NOTTINGHAM, England — Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May once famously wore a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt and has been vocal in her support for women — much more than her only female predecessor and fellow Conservative Party member Margaret Thatcher.
Yet May has remained a divisive figure among the feminist community in this country, which will invoke Article 50 on March 29, leaving two years for Britain to leave the European Union. Doubts over May’s commitment to women’s rights and pushing an equality agenda were most recently compounded by the image of her holding hands with President Donald Trump on her first state visit to the United States in January. The photo incited derision and embarrassment by the British people and media (and it is not included in the government photostream).
May’s track record of supporting women’s rights appears dichotomized. On the one hand, she has supported legislation aimed at tackling domestic violence (including an inquiry into how police treat victims), increased protections against female-genital mutilation and supported shared parental leave. In 2005, May helped to found the organization Women2Win, which encourages more women to join the Conservative Party as members of Parliament.
Most recent figures put the number of women in the British Parliament at 30 percent, amazingly one of the highest rates in Europe but far lower than the rate in Nordic countries.
Since becoming prime minister less than a year ago, May has appointed women to positions of high office in her government, including the first female Lord Chancellor, who is responsible for the independent functioning of the British court system. All these moves by May have resulted in women holding half of the so-called Great Offices of State for the first time in British political history.
The Government Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or FCO, also recently appointed Joanna Roper as its first special envoy for gender equality. This is quite a turnaround for a department that missed all of its equality and diversity targets in 2014.
The FCO’s target of having 28 percent of women in senior-management positions by 2013 was achieved only last year. While the representation of women in senior-management positions is still low at 30 percent, Roper credited both May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for driving a feminist agenda in the foreign office.
Yet in May’s previous role as Britain’s longest-serving secretary of state for the Home Department (which is responsible for internal affairs in England and Wales, including immigration), she was accused of being responsible for organizing the state-sanctioned mistreatment of female immigrants in Britain.
Allegations of unlawful detention, sexual abuse, racism and harmful conditions have all been made against staff members at one immigration-removal center, Yarl’s Wood, the largest center holding women and families facing deportation in Britain. In April 2014, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, was prevented from inspecting Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office as part of her investigation in Britain. The situation is still highly charged, with protests against the facility taking place recently.
May also has a history of supporting government austerity cuts that have adversely affected women, particularly lower-income and BAME women (black, Asian minority enterprises). Before the Chancellor presented Parliament with his 2017 budget, outlining government spending, the independent Women’s Budget Group compiled a briefing detailing the impact of social-security cuts on women since 2010.
The briefing makes clear that austerity cuts disproportionately affect women over men. Successive cuts to child-related payments, housing benefits, tax credits and a reduction and cap on unemployment benefit, as well as stricter eligibility requirements imposed on disabled people or single parents have all had devastating effects on lower-income families. Analysis of the budget after it was published shows that the government is continuing with cuts to work benefits and tax freezes. That means that the poorest women in Britain will be worse off financially each year by 2020.
While May has appointed many women to positions of high authority in her government, there have also been some questionable appointments under her watch. In December last year, the unopposed appointment to the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee, tasked with holding the government to account on its equality policies, went to a male Conservative member of Parliament, Philip Davies. The decision was met with outrage by many feminist organizations and women in Davies’s own constituency.
Davies previously said that that the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee name should not include a reference to women and he has personally attempted to block the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty meant to protect and prevent violence against women. This move by Davies was made despite May’s urging Parliament to ratify the Convention.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, Britain’s leading charity promoting gender equality, told PassBlue: “Mr. Davies clearly has a lot to learn about equality and feminism. So he is in the right place.”
Smethers continued, saying: “Judging by his performance so far, I don’t think that the Chair [of the Committee] feels terribly challenged by his [Davies’s] presence. Alongside him on that Committee are some of the most dedicated and impressive feminist parliamentarians. . . . I look forward to seeing him try to keep up.”
Sophie Walker, who runs the Women’s Equality Party, the country’s only political party dedicated to campaigning for gender equality, issued a statement when Davies was appointed, offering a different view: “It is shocking that no other Conservative MP cared enough about equality to put themselves forward against a man who has denied that violence against women and girls is a problem in the UK. His election to the committee, backed by at least 15 fellow Conservatives, raises serious questions about just how much the party of Government really cares about women’s equality.”
