The Meaning of Theresa May

Theresa May as prime minister, like Thatcher before her, represents a woman given equal opportunity to oppress other women.

Theresa May’s rise from home secretary to British prime minister is being heralded as “a fantastic moment” and proof “the Tories are streets ahead on gender equality.”

In Prime Minister’s Questions this week May took the opportunity to use her party’s history of women prime ministers to score points against the Labour Party: “In my years here in this house I’ve long heard the Labour Party asking what the Conservative Party does for women. It keeps making us prime minister.” She went on to confirm her continued commitment to government spending cuts, justifying austerity as merely “living within our means.”

Behind the celebration of May as an emblem for women’s progress lies a dark reality: May’s pro-austerity politics and right-wing approach to immigration promises a miserable future for Britain’s most vulnerable women.

British women’s participation in politics is a relatively new phenomenon. Through the early 1900s, “womanhood” — particularly for middle- and upper-class women — was confined to the private, domestic sphere. They were expected to be nurturing mothers, good cooks, and prompt cleaners; an ideology that buttressed women’s exclusion from the spheres of politics, power, and influence.

Women only won the vote in the late 1920s, following decades of struggle. In this climate, it was unthinkable to have a woman at the helm of British politics. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, the American feminist struggle made demands — calls for equal pay, equal access to employment, and representation in politics — that resonated with the burgeoning British feminist movement.

These movements’ ideological and legislative victories changed what people thought women were capable of and what aspirations women could pursue. No doubt these victories made Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May possible. As such they both sit in the seat of feminist history, but uncomfortably.

In recent years, the identity of political candidates — Sadiq Khan’s Muslim-ness; Hillary Clinton’s femaleness; Barack Obama’s blackness — has become increasingly important in elections. Identity is often used to bridge the gap between an aloof political elite and ordinary voters. As this gap widens, and our capitalist-aligned political class’s interests become even more detached from the working-class majority, we see more desperate attempts to use identity to connect with voters.

Look at the Labour leadership contest: in almost every interview Angela Eagle repeated that she is the strong female candidate with Northern, working-class roots. Owen Smith pitches himself as the “normal” (read: heterosexual) candidate with a wife. In the Conservative Party leadership contest much was made of Stephen Crabb’s Christian identity and Andrea Leadsom’s motherhood; an attempt to connect to the identities of the right-leaning sections of the public.

Reality contradicts these politicians’ faux solidarity. Women got poorer under Margaret Thatcher, and black Americans have gotten poorer under Obama. Women will get poorer still under May’s austerity in Britain.

The gulf between the ruling echelons’ rhetoric and our experiences widens every day. In May’s first speech as prime minister she mobilized the language of “social justice” for “ordinary working-class families.” But her commitment to austerity will sharpen the difference between rhetoric and reality; a difference determined by class interests that cannot be erased by empty appeals to identity.

This shouldn’t be surprising, of course. Identity does not necessarily signify solidarity. While having black presidents and female prime ministers may reflect the success of previous struggles for liberation, they do not necessarily advance them. What really matters is who these leaders are committed to serving.

Hollow Gestures

Since the Conservative Party’s 2010 election win, May has helped implement an austerity program responsible for cutting public service funding, downsizing the welfare state, and redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich.

Women have been hardest hit by welfare cuts. Increasingly women rely on zero-hour contracts that don’t guarantee enough money to make ends meet, work in greater numbers than ever in part-time work, and have lost more in real wages than men. Parents have turned to food banks to feed themselves and their children, and we know that child care already falls more heavily on women. This pattern is especially true for women of color. In the Midlands, unemployment among minority women in Coventry increased by 74.4 percent between 2009 and 2013.

Refuge, a national domestic abuse charity, estimate that every week two women are killed by a current or ex-partner and three women a week commit suicide to escape abuse. Decreasing economic independence and increasing job insecurity is pushing women back into the home.

Combined with the growing housing crisis, the decimation of social housing, cuts and caps to benefits, and exploitative landlords, many women stay in abusive relationships because they have no other option. The situation is bleaker still: thirty-two specialist refuges for women fleeing domestic violence closed between 2010 and 2014 due to funding cuts.

