U.K. Gets A Woman Prime Minister

Did feminism win or lose?


Published:

Theresa May, new Prime Minister of the UK, in front of 10 Downing Street, London.

The UK has a new Prime Minister: Theresa May. Only the second woman PM in the history of the U.K., May is, like her predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, a conservative – a member of the Tory party.

Did feminism win or lose with May taking the helm of #10 Downing Street?

I am neither jumping for joy nor wringing my hands. The fact is, a woman in the role of PM of one of the most powerful nations in the world is always going to be good news because it’s essential women rise to power in the world, irrespective of party. We can’t pretend all the women in the world are to the left of center, even if we want them to be. In the U.S. we have never had a female president and we have only had two female vice presidential candidates of major parties: Geraldine Ferraro, who ran with Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 in the most crushing defeat of any presidential candidate in modern American history and Sarah Palin, who ran with Republican John McCain in 2008. Hillary Clinton will be the first woman ever nominated by a major political party in the U.S. since George Washington in 1789.

There are only six female governors plus the Mayor of Washington, D.C. which is a kind of city-state. Among those, three are Democrats: Gina Raimondo (RI-D), Kate Brown (OR-D), Maggie Hassan (NH-D). Muriel Bowser, Mayor of D.C. is also a Democrat and the only black American. All but Hassan, who assumed office in 2013, assumed office in 2015. Raimondo is the first woman to be elected governor in Rhode Island. Brown is the first openly bisexual person to be elected governor in the U.S.

                                                                               Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR), first openly bisexual governor


The other three women governors are Mary Fallin (OK-R), Nikki Haley (SC-R) and Susana Martinez (R-NM). Each assumed office in 2011 and each is the first woman to be governor of her state. Haley, an Indian American, is also the first Sikh to be elected governor, first person of color to be elected in South Carolina and the youngest governor in the U.S. Martinez is the first female Hispanic to be elected governor outside of Puerto Rico.

Of the top 20 most populous cities in the U.S. only two have female mayors, both in Texas – San Antonio’s Ivy Taylor, Democrat (and a black American) and Fort Worth’s Betsy Price, Republican.

                                                                               Gov. Nikki Haley (SC-R)


With so few women in positions of power in the U.S. (not to mention the world), can feminists summarily discount conservative women and the barriers broken by them?

That’s a question feminism has yet to address. I read a lot of opinion pieces by left-leaning women about Theresa May in the past week. But while all railed that this was not good for feminism and no one could say it was, I couldn’t find a single piece that said May becoming PM was indeed a score for feminism. So why all the columns asserting no one should dare say it when no one did?

I’m going to step out here and be the first then. As someone who actually lived in England during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, I do believe it is a score for feminism that May is Prime Minister. Not because I agree with her politics any more than I agreed with Thatcher’s, who I actively worked against, but because women must assume power in the world.

But before anyone rushes off to leave an angry comment or stops reading, let me explain why.

We have to get women into positions of power in the world. That they will not always be the women we want in power is indeed a net negative. But the world is more than half female. Where is the female leadership? Australia just held yet another election – no women. Same in Canada–and while Justin Trudeau asserts he’s a feminist (men can be feminist allies, but not being women, they really can’t be feminists), he’s not a woman. The misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton throughout the primary has been extraordinary and come as much from the left as the right. 

The most powerful woman in the world right now is Angela Merkel – another conservative centrist – who has been chancellor of Germany since 2005 and leader of the Christian Democratic Union since 2000. Merkel has been president of the European Council, been only the second woman to lead the G8 (after Thatcher) and as head of the most populous country in the EU, has wielded immense power in the EU.

                                                                                    Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany


That May is a conservative is not great news for women OR men. But the Tories (equivalent to a party of moderate Republicans, if we still had those in the U.S.; the UKIP party in the U.K. is more like our Tea Party Republicans–nationalists and social conservative extremists) were re-elected by the UK in 2015 by an overwhelming majority.

(There are 12 political parties in the U.K., including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the three main parties in the central government since the 2015 elections are the party in power, the Tories, the shadow government, Labour and the waiting-in-the-wings-for-someone-to-fail-and-it-to-ascend party, the UKIP, or Independence Party.)

Given that election, it’s no surprise there’s a continuation of conservative leadership. No new election was expected until 2020 and it’s unlikely May, who’s been tasked with stabilizing the nation after a series of men from different parties tossed it into disarray, will choose to hold another election any time soon. But David Cameron – Prime Minister since 2010 – resigned after the disastrous Brexit vote and the Tories rallied to find a successor.

Over the past two weeks two women rose to fill the vacuum left by Cameron and several other highly placed Tory politicians like the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a Tory, and the leader of the UKIP, Nigel Farage. Both men were strident supporters of the Brexit vote.

Cameron and May, who was Home Secretary since 2010 (and the longest serving person in that role in 50 years), supported remaining in the EU.

Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May fought it out until last weekend when a stunning interview Leadsom had given forced her to withdraw her candidacy. Leadsom has held pivotal roles in the U.K., including Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

But Leadsom, who has three children, argued in an interview with The Times (of London) that she was better able to serve as a mother because she understood the future in different terms. That’s the shorter version of what happened and Leadsom was outraged that she’d been quoted, but it led to her pulling out Monday and May ascending Wednesday. Even among the conservatives, claiming a biological imperative to head of state seemed, well, from another century.

