Theresa May must be dreading her meeting with Donald Trump. She knows – she must know – that Trump’s contempt for women extends to her. But she has decided that however much he intimidates, insults or outright humiliates her, she will grit her teeth and grin through it. She has decided that, given his position of power, she has no other option.
That’s a calculation every woman has to make from time to time, when faced with a misogynist in a position of power. It’s a deeply unenviable position, and I’m not about to judge her personal choice.
However, May’s political calculation – that she’s not going to challenge Trump’s misogyny – is much more troubling. As is her attempt at a feminist rebrand of her own political cowardice.
Last weekend, she told Andrew Marr that:
“The biggest statement that will be made about the role of women is the fact that I will be there as a female prime minister, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, talking to him, directly talking to him, about the interests that we share.”
Firstly, this statement grossly understates Trump’s misogyny. Look to his treatment of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel and you see that he doesn’t feel the need to show respect to powerful women.
But secondly, and more importantly, May’s statement represents the worse kind of elitist feminism, premised on the idea of trickle-down gender equality. The Prime Minister seems to believe that her success can pass by osmosis to other women around the world, that change will continue to happen of its own accord.
This myth of inevitable change is highly seductive to those in power, who theoretically oppose inequality, but don’t want to risk their own privileges by rocking the boat. But it’s absurd in the current context, when the rights of women and minorities are being stripped away.
That the UK has a female leader will hardly comfort the women most vulnerable to the Trump regime’s policies: poor women around the world whose reproductive healthcare is under attack, the black women disproportionately subjected to police violence, the migrant women whose rights are being trampled, or those on the frontlines of the changing climate.
They don’t just need a woman in the room with President Trump, they need an advocate. And May – a leader who literally wears the feminist t-shirt – is not willing be that advocate.
Nor should we believe her claim that, because the special relationship is built on honesty, she’ll be willing to call out Trump’s unacceptable behaviour in the future. With a normal leader, it might work that way: you build up good relations so that, when a line is crossed, you can be a constructive critic.
But it’s already clear that there’s no virtue in taking a strategic or rational approach to relations with Trump, and that criticising a man so sensitive and erratic will always be enormously risky. If May isn’t willing to take him on now, she’s not going to change her tune in two years’ time, when the economy is more precarious and Britain’s relationship with Europe is even worse.
Today’s meeting will set the tone for the next four years, and if May chooses to forgo even the mildest of criticism, she will have to deal with the political consequences. Like any male leader who talks a good game on equality but shirks the hard work, she’ll have her commitment to women’s rights questioned.
Because “being there” is not enough – feminism is about hard work. While May relies on the symbolism of her presence, Trump’s actions are concrete: spending cut, services closed, laws changed.
A photo op with a female PM might demonstrate that some little girls can aspire to the highest political office, but it does nothing about the hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare spending about to be lost to the global gag rule.
Trump’s first week in office has been as bad as we feared, and worse. If May has nothing to say about that, she should probably get a new t-shirt.