On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Milly Morris of the University of Birmingham writes for the Social Sciences Birmingham Forum:
Last Sunday, thousands of protesters took to the streets in London to demonstrate their support of gender equality, with a particular emphasis on the gender pay gap. As the rally coincided with the anniversary of some women winning the right to vote in the UK, many protesters wore purple and green sashes in honour of the Suffragettes.
On Twitter, Theresa May shared her support of the march, with a reference to her supposed negotiating approach over Britain’s departure from the EU, with the following message:
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) March 4, 2018
Conservative parliamentarians marched with signs that read “bloody difficult woman” and “a woman’s place is in the House of Commons”, with MPs such as Dr. Tania Mathias calling for “improved female representation in public life”.
So to which women are May and other Conservative MPs referring and what does this say about their feminism? Let’s look beneath the shiny rhetoric of “empowerment” and ask questions about who is being left behind.
Under the Conservative government, women have been disproportionately impacted by austerity, with one study suggesting that 86% of the burden falls upon them. In particular, lone mothers and black and minority ethnic women have experienced a significant drop in their living standards, with many now living in poverty across the UK.
During her time as Home Secretary, May was accused of enabling the “state sponsored abuse of women” at the Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Recently, more than 100 women at the Centre went on hunger strike over the “inhumane” living conditions, including the detention of women who have been abused, with the Home Office refusing to “accept that rape came within the legal definition of torture”.
Apparently May and the government’s feminism is based upon the prioritization of white, middle- and upper-class women’s lives. As Russell Brand wrote about Margaret Thatcher upon her death, such feminism “breaks the glass ceiling” in the sense that other women are “blinded by falling shards”.
Conservative MPs often speak of the great debt that women owe to the Suffragettes. On the “Vote100” anniversary, Justine Greening and Amber Rudd wore suffragette colors in pPrliament, whilst Theresa May called the suffragette activist an “icon”. Of course, it is important to recognise the suffrage movement as an essential part of women’s history. Yet the distant and somewhat mythologised history of the women’s suffrage movement provides the Conservative government with a rose-tinted, palatable version of feminism that caters to non-radical positions on women’s rights.
To be blunt, it is comfortable to talk about the Suffragettes’ heroism because they are dead and cannot further the movement today — and because May and other Conservative MPs never reflect upon the violence that was intrinsic to the women’s movements of the 1900s. One cannot help but think that, if the suffragettes were alive today, this government would turn a blind eye to the unlawful imprisonment and abuse that they suffered, much like the women currently living in Yarl’s Wood.
If one’s feminism does not address the oppression of all women, it is not feminism — it is self-advancement. It is essential that we resist this watered-down, individualistic version of “feminism” proposed by the Conservative government. All this does is ensure that powerful white women keep their “seat at the table” by locking other women out of the room.