Whether the Conservative Party really cares about women’s equality is a recurring question, irrespective of May’s personal attempts to ally with feminists. The party has a poor record of female representation in Parliament and currently has only 70 female to 261 male representatives. The other main political party, Labour, has a more impressive ratio of 101 women to 129 men.
The topic of representation of women in Parliament has recently been in the public spotlight as the Women and Equalities Committee advised the government to introduce a gender quota of 45 percent in Parliament by 2020 with its members being fined if this target is not reached. Currently, women represent only 30 percent of ministers of Parliament, placing Britain 48th globally for parliamentary gender equality and lagging behind countries such as Zimbabwe, El Salvador and the No. 1 country, Rwanda.
The introduction of gender quotas has long been contested in Britain, but the Women’s Equality Party has welcomed these proposals.
Its representative told PassBlue: “If women held equal power, the whole country would benefit. Women’s experiences would be better reflected in the decisions Parliament takes. Our economy would grow more strongly. Violence against women and the specific needs of women in our health service would be taken more seriously. To this end, Women’s Equality Party have concluded that — as a temporary measure — quotas will be necessary to drive substantial change. Progress otherwise will simply be too slow.”
The representative added, “Quotas will not, as some claim, permit mediocrity: on the contrary, drawing on only half this country’s talent in politics and business diminishes the effectiveness of our whole political system and economy.”
Despite the government stance, the Conservative Party remains less enthusiastic for gender quotas. A spokesperson for Women2Win said: “In the mid-90s, the Labour Party introduced a system of all women shortlists for Labour-held seats. This has been effective in terms of numbers; however, as always there are mixed views about the benefits and disbenefits of quota systems. The Conservative Party would prefer to continue to make progress without the introduction of a quota system.”
One of the greatest barriers to increasing the representation of women in Parliament, however, is the treatment of female politicians. A recent survey by the BBC found that an overwhelming majority of female ministers of Parliament had suffered online and verbal abuse, with some reporting threats of violence or death. After the politically motivated murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016, many female MPs professed to worrying about their own safety and that of their families.
Yet when asked what measures it was taking in response to the concerns, the Government Equality Office did not provide a direct answer to PassBlue but instead provided statements made on International Women’s Day, March 8, by members of the government.
The Government Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening, said in one of the statements: “We have seen the gender pay gap in the UK fall to its lowest level [18.1%], and have more women sitting on the boards of Britain’s top businesses than ever before. We have our second female Prime Minister and women now make up an unprecedented third of the House of Commons. . . . I am proud that the UK is leading by example, and becoming one of the first countries to introduce gender pay gap reporting requirements.”
At the UN, the lack of visibility of women among the British delegation is glaring. Britain holds a permanent seat on the Security Council, but its current delegation rarely includes a woman in that setting, just as Russia and China rarely do. France recently increased the presence of women in its delegation at the Council, while the US remains the only Council member of 15 countries to be led by a woman.
In Britain, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Early Years, Caroline Dinenage, commended government progress for women, noting such advances as Cressida Dick being appointed the first female chief of the Metropolitan Police.
Amid these gains, public support for gender equality in Britain has been evident. Marches took place all over the country in solidarity with the women’s marches in the US, immediately after the Jan. 20, 2017, inauguration of Donald Trump, who has boasted of assaulting women. There has been vocal criticism in the media and other outlets against the perceived regression in attitude toward women’s rights, and the public is often quick to condemn those in the public eye for expressing outdated attitudes toward gender equality.
On a television program, “Good Morning Britain,” the journalist Piers Morgan was roundly criticized for his comments lambasting the women marching against Trump as “rabid feminists.”
Yet there remains an underlying hostility to the concept of feminism in Britain. In its Sex Equality 2016 report, the Fawcett Society found that only 7 percent of people identified as a feminist, with that statistic rising only to 19 percent of young women.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote last June, which was coupled with a rise in hate crime across Britain, many feminists have been worried that securing women’s rights and gender parity in the country could slip to an even lower priority as the government begins negotiations with the European Union to leave that circle.
But as Smethers at the Fawcett Society, said: “Clearly, there are those who feel emboldened and given permission to express views which otherwise would be thought to be unacceptable. They won’t win. We’ve only just got started.”
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Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.