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20 March 2017

Hang on Theresa May, there definitely are setbacks people face “because they’re girls”

The PM has made feminists look weak and whining, when really we're just asking for the chance to be equal. 

By Helen Lewis

Theresa May has been interviewed by US Vogue and after reading it, I am making this face:

During the interview, there’s a bit where the writer accompanies her to a school in Maidenhead, and adorable children ask her questions. First, there’s this:

“If you had a superpower, what would it be?”

“I think I’d want to make sure that everyone in the world had access to clean water and sufficient food, so that we didn’t see people starving,” she said.

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This isn’t so much a superpower, though, is it, as a description of politics? I mean, this is literally the point of that 0.7 per cent GDP target for overseas development, because there are lots of places in the world without access to clean water. South Sudan is experiencing a famine right now. Maybe mention this next time you see Priti Patel, Mrs May. It will BLOW HER MIND. (Also, if you’re a charity leader, maybe send her a cape.)

Then there is this:

“What advice would you give to girls who want to be prime minister?”

“Be yourself,” she suggested. “And if you have any setbacks, don’t ever think it’s because you’re a girl.”

But… but… what if some of the setbacks you face are because you are a girl?

I get the appeal of right-wing bootstrappery, which tells people not to wallow in misery, but let’s not overshoot here. Theresa May has done many solidly feminist acts, including tightening the law on FGM. I’m pretty sure that’s a “setback” which happens “because you’re a girl”. She’s also demonstrated a commitment to tackling domestic violence, promising to stop survivors facing their abusers in court. Again, domestic violence is heavily gendered: almost all incidents which end in death are committed by men against women. That kind of gender-based violence is explicitly a “setback” you might face because you’re a woman. 

In fact, in her very first speech as prime minister, Theresa May spoke about the pay gap, which doesn’t happen by some kind of mad cosmic coincidence to divide along gender lines. Listen to the wise words of Theresa May of June 2016, Theresa May of March 2017: “If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.” Or even listen to the Theresa May of the previous bit of the Vogue interview, who reacts to being confronted with the fact that in 1997 the Tories elected 13 women, when Labour elected 101, by admitting: “The party did have a problem.” In other words, the selection process was (and is) biased against women; our political culture was (and is) hostile to women; and women’s lives and caring responsibilities make it harder for them to get involved in politics. There are any number of setbacks you can face if you want to be prime minister “because you’re a girl” (or even a bloody difficult woman). 

It’s disheartening that someone like Theresa May – who has quietly worked behind the scenes to make the Tory party less systemically biased against women – should feel the need to deny the reality of structural sexism. Why do it? There are setbacks that women face just because they’re women. I know it’s tempting – and far less radically challenging to the status quo – to argue that you, particularly, are different and that your success is proof that anyone can do it, by insisting that really, most women just don’t want it enough, have different interests, aren’t naturally interested in power or earning money or STEM subjects, or whatever the latest trend is. But that’s pure Cool Girl exceptionalism. 

Denying that there are setbacks we face just because we’re women makes feminists look weak and whining, when really we’re just asking for the chance to be equal. 

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