Americans don’t understand the Parliamentary system and judging by much of what I have read in recent days about May, nor do many Britons. But when a Prime Minister resigns, which has happened quite frequently since Thatcher resigned in 1990 after 11 years in office – the party finds a new leader to fill the gap if an election is not being held.

And now we have Theresa May.

But there’s also the opposition party–Labour (equivalent to the Democrats), which is also in disarray post-Brexit. In the U.K. there’s a shadow government and at the helm is Jeremy Corbyn, who many consider a very weak leader since the 2015 elections. On the horizon is Angela Eagle, hoping to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. Eagle is First Secretary of State. She’s also an open–and married–lesbian.

                                     Angela Eagle and her spouse, Maria Exall, at their wedding.


The complexities of the parliamentary system aside, a tide has turned in British politics to allow a woman to be PM again and another woman to come within striking distance of being the leader of the shadow government.

Stepping out on that shaky limb again, I am asserting this is a good thing for feminism and a good thing for women. The reality is – much as those of us on the left (in my case, the far left) might want to reject it – the majority of the world’s leadership is conservative and it is also male. The utter mess men on both sides of the aisle made in the U.K. over the Brexit vote is what allowed women – May, Leadsom, Eagle – an opening toward power at all.

I’m hardly going to argue that May will be good for women (or men) because my politics are the opposite of hers. I fear that if the Brexit continues – and she has asserted she will follow the will of the people and move toward that end, despite having supported remain herself – that the very austerity those who voted leave hoped to avoid will be necessary. And with austerity comes danger for women, who are always on the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder.

But should that come to pass, it could very well force an election and if Eagle is able to position herself as the leader Corbyn has failed repeatedly to be, Labour could ascend. Which would mean the first female Labour leader ever in the U.K.

                                                                                                  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia


One of the dirtiest and least secret secrets of the left globally is it is male dominated even more radically than the conservative right. There has never been a female leader of Labour in the U.K., never been a female leader on the left throughout much of the EU or the globe. Most of the current female leaders in the world today – and there aren’t many – are, like May and Merkel, to the right of center. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s leader has been called a "sassy conservative" for combining some left-leaning policies with standard conservative ones. Michelle Bachelet, the socialist president of Chile who was herself tortured under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, has been forced to scale back the majority of her proposed plans two years into her presidency because of conservative backlash (much like the GOP against President Obama in the U.S.).

                                                                                                                                  President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet


South Korean President Park Geun-hye is the first woman to be elected to head a Northeast Asian country (as opposed to India or Bangladesh, which have both had women leaders). She is also a conservative and rose through the ranks of the conservative Grand National Party.

                                                                          President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye


So that question of is Theresa May as Prime Minister a feminist feather? Yes and no. Her speech certainly had the ring of feminism to it, noting gender as it did, but her leadership is unlikely to produce anything most of us would term feminist and may inevitably hurt women, as conservatives most often do.

May pledged to treat all Britons fairly, stating in her address outside the famed black door of 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister, that "Together, we will build a better Britain, not just for the privileged few. The Government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by you."

Those words sound genuine, but with hate crimes on the rise post-Brexit and May herself having to curtsey before Queen Elizabeth II as she received the necessary permission to become Prime Minister, there’s a sour note beneath that hopeful chord.

May gave Cameron credit for having brought same-sex marriage to the U.K. and for stabilizing the economy. She also asserted that she would work for the poor, black Britons, women, the working class. And the text of her speech was very much about class – the same issue that has burned through British life for centuries. The additions of race and gender were words that have never been spoken before by an ascending PM, which made them extraordinarily fresh.

                                               Theresa May and the Queen.


The realities for women globally remain grim. Women are 51.6 percent of the global population, but just 9.3 percent of the world’s leaders in 2016.

We can argue against May all we want – and there will be plenty of time for that as her leadership takes hold. But the reality for women across the globe is our voices are rarely heard. Throughout the U.S. primary we’ve been told again and again about Hillary Clinton’s voice and her clothes and her oratory. Donald Trump said she didn’t "look presidential."

The world is unused to seeing women in power, regardless of their political affiliation. That must change. And if this is another step toward that ultimate and oh-so-feminist goal, so be it. We can hate the politics while also recognizing that this is still change and change that augurs women into power opens the door to other women. Hillary Clinton has, for example, pledged to have a cabinet that is 50 percent women. Since her staff has always been between 40 and 50 percent female, we can believe it.

As for our friends in the U.K., we can hope for Angela Eagle or another left woman leader for the U.K. in the coming months or years while we adjust to hearing a female voice leading Parliament. That itself is a game-changer. And one that should not go unrecognized.

                                                                                                    Prime Minister Theresa May


 Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, senior politics reporter and contributing editor for Curve magazine, contributing editor for Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic won the Lambda Literary Award, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, Ordinary Mayhem, won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians and her next novel, Sleep So Deep, will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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