Not a Feminist Victory
Theresa May looks set to be Britain's second female prime minister, now that Andrea Leadsom has quit the Tory leadership race. It would be wrong to hail this as a victory for feminism. May's record as home secretary suggests that her government would be especially punitive for women at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, or with precarious migration status.
Aderonke Apata, an LGBT rights activist from Nigeria, was told by Home Office lawyers who rejected her asylum claim last March that she could not be a lesbian because she had children. May described Apata's fight against deportation as a 'publicity stunt'. Time and again during May’s tenure at the Home Office, people fleeing countries where homosexuality is illegal were asked to explain why they didn’t ‘look lesbian’ or why they didn't attend local Pride marches; others were subjected to extensive invasive questioning about their sex lives; some even felt compelled to provide documentary evidence of their sexuality.
May launched a campaign for equal pay in 2008, so should be aware that the gender pay gap is a stubborn problem for women. But the Cabinet she sits in, and policies she has voted for in Parliament, have made the lives of millions of women materially worse through benefit cuts and sanctions. May’s raising of the minimum income threshold for migrants has split families apart, and again harms women more than men, because women earn less in the first place.
Much of the fanfare over the feminist implications of May’s promotion fixates on the importance of role models: women and girls need 'to see it to be it’. But to see a role that is filled by very few people at all filled by a woman does you no good if poverty is entrenched in your local community, or if your family is deported because you aren’t rich enough. You can aspire all you want, but if Britain's structural inequality persists, bolstered by austerity, power will still be the preserve of the few, even if a few of the few are women.
Being a woman doesn't mean you automatically have a sense of solidarity and kinship with all other women: competing class and economic interests often override it. And in May’s case, though she has promised that 'the Conservative Party will put itself – completely, absolutely, unequivocally – at the service of working people', all the evidence so far suggests that the interests of the wealthy matter more to her than poor women. As with Britain's first female prime minister, May's elevation represents a victory for some women, but they're the women who need the least help.