Rosa Prince is the author of “Theresa May, the Enigmatic Prime Minister” (Biteback Publishing, 2017) and “Comrade Corbyn” (Biteback Publishing, 2016).
LONDON — The history books are likely to remember Theresa May as the prime minister who was handed the tortuous task of negotiating a Brexit deal and failed to get it through parliament.
Admirers of the former prime minister are however keen to point to another, far more positive legacy. Beyond the symbolism of being Britain’s second female premier, they say May was a proud champion of women-friendly legislation and increased female representation in parliament. A whole generation of female Conservative MPs were boosted in their political careers by Women2Win, the mentoring and pressure group she helped set up in 2005.
“I’m also proud to have played my part in getting more women MPs in this House [of Commons],” she said, during her last Question Time as prime minister. “And I’m sure that amongst the women in this House today, there is a future prime minister, maybe more than one.”
History may be less kind to May’s efforts. While she once happily agreed to be photographed in a T-shirt declaring “This is what a feminist looks like” (David Cameron, then Conservative leader, declined an invitation to do the same), she later drew criticism for going quiet on the issue as PM, complicating her image as a powerful advocate for women’s rights.
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When May entered Parliament in 1997, she was one of only 13 female Tory MPs, a breed so rare that a Labour MP who encountered her in the lobbies assumed she was of his tribe and steered her in the wrong direction to vote.
Margaret Thatcher had stood down as prime minister just seven years earlier, but there remained, particularly at the grassroots level, an expectation about how a Tory MP should look and behave, and May had struggled to win selection as a candidate.
Once she got onto the famous green benches, it was a different story. The party’s leadership noticed her intelligence and poise and swiftly promoted her, seeing in May a valuable asset to counter the battalions of media-friendly “Blair Babes” on the Labour side. She also soon acquired the party’s women and equalities brief, a title she would hold for a number of years.
Sarah Baxter, who worked for her at the time, said that while May had not shown a particular interest in gender issues ahead of the appointment, she quickly came to find the subject absorbing and developed detailed policy on shared parental leave, teenagers and body image, and female genital mutilation.
“She started to reclaim gender policy. It wasn’t an exclusively Labour thing anymore,” said Baxter. “It centralized the equalities agenda and made it less scary for Conservatives.”
Not everyone was convinced — especially on the other side of the aisle.
Harriet Harman, who was minister for women at the time and a leading voice on gender issues, remembers May as an opponent of affirmative-action policies such as all-women shortlists and legislation such as the 2010 Equalities Act, which replaced and strengthened previous anti-discrimination laws.
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“We were having a battle in the Labour Party about all-women shortlists, but every radio station or TV program I went on talking about the need for all-women shortlists so we could get greater women’s representation, Tory HQ would send out Theresa May to pop up and say: ‘This is all political correctness gone mad.’ She was not just not supportive, she was siding with the men against me. She was a drag anchor,” Harman recalled.
May’s feminism was certainly of a different stripe to those of her Labour rivals — but her supporters deny this means she was less committed.
“Being for women’s equality was a kind of signal to modernity. It was an electoral move, to make the Tory Party seem more in tune with modern Britain” — Harriet Harman, former Labour minister
“I think she was a natural feminist,” said Baxter. “It wasn’t just the policy work, it was the way she conducted herself. It’s something I personally learned from her — that it’s OK to be feminine and care about what you wear, but still be powerful and career-orientated. That’s something that wasn’t completely accepted then but it’s something she felt very strongly about. It’s OK to be feminine and a leader.”
Anne Jenkin, or Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, who co-founded Women2Win with May, agreed. “She says: ‘Do it your way. You don’t have to be like a man.’ And I think that’s good advice.”
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When May became chairman of the Conservative Party in 2002, she set herself the task of reforming it and encouraged more women to get involved.
She famously warned delegates at that year’s Conservative conference that they were seen as “the nasty party” and considered to be out of touch and unrepresentative of modern Britain. She also began to put measures in place to make the selection process more welcoming for female candidates.
Harman, the former Labour minister, suggested May’s efforts weren’t just about leveling the playing field for women, but may have been part of a more cynical bid to improve the party’s standing among female voters.
“I think she realized people thought the Tories were an old-fashioned, misogynist party,” Harman said. “Being for women’s equality was a kind of signal to modernity. It was an electoral move, to make the Tory Party seem more in tune with modern Britain. I don’t think it was rooted in the rage against women’s subjugation that drove us.
“Her line of argument was: Let’s get women in, in order to get women to vote Tory in order that we can get into government,” she added.
As with so many policy areas, May’s travails with Brexit were the death knell for her work on equalities.
Whatever the motive, the campaign itself was successful.
There are few women sitting on the Conservative benches today who do not owe a debt of gratitude to May, said Jenkin. Women2Win, which they founded together, helps female Tories become candidates and then win their contests to enter parliament.
There are now 66 female Tory MPs, and virtually all of them have benefited financially or otherwise from Women2Win.
“Theresa May changed the conversation on female candidates in the Conservative Party,” said Maria Miller, a former Conservative women and equalities minister.
“For too long women’s representation in the House of Commons was not balanced, overwhelmingly coming from the Labour benches. Theresa May helped ensure women have a strong and distinctive voice coming from a center-right perspective as well.”
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By the time May became home secretary as part of the coalition government in 2010, she had found a formidable voice pushing for the introduction of female-friendly legislation in the form of her special adviser Fiona Hill.
Hill was an advocate of policies that would go on to define May’s legacy on gender issues, including tackling modern slavery and domestic violence.
Some have even suggested it was Hill, rather than May, who was the driving force behind two ground-breaking pieces of legislation in particular: the 2015 Modern Slavery Act and the 2017 Domestic Violence Bill. (May’s loss of her majority after the 2017 election means the Domestic Violence Bill has yet to pass, but the Johnson government is expected to swing behind it.)
Others argue that May’s choice of battles betrays a lack of commitment to tackling the root causes of Britain’s gender imbalance.
“To be against human trafficking does not alter power relationships in this country,” said one longtime campaigner. “It does not alter them in the home, the workplace or anything. It was something which she could do, she could be praised for. But it wasn’t subversive of the power structures.”
May’s focus on domestic violence was “a good thing to do” but also “an easy thing to do,” the campaigner said, adding: “There are few men who oppose tackling domestic violence.”
She has also drawn criticism for not taking a more decisive stance on gender equality while she held the country’s highest office, though the fact that she didn’t fight hard to advance such issues while PM is perhaps hardly surprising.
While leader, and particularly while heading a minority government after 2017, May found herself held hostage by her own daily fight for survival, unable to set the agenda, her time almost entirely consumed by Brexit.
As with so many policy areas, May’s travails with Brexit were the death knell for her work on equalities, said Baxter.
“I’m sure there were some incredible ideas on equalities which she would have liked to have done, but Brexit just sucked the life out of everything,” added Baxter.
It was a missed opportunity, Jenkin acknowledged, citing the 2018 anniversary of women winning the vote and the accompanying #AskHertoStand campaign, which encouraged women to run for office, as events with which May failed to fully engage.
“I personally felt a bit disappointed that she didn’t do more then,” Jenkin said.
She didn’t have the time, Jenkin added, but she may also have underestimated the potential impact of continuing to push those issues forward.
“She didn’t seem to realize that the legacy of Women2Win and increasing the number of women is as good a legacy for her as Brexit — or failing on Brexit.”