“Theresa May is exactly what a sister looks like,” Ruth Davidson said in her speech to Conservative party conference, responding to the claim by Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman that “Theresa May is a woman – but she is no sister.”
In that speech, Harman described May as a “drag anchor” on equality. When Labour was in government the now-Prime Minister opposed the Equality Act because it would be a burden on business, and she has voted against Sure Start centres and tax credits for childcare.
Davidson, on the other hand, argues that May’s very life experience makes her a feminist, and that her personal history of breaking down barriers is enhanced by her efforts to encourage more women into politics, and to combat domestic abuse, modern slavery, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
Davidson accuses Harman of “bathing in left-wing sanctimony”, while Harman argues that Labour — which still has more women MPs than all the other parties combined — is and always has been “the party of and for women and for equality”.
So how should we read this dispute?
First, it is a sign of progress that parties are fighting over who holds the most feminist ground. For Harman and May — who entered parliament in 1982 and ‘92 respectively — this is undoubtedly a welcome shift.
It’s unsurprising that, as trailblazers in their parties, who have spent decades running into barriers, neither one likes to have her feminism called into question. And plenty of people, like Davidson, are frustrated by the perceived policing of what is and isn’t feminist.
But these disagreements are central to gender politics in the UK and they should be thrashed out. May and Davidson approach feminism from a classically Conservative perspective, which lauds the hard-won achievements of individual women and trusts that their success will trickle down.
On those terms, the Tories are definitely (as they like to believe) the party of equality.
And of course, Labour women hate that in any respect they are being outdone. Harman said at conference that “there’s not one of us here who isn’t smarting” that on female leadership Labour is lagging behind the Tories, the SNP, the Greens and (albeit briefly) Ukip.
But that doesn’t shake their belief that on substance, Labour remains the party of gender equality because it tackles the structural barriers affecting women in politics and society.
This is classically leftist feminism, under which problems of inequality should be met by interventionist solutions. If women aren’t succeeding in politics, then all-women shortlists should be introduced. If women’s careers are suffering because of childcare costs, then tax credits are needed. If businesses are discriminating then new equality legislation should be introduced, whether the private sector likes it or not. And if austerity policies are consistently disproportionately hurting women, then those policies should be radically altered or abandoned.
For someone like Harman (full disclosure: I agree with her), opposing policies that remove structural barriers to women’s success – as May consistently has – is anti-feminist. Just as one or two working-class people rising to the top don’t change Labour’s overall assessment of the class system, two women rising to the top of the Conservative party aren’t going to change its assessment of Tories.
But what about Davidson’s claims that May’s work on gender-based violence demonstrates her feminism? On one level, it does. Her concern with issues like modern slavery seems genuine, and certainly distinguishes her from Margaret Thatcher, who had no interest in protecting or empowering other women.
However, the work that May does on these issues is hampered by the anti-feminism of her broader political approach. Britain’s fight against trafficking is currently massively compromised because border security resources have been redirected to controlling the inflow of refugees and migrants.
While May introduced a law against “coercive control” by abusive partners, Tory cuts to police resources and domestic violence shelters during the same period left many victims at greater risk than before.
And, of course, any concern that the Prime Minister has about gender-based suffering seems to stop at the gates of the Yarl’s Wood detention facility for asylum-seeking women.
It’s easy to argue that Labour is wasting its time squabbling over who is and isn’t allowed in the feminist clubhouse. But since the Tories are deliberately using the “equality party” moniker to campaign for women’s votes, they should probably get used to Labour’s feminists fighting back.