A national campaign against the negative portrayal of female bodies in the media. A cabinet minister speaking out against female genital mutilation. A community march celebrating local women, headed by their female MP. What do these three movements have in common? Maria Miller is responsible for none of them.
Much to the angst of late-rising journalists everywhere, Miller has finally waved her white flag and tendered her resignation from government . No longer will Miller, who has in recent days become an almost comedic villain, preside over the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
This also, means, of course, that she will no longer be Minister for Women and Equalities. Women across the nation mourn.
“Maria is in her job because she is doing a good job as culture secretary,” said David Cameron, when asked if the only reason Miller hadn’t been sacked was because of her anomalous status in the government as a state-educated woman.
However, while she was doing a “good job” as culture secretary, other women seemed to be doing Miller’s job as Minister for Women for her.
This government has a problem with women. The cabinet now has only three women as full members. A similarly tiny proportion of its parliamentary candidates, fewer than three in ten, for next year is female, according to Labour party data. This compares poorly to Labour’s announcement that over half of its candidates for next year are women. Figures published at the end of last year by the Office of National Statistics found that the gender pay gap has increased to just under 16 per cent. This government has a problem with women.
In Miller’s somewhat unapologetic resignation letter, she expressed pride at “putting women front and centre of every aspect of DCMS’s work”. Yet, just under two-thirds of her board appointments in the department went to men. For someone who proclaimed in 2012 that “women are at the heart of economic growth”, there seems to be a certain disjuncture.
Many women and equalities activists expressed dismay when Maria Miller was announced as the new Minister for Women and Equalities in 2012, replacing the hardly-more-popular Theresa May. Miller, who voted in 2008 to reduce the abortion limit to 20 weeks, had hardly been a champion for women’s rights. Maybe, however, this was the moment for her to turn her game around. Maybe Miller just hadn’t previously been given the platform she needed, to promote the women’s issues that really meant the most to her, the issues of childcare and domestic abuse and sexual harassment that women up and down the country face on a daily basis.
Maybe, or maybe not.
Upon her appointment in 2012, the government launched a £2 million scheme to help fund the opening of new nurseries and childcare services. In 2014, Miller attended a Commission on the Status of Women in New York, hosting a roundtable discussion on the challenges facing women in the workplace. Even this, Gloria de Piero, the shadow minister for women and equalities, contends, was hardly enough: “the cost of childcare has risen by 30% since the election whilst support has been cut,” she says. The Government is “out of touch with the reality of women’s lives and struggles”.
The office of Minister for Women and Equalities has existed in some form for over a decade and a half, since Harriet Harman became the first Minister for Women in 1997. Why, then, is the role still so secondary and vague? The existing structure doesn’t help. There is no explicit department for the role and only a relatively limited budget of £47 million. The government’s website doesn’t even let you search within it. Heck, even click through from the link on Miller’s own government blog and you get the message: “This item has been archived.” Broken links online mirror those in life, perhaps. Furthermore, the position is always held in conjunction with another demanding role – Theresa May was Home Secretary at the same time. A role designed to tackle the sidelining of women is itself routinely sidelined.
Nonetheless, other female politicians have managed to overcome this obstacle and have spearheaded initiatives for women, without even having access to that £47 million. In fact, former office-holder Theresa May recently launched the ‘This is abuse campaign’, encouraging teenagers to recognise abuse and #callitout, and understand the meaning of consent. Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson (Miller’s deputy) lead the Campaign for Body Confidence, and Justine Greening has been a vocal campaigner against FGM and early forced marriages.
None of these women, however, are Nicky Morgan, who has been named as Miller’s replacement as Minister for Women. The equalities role has been absorbed into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, now led by Sajid Javid. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Morgan voted against equal marriage (even Miller changed her mind on that one). Morgan has a similar track record to Miller on abortion, and a similar void of activity on any other women’s campaigns. If David Cameron really wanted to prove wrong his feminist naysayers, he could start by appointing some women who will fight for the 51 per cent.
At a time when a Conservative councillor can be found tweeting a picture of half-naked underwear models with the witty quip, “actual photo of the hustings?”, in response to Labour’s all-female shortlists, women need to fight harder than ever to be heard and respected in politics. As our Minister for Women, Maria Miller should have been leading the condemnation of irresponsible parliamentarians. Instead, she became their poster girl.