Liz Truss, the Conservative who has been selected to be prime minister of Britain, was hailed as a trailblazer by some in her own party. Conservative MP Vicky Ford gushed, “This means so much to so many women across the world!” Truss is also part of what the Washington Post has deemed “a historic moment”: for the first time ever, none of Britain’s four most powerful government positions are held by white men.
For her part, Truss hasn’t hesitated to talk gender, calling herself a “Destiny’s Child feminist” in a 2019 BBC interview. Wow, what does that even mean?
Ready to explain this ridiculous formulation, Truss said she thought women should be “independent,” while the Labour Party wanted to “paint women as victims.” The comment was a reference to “Independent Women,” an irresistible two-decade-old hit by the group that launched Beyoncé. With lyrics like “I depend on me,” “All the mamas who profit dollars,” and “All the honeys making money,” it’s not a bad neoliberal anthem. For extra girlboss atmospherics, in the video, the group members sit around a corporate boardroom table.
Truss’s theme song is catchy capitalist propaganda, but it was released in 2000 (it originated as part of the soundtrack to the Charlie’s Angels film series launched that year — a throwback in itself, reviving the 1970s TV series — but was so popular that the group included it on an album and gave it new life). That seems appropriate: there’s nothing new or groundbreaking about Liz Truss’s brand of right-wing feminism.
This week, Labour MP Marsha de Cordova said on Twitter that while Truss’s cabinet was diverse, it was also going to be “the most right-wing in living memory, embracing a political agenda that will attack the rights of working people, especially minorities.” Indeed, the new government plans to continue racist policies, like deporting many political asylum seekers to Rwanda.
What’s feminist about “Destiny’s Child feminism”? As left feminists have been pointing out, not much. Truss has supported making street harassment a crime, but that’s surely one of the most conservative ways a politician can be “feminist”: criminalizing everyday behavior is always popular among right-wing voters. In contrast, she has had little to say on reproductive rights, and her new health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, is anti-choice.
As historian Laura Beers pointed out last week, Truss doesn’t seem to have much solidarity with ordinary women. The austerity policies she supports — despite the economic crisis in Britain — disproportionately harm unmarried women workers (as her TV interlocutor also pointed out in that 2019 BBC interview). Pointing out that women were bearing the brunt of the UK’s current economic crisis — more likely to be poor, more likely to depend on government benefits, spending more of their income on housing costs — Hannah Fearn argued in the Independent that Truss has “played an active role in creating the economic climate women are now suffering in.” As an MP and as a Cabinet minister, Truss has consistently pushed for cutting welfare benefits and reducing taxes on the rich. In this way, she seems to be just another (if less rhetorically impressive) Margaret Thatcher, who was criticized by left feminists for the same reason.
Of course, some of us (admittedly not as many) have criticized Hillary Clinton for similar contradictions. For those of us who were often pilloried by mainstream liberals for pointing this out in 2016, it’s been rich to see Clinton herself grapple, since then, with the idea that female leadership isn’t inherently feminist.
Recently, upon learning that the new Italian right-wing prime minister–elect was a woman, Clinton said, “Every time a woman is elected of head of state or government, that is a step forward.” She admitted that she didn’t know much about the new far-right leader, Giorgia Meloni, and that right-wing women were chosen by their parties in part because they are “often the first to support male power and privilege.” But still, as my Jacobin colleague David Broder pointed out, there is no way that electing a far rightist like Meloni can ever be a “step forward for women.” Meloni has spoken of the importance of “God, Fatherland, Family” and of the government’s role in increasing birth rates. Her party supports policies that tie welfare eligibility to motherhood and make abortion more difficult to access.
Yet Clinton, despite her confused comments on Meloni, has been on to the right-wing paradox for a while, telling journalist Ali Vitali that she wouldn’t be surprised if the first woman president of the United States came from the Right. In her new book, Electable, Vitali points out that in some countries it has been easier for right-wing women to become heads of state than for liberal, centrist, or left-wing women. Clinton might be right about the reason: right-wing parties know that right-wing women will support the patriarchy through their politics and policies.
Electing a woman is also an effective way to market unpopular, anti-woman politics in a way that looks feminist and modern. One of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s supporters told the New Yorker, referring to the openly Islamophobic, far-right congresswoman’s attacks on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and the Squad, “A woman needs to be up there to counteract some of the women that are there already.” At one point, Theresa May, the UK’s last conservative woman PM sported a T-shirt that read “This is what a feminist looks like.” (Yikes.) Centrists have tried to do the same thing to make their own unpopular politics seem more woman-friendly (viz., Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, as well as the entire career of Kamala Harris).
How can the Left counter this nonsense? Of course, we must debunk the marketing and call out faux feminism wherever we see it. We must also develop female leadership of our own. On our side of the Atlantic, it’s heartening to so many socialist women winning seats in government these days, but it’s hard to imagine any of them winning even a Senate seat anytime soon, much less the presidency. And as many feminists on the British left have noted — and conservatives, including Truss, have gleefully trumpeted every chance they get — it’s embarrassing for the Labour party that the Tories have chosen so many more female heads of government than they have (3-0!).
It would be even more disgraceful — and more frightening — if Marjorie Taylor Greene goes farther in our own political system than AOC or Rashida Tlaib.