Conservative Party Modernisation 4: Feminism, Feminization and the Conservative Gender Problemon 16 April 2015
By Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs
Conservative party modernization, from 2005 onwards, was to have a female face. The presence of a greater number Conservative of women’s bodies would serve as a simple heuristic, confirming that the ‘nasty’ Tory party, identified by Theresa May MP, was no more. Cameron was very clear: under his leadership the party would address the scandalous under-representation of Conservative women in Parliament. The strategy also reflected a desire to win over the woman voter - she who had been tempted away by Blair would be targeted by Conservative policies that reflected the gendered reality of women’s contemporary lives in the UK. And in its 2010 manifesto the Conservative party offered a series of liberally feminist policy offerings. Here, was a modern Conservative party with policies designed to appeal not to the 1950s woman, but to the modern working woman with children. At the Election itself, more Conservative women MPs were elected to the House of Commons than ever before – more than doubling their number. It was easy to conclude that the Party was more feminized than before.
Cameron’s gender honeymoon was, as all honeymoons inevitably are, short-lived: the all-male Quad that negotiated the Coalition Agreement were accused by women MPs of all parties of male bias in their desire to see anonymity given to rape defendants – a symbolic and substantive failure to ‘act for’ women? The Fawcett Society took the Government to court over the failure to undertake a gender equality audit of the ‘Emergency’ Budget; and newspapers were soon, and thereafter regularly, filled with stories of disillusioned women voters walking away from the party. Overarching all this was an economic policy that was accused of putting tax and spending cuts ahead of women’s economic security. According to the Women’s Budget Group, women would be, by very definition, most affected by government cuts: women are more likely than men to be the users, employees, and beneficiaries of the welfare state. The Coalition’s Plan A stood in stark contrast to the WBG’s ‘F’ Plan. Feminization in this context looked off.
The Representation of Women’s Bodies
With a month to go, women candidates currently constitute about a third of all Tory candidates, similar to Labour. But when compared by seat safety the effectiveness of Labour’s All Women Shortlist policy becomes clear once again. Most Conservative women candidates are not in the best seats; most of Labour’s women are. For advocates of representational parity, the feminization of the Conservative party in this respect has still a long way to go. Were the numbers of Conservative women MPs to decline at this election, then the possibility of quotas would almost certainly be revisited – and may in these circumstances receive more support than once thought possible; given the likelihood that the numbers of Conservative women MPs will now increase, critics may resist such feminization efforts.
The Representation of Women’s Issues, Interests and Perspectives
Turning to the inclusion of women’s issues, interests and perspectives, the Conservative record is highly contested. An array of liberally feminist policies introduced by the Coalition is notable, reflecting societal changes, the legacy of New Labour, as well as the efforts of liberal feminists within the Conservative party itself. These include: greater flexibility in parental leave; the right to request flexible working; greater state support in the tax system for childcare; and various measures taken, domestically and internationally, to address women’ health, and violence against women (VAW). The commitment to protect NHS funding and overseas aid also had a significant gender dimension. On the other side, critics ask if the Coalition has found it easier to act in a legislative fashion (symbolically) rather than provide the necessary funding to support such interventions (substantively). The privileging of marriage acts as a reminder too of the limits of Conservative feminism in the social sphere. But it is at the macro level that a feminist critique of the Party’s neo-liberal economic policy comes to the fore: it finds the Coalition Government guilty of making women pay for an austerity economics that was and is both a left/right and gendered political choice. This charge maps onto feminist debates about whether feminism is by definition on the left, as resurgent socialist feminists suggest. According to this interpretation the contemporary Conservative party cannot be considered feminized because its actions - the interests that it is advocating - are not in the interest of women. Conservatives will of course contend that what constitutes women’s interests are not necessarily feminist; that the substantive representation of women does not equal the feminist substantive representation of women. In other words, that Conservatives and the Conservative party are, by focusing on reducing the deficit, ‘acting for’ women.
Rosie Campbell is Reader in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. She tweets @RosieCampb. Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol. She tweets @ProfSarahChilds.