In an interview for the Guardian, Harriet Harman MP is quoted as saying: “We mustn’t muddle up Theresa May with a champion for equality. There are some in the new intake of the Tory party who take the feminist agenda seriously but actually I don’t think Theresa May does.”
While I’m glad that Ms Harman recognises that Tories can be feminists, her comment about Theresa May is disappointing. The Home Secretary’s assertion that she is a feminist can be seen in this photo of her wearing the Fawcett Society t-shirt. (I have one of these myself. Very comfy, but a bit too thick for summer.) If a woman has declared herself a feminist, it is hardly appropriate for others to say that she is not one.
However, as Home Secretary as well as Minister for Women and Equalities, Ms May will inevitably have her hands tied on a number of policy issues. It would surely be a better use of resources, and a less risky strategy, for Cabinet Ministers only to hold one brief.
In the same interview, Ms Harman answered the question of whether the coalition is anti-women with: “No, it is anti-public services and anti-public spending, but the fact that women are hardest hit is something they just don’t notice. Basically they have no idea of women’s lives and the impact on them of these cuts. They are not gender aware.”
Ms Harman is partly right – but only because she hasn’t recognised the fundamental difference in Conservative and Labour definitions of state and society. Conservatives see the state and society as quite different spheres, while Labour present them as heavily entwined. Ms Harman is therefore correct to suggest that legislation passed by this Government is not gender aware, but wrong to suggest that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats don’t notice women’s lives.
As a liberal feminist, I consider that there is no logical reason why women’s lives should be different from men’s lives. There is no intrinsic, essentialist difference between women and men which means that women are bound to lead certain lives. What makes men and women different is the way in which society treats them. Some of this is biological – women obviously give birth – but much of it is down to social expectations.
I recognise that the cuts will have a disproportionate impact on women, but the solution is not to make legislation which discriminates in favour of women. The state should, as far as possible, make gender neutral legislation. The fact that these cuts are likely to have a greater impact on women is contingent on the different lives women lead – and that is an issue for society. Using the power of the state to lessen the impact of the cuts on one section of society is firstly a short-term measure and secondly a blunt instrument which it would be difficult to properly focus.
Instead of treating the symptom, we need to get to the cause. We should challenge social expectations, increase choice and provide opportunities for disadvantaged women and girls. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t fit well into a five-step project plan, and it doesn’t come with a shiny new piece of legislation, but working within society for true equality and choice will have a genuine and long-lasting impact on the lives of women.