Migrant women with no status in the United Kingdom cannot access public funds, which prevents them from moving into refuge spaces. As a result, many turn to private renting. But Theresa May’s 2016 Immigration Act empowers landlords to check tenants’ immigration status and to evict those without it. The impact on migrant women fleeing violence abroad and in the United Kingdom has been devastating.

In 2014 May claimed she was “determined, not just to reduce, but to end violence against women and girls.” Her pro-austerity record reveals that this is a hollow gesture to popular morality — a façade to disguise austerity’s brutal neglect of domestic violence survivors. But not only has the prime minister wholeheartedly supported funding cuts to lifesaving services like refuges, she has also covered up the sexual abuse and violence behind the walls of the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention center.

Yarl’s Wood holds migrant women awaiting deportation. Research done by Women Against Rape suggested that 70 percent of the women there are already survivors of sexual violence, a staggering figure that illustrates the extent to which migrant women come to Britain to escape violence. We know from many current and past detainees’ testimonies that the scale of abuse within the facility is vast. But we cannot be sure of the exact figures — not because they are unavailable, but because May refuses to release them.

Her reasoning? To do so might “prejudice the commercial interests” of companies like G4S and Serco who help run the detention center. Blowing the whistle on this abuse could be exactly the kind of exposure that would facilitate “end[ing] violence against women and girls.” But the prime minister remains silent because her allegiance lies firmly with big business and capital, against the interests of vulnerable women in search of homes and safety.

May’s contempt for migrant women does not end there. In 2014 the Home Office attempted to deport Harriet Nakigudde — a lesbian from Uganda who was subjected to corrective rape — because it refused to believe she was LGBT. It was only thanks to the efforts of committed activists and lawyers that she won her case on appeal. Aderonke Apata, an LGBT rights activist who faced the death penalty and homophobic vigilantism in Nigeria for her sexuality, was also refused asylum by the Home Office. These are two of the many women not deemed gay enough or endangered enough for sanctuary within Britain. For them, May is a feminist nightmare.

As Angela Davis wrote in Women, Culture and Politics:

We must strive to lift as we climb… We must climb in such a way as to guarantee that all our sisters, regardless of social class, and indeed all of our brothers climb with us. This must be the essential dynamic of our quest for power.

What Davis meant is that, in our struggle for social progress, nobody — especially the most oppressed — should be left behind. She was commenting on the state of liberal feminism in the late 1980s, when the demands of mostly white, middle-class feminists either ignored oppressed women of color (for example, by omitting the issue of forced sterilization from the reproductive rights movement) or worked actively against them (for example, by calling for heightened police presence in poor neighborhoods of color to combat sexual violence).

May’s record shows that her appointment as prime minister only serves to lift herself and her class. And as she climbs, she is pulling the ladder up with her.

False Choices

Two different worldviews polarize the discussions around Theresa May and feminism. One maps progress onto representation and equality within the system, while the other locates women’s unequal status within the structures, politics, policies, and interests that shape the system as a whole.

Ideological work is being done to bolster the first worldview and obscure our society’s inherent sexism. For example, some are predicting that Theresa May might “add to the new force of Femokratie“:female politicians with womanly qualities capable of clearing messes left behind by male politicians. Some are claiming May is the most feminist prime minister to date. While others argue that May’s position will normalize the place of women in the ruling elite of society, supposedly making it more likely that ordinary women will rise through the ranks.

But what rank can you rise to when you’re a woman in Yarl’s Wood, waiting to be deported to death or corrective rape? Can Theresa May’s gender save any domestic violence refuges from closing?

Ultimately, what is at stake is whether we settle for equality within the system or strive for liberation from it altogether. Theresa May as prime minister, like Thatcher before her, represents a woman given equal opportunity to oppress other women.

The smarter capitalists and their friends in the media will use Theresa May as an opportunity to strengthen the ideology of austerity by painting it with a feminist brush. Hopefully most UK voters will come to see that nothing could be more laughable. A feminist victory worth celebrating would be the abolishment of May’s austerity program and racist immigration policies.