Women to the Right: The Ascendancy of Women in Conservative Politicson 2 July 2015
By Julie Gottlieb
It’s a perennial problem. How do we make sense of political women on the Right, especially those strong formidable women who defied stereotypes of the domestic drudge who would never dream of voting otherwise than her ‘man of the house’, the meek housewife very much at home in patriarchy and the paragon of family values, or the well-heeled and usually titled socialite exercising her power behind the throne? Margaret Thatcher was never convincing as her husband Denis’ domestic goddess, though she tried hard to project herself as the household budgeter projected onto national level, consumer of all things M&S, and breakfast cook extraordinaire. Even less so does suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst play to any of these stereotypes, but she nonetheless ended her days as the Conservative Party candidate for Whitechapel and St George, a fact that today’s Conservative Women’s Organisation is only too pleased to celebrate on their website.
Indeed, we are just a couple of years off the centenary of women having the right to sit in the House of Commons —the first to take her seat was the American-born Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919. Women are finally winning the numbers game. While in the lead-up to the 1997 General Election Labour’s Tessa Jowell remarked that “There are more Members of Parliament called ‘John’ than there are honourable ladies in this House,” the gaping gender gap was soon filled with ‘Blair’s Babes’ after Labour’s landslide. The Conservatives have followed suit (or should we say, frock), with 48 Tory women holding seats in the last Parliament, while on 7 May this year 68 of the 331 elected Conservative MPs were women, nine of whom are in the David Cameron’s new Cabinet.
For many it grates sharply that these are women who got their chances in politics and in the Conservative Party thanks to the achievements of modern feminism. Certain expressions come to mind, like ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’, and ‘don’t be your own worst enemy’. Marxists have tried to explain such problems away with the epistemological panacea of ‘false consciousness’. Political scientists and psephologists (people who study elections) have remarked on a slightly different but related condition of the ‘Shy Tory’ to understand how pollsters have more than once failed to predict a Conservative Party win—in 1992 and now again in 2015.
This is not just a British phenomenon, although it is interesting how Thatcher is acknowledged as the trailblazer the world over: an icon for women who seek to emulate her success, and a demon in the eyes of those who refuse to allow for any ideological or psychological compatibility between women and conservatism.
Few would deny that what we are witnessing is the ascendancy of women on the Right. The trend is clear: the enduring popularity of the three-term Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany; the notable successes of women in the 2014 European elections (including the steady rise of Marine LePen and the far right party that she stewards); the visibility of women at all levels of the US Republican Party (think Condoleezza Rice and Sarah Palin, and now Carly Fiorina’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination); and the Presidency of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of the conservative Democratic Union HDZ in Croatia.
There is a new dynamic at work here as the Right is allowing itself to be feminised; as conservative women are owning their femininity and their achievements as women; as centre Right and far Right parties see that female leadership can pay electoral dividends; and as strategists calculate that there is mileage in some brand of conservative feminism. The question is not so much whether all of this is really happening before our eyes, but, rather, is any of this new: Should we be so surprised by the success of the women on the Right, and of the mobilization of women by the Right?
Certainly the phenomenon is not new. It was at a precise moment in history that hostility to women on the Right soared. This was when the Women’s Liberation Movement pitted itself against, and in diametrical opposition to, “Right-Wing Women”. The well of feminist ire runs deep, and it reached floodtide during the era of the New Right in the Thatcherite-Reganomics-Christian Majority 1980s. Under the expanding shadow of the American New Right and Thatcherism in Britain—both of which were interpreted as a direct or causal reaction to the Women’s Liberation Movement—feminists established a relationship of polar opposition between the Right and true, self-respecting womanhood. Feminists started to identify a new menace: to democracy, to feminism, to liberal ideals- in the form of “Right-Wing Women”.
This was most vividly portrayed in Andrew Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women (1978/ 1983 British edition) and Beatrix Campbell’s equally disapproving but not quite as visceral Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory? (1987). Dworkin especially was in search of an explanation for the retreat of Women’s Liberation, and the many assaults on the Women’s Lib agenda. Rather than place all the blame on the undeterred forces of patriarchy and male authoritarianism, she could see that Right-Wing women (a terrible stigma) were complicit in the political and social reaction against liberal democracy and feminism.
The New Right was tricky and devious: a misogynist hydra. As Dworkin wrote: “It has succeeded in getting women to act effectively against their own democratic inclusion in the political process, against their own civil equality, against any egalitarian conceptions of their own worth.” Beatrix Campbell started from much the same premise, although with rather less fury than Dworkin. Campbell was motivated to understand how it was that “the right depends on her but don’t take her seriously, for sexist reasons, and the left can’t stand her and don’t take her seriously, for equally sexist reasons.”
A few years later American liberal-feminist journalist Elinor Burkett took a more empirical approach to the phenomenon of the Right-wing woman. Visiting them in their respective habitats, she interviewed a cross-section of soccer moms, and Republican and libertarian women, coming to the conclusion that “nothing exposes the hypocrisy of feminists more than a Faludiesque lack of respect for women they don’t agree with, for women who don’t work outside their homes, who aren’t liberal, alienated from traditional religion, pro-choice and overtly feminist.” Burkett was calling out radical feminists for essentialising political enemies of their own sex. But what still needs to be noticed is how, for all these commentators, the “Right-Wing Woman” remained an object, even a species, of much curiosity and baffling complexity.
Last year American neofeminist Naomi Wolf brought the Dworkin tradition up to date in her interpretation the rise of women on the European far Right, while Glenda Jackson’s anti-eulogy for Thatcher in the House of Commons—when she said that “The first Prime Minister of female gender, OK. But a woman? Not on my terms” — packaged the longstanding leftist-feminist interpretation in a nutshell.
As emotionally persuasive as they may at first be, could it be that these partisan positions actually stand in the way of understanding what is going on here? Indeed, more than ever it is vital we get to grips with Right-Wing women, and make sense of a powerful political cocktail that shows no signs of losing its potency. This is because it looks very much like we are now living in the ‘long Conservative century’. Whether we like it or not, women are and have been central to that success story.
Julie Gottlieb is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield. She tweets @JulieVGottlieb.
On 29-30 June 2015 the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group was pleased to co-sponsor a conference on Re-thinking Right-Wing Women, hosted by the Conservative Party Archive at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Collaboratively organised by Julie Gottlieb (University of Sheffield), Clarisse Berthezene (University of Paris-Diderot) and Jeremy McIllwaine (Archivist, CPA), the event featured papers on a wide variety of aspects of gender and Conservative politics. The event is leading to a volume on Women, Gender and the Conservative Party from 1880s to the present to be published as part of the New Perspectives on the Right book series hosted by Manchester University Press. This blog is one of a series by contributors to that event.
Image: DFID CC BY