herself, Phillips’ tears were those of a formidable stateswoman – and one who could change our country for the better.

Time to step aside, Jeremy.

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