Stop focusing on her gender: start focusing on her politics.
When it was announced that Theresa May was to be our next Prime Minister, I breathed a sigh of relief. With Thatcher standing as the only example of a woman in power in the UK, it felt to me like a second chance to prove ourselves in office – that a woman could be Prime Minister without being reduced to a caricature.
But consider for a moment just how ridiculous that last sentence is. Would any male Prime Minister about to enter Downing Street be concerned about whether he was representing his gender and not the country he was now in charge of? Or whether his shoes would overshadow his policies? Of course not. Men do not worry about whether their capability will reflect badly on men in general. Partly, because they’ve never had to. But also, because we as critics have never made them. A bad male Prime Minister isn’t going to put us off voting for men in the future. When we don’t like male politicians, we don’t like them for legitimate reasons – political reasons.
To treat May as a feminist is to discuss her politics, and not her gender. Instead of focusing on whether or not she’s doing a great job for women, we need to focus on whether or not she’s doing a great job, period. Do women need better representation in this country? Of course we do. Are there still issues disproportionately holding us back? Of course there are.
So contact your MP. Protest. Write angry Facebook posts. Vote for the other side. Vote for a woman on the other side – but only if they’re the best candidate. Essentially, handle it the way you would any other political issue without expecting special treatment because you share some anatomical features with our Prime Minister. Because all our Prime Ministers, male or female, should be working to improve the conditions of 51.7% of the country, not just May. But we haven’t held Blair, Brown or Cameron to account on their feminist records. Instead, we’ve seen the leopard print heels and Tory label and used that as a way to pull her down. If you don’t like her for her Conservative policy, that’s fine, you’re entitled to it. But don’t use feminism as another guise to criticise her unless you’re prepared to do the same for all our previous Prime Ministers.
Feminism is, at its heart, about equality. Treating a female Prime Minister differently and expecting her to act differently because of her gender, whether that’s in your favour or not, is not equality. It’s still holding us back. The best thing that May can do in the long run for women is demonstrate that we are equally competent in high political office.
Feminism is not just about the ends – equality for women. The means are equally important. We have to arrive there through a legitimate political process in order for the change to be lasting. And part of that process is the desensitisation of having a woman in office.
The leader of the UK is now a woman. As feminists, that’s definitely a reason to celebrate. But then we need to get back to the real work. We should be putting women’s issues on the political agenda regardless of the party or person in charge. Feminism is as much about changing attitudes as it is policy, and it’s time to start with ours.
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