Theresa May, PM: a feminist victory or a step backwards?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three weeks (which, to be honest, would probably be host to fewer slimy creatures than the current political environment), you’ll have noticed that we’ve had quite the shake-up. We voted to leave the EU; David, Boris, Nigel and Michael ran off into the sunset; Labour capitalised on all this by self-combusting.



Yesterday, our new Prime Minister had an audience with the Queen and officially accepted her new post, the formidable task of uniting a badly-shaken nation lying ahead of her. Born in 1956 in East Sussex to a vicar and his wife, May was educated, like many other British Prime Ministers, at Oxford University. After working in finance for two decades, she became a local councillor, before finally becoming MP for Maidenhead in 1997. She’s served in a number of roles, most notably as Home Secretary from 2010. Ken Clarke has labelled her a “bloody difficult woman”; Andrea Leadsom has suggested May’s lack of children might make her a less empathetic PM; nobody has so far managed to write a piece about her without mentioning Maggie Thatcher (and it looks like I’ve failed too). There’s a lot to unpick in the media’s recent discussion of her, and, as we are repeatedly reminded, not all female leaders are feminists.

So what does May mean for the women of Great Britain?


A quick Google of “Theresa May feminist” offers up a lot more wariness than it does encouragement. So where does May score points for feminism? For starters, she has succeeded in her own personal trajectory, an encouraging example for a gender still far too underrepresented in politics: from lowly political beginnings, she was appointed the first female Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2002 (something that surely ruffled the feathers of a few old Bullingdon boys), and rose up the ranks to become Britain’s longest-serving Home Secretary.


In 2008, May launched the “Ending Violence Against Women” strategy, committed to creating 15 new rape crisis centres across the country. In 2014, speaking at the UK Girl Summit, she put into motion plans to confront FGM and forced marriage, pouring £.1.4 million into a National FGM Prevention Programme, run alongside NHS England. In the same year, May introduced legislation against emotional abuse from partners, ruling that “coercive and controlling behaviour” could be penalised by five years in prison and a fine.



In 2011, as Minister for Women and Equality, she “slapped down” MP Dominic Raab’s suggestion of “anti-male discrimination” in the workplace in relation to maternity leave rights. May wanted to introduce flexible parenting leave, or “shared parenting”, which would mean (when it was finally introduced in April last year) that, “the employer will not know whether it’s the male or the female who is in front of him for employment who will be taking time off to look after a baby”, something she dubbed “an important step in dealing with discrimination.” May continued, in reference to Raab, that “we should be trying to get away from gender warfare and the politics of difference – but I might suggest to him labelling feminists as obnoxious bigots [as he had previously done in 2008] is not the way forward to do that.” Drop mic.


Outside of her political roles, May has been a strong advocate of cross-party gender equality. Not shying away  (like some politicians we could mention) from the term “feminist”, May recently stated that “it’s that age-old question that some people don’t like the term ‘feminist’ because they think it portrays a certain type of woman […] To me, it’s about ensuring there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity.” In 2005, May co-founded Women2Win, whose mission is “to ensure the Conservatives fairly represent women at all levels of the party”, most visibly by getting more Conservative women elected to Parliament. In light of her work, the Fawcett Society (the well-known charity for womens’ rights, first set up in the late 1800s to support the fight for women’s suffrage) nominated her as one of their Inspiring Women of 2006. Many expect her to roll out a much more gender-equal Cabinet over the next few days. From promoting women’s sport to celebrating female business achievements, May has a clear commitment to improving opportunities for (at least a slice of the country’s) women.



But it’s not all hearts and flowers. The Conservative Party’s austerity measures hit women hardest. Some have queried, “can feminists be right-wing?”, suggesting right-wing austerity-peddlers such as May “do not care about women who have zero hour contracts or are on benefits, about mums who can’t afford child care, or about the many being crushed by laws and circumstance at the bottom of society.” And despite May’s campaigning for Women2Win, women only make up 20% of Conservative MPs, compared to 44% of Labour’s MPs, prompting some to ask how much power a woman can wield within a right-wing worldview.

  • LGBTQ+

Although she supported same-sex marriage, May was criticised for voting against greater adoption rights for homosexuals in 2002 (though later claimed to have changed her mind), and later caused more outcry in the LGBTQ+ community when the Home Office sought to deport Aderonke Apata to her home country of Nigeria, where she could be executed under anti-gay legislation, claiming that her previous long hair and her children didn’t “prove” her homosexuality.


Aderonke Apata


One of the most controversial and quoted of May’s strikes against feminism came in 2010, when she scrapped the “go orders” scheme planned by the previous Labour government to protect women from domestic violence by prohibiting abusers from entering the victim’s home. This was swiftly followed by another strike, in which she closed the “ContactPoint” database, a list of details of every child in the country, allowing authorities to track the adults they came into contact with in the case of abuse.

Many are worried now about May’s, in the wake of Brexit, to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, which does a lot to uphold women’s employment and maternity rights. She has previously voiced a desire to have abortion laws changed in the UK, reducing the limit to 20 rather than 24 weeks.

On May’s watch, vulnerable refugee women, fleeing sexual violence, have been deported.  One of May’s most polemical moments in politics came from inaction. Her failure to close Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire last year, following reports and even a Channel 4 documentary that suggested self-harm, racial and sexual abuse were rife amongst guards and inmates, led to a barrage of criticism from fellow politicians. In general, her sense of helping other women seems to stop at a certain point: as her track record shows, migrants do not receive her sympathy.


Demonstrators protesting Yarl’s Wood


It is not in my future to believe that the future is bleak. Not all is bleak for women in this new, alien, post-EU era, but it’s certainly not all rosy either; the gender of our new PM doesn’t allay my fears as much as I’d hoped it would.. Whilst May has undeniably done and will undoubtedly continue to work at getting a certain demographic clearer rights and visibility, it is worrying that her feminism seems to be blinkered. Once again, I turn to my favourite definition:



If Mrs May is to convince us of her feminist salt, she will act for all women, “regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, religion, ability, and sexual orientation”, and not just those who it is convenient to help.

Until next month,

~ Sophie

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