Last year, when the race to Number 10 was down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, leading Tories wasted no time in flaunting the party’s feminist credentials.
“We will have a woman Prime Minister,” declared Iain Duncan Smith. “The Conservative Party, yet again, leading the way on this.” The situation, tweeted Boris Johnson, proved his party to be “the most progressive in Britain”.
Such claims were never particularly convincing at the time. Anyone with a genuine interest in how British politics treats women already knew the score. The Conservatives do loophole women: individuals who rise the top, but only on condition that they leave others behind. Labour do actual feminists, women who see female liberation in collective rather than individualistic terms, but would rather not have one such creature leading the party.
Neither approach is ideal (but as each of us knows, a woman can’t have it all). Nevertheless, if we were to revisit last summer’s ridiculous “who’s the most feminist” face-off, it’s pretty clear the Tories would have to admit defeat. No party in the process of making a deal with their “friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist Party” could possibly claim to be “the most progressive in Britain”.
As Suzanne Moore writes in the Guardian, Theresa May is “so desperate to stay in power that she and her party will cobble together a deal with those who would deny women basic reproductive rights”. The DUP has consistently opposed the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, forcing women either to cross the channel for abortions they must fund themselves, risk prosecution for procuring abortion pills, or to carry pregnancies to term even if their foetus has no hope of survival.
That Northern Irish women have endured this for decades has masked its barbarity to those on the outside. One commentator has claimed that “the DUP (and Sinn Feinn) have been running NI for years now without it being The Handmaid’s Tale”. Well, no. They haven’t demanded the compulsory wearing of the red dresses just yet. Given their impeccable record on treating female human beings as vessels, one could say they don’t really need to.
It is unlikely, for the time being at least, that women in the rest of the UK will have to face the same restrictions on their reproductive freedoms. From a feminist perspective, this is not the problem with the Tories reaching an agreement with the DUP. When Conservative backbencher Owen Paterson told the Today programme that “you might get a debate, I suppose, on further reduction of abortion times as medical science advances”, he was not speaking from a position of authority. The DUP are unlikely to make such an issue a priority in any future agreement.
Bu what this does do is make it even more difficult for any future pressure to be applied to grant women in Northern Ireland the same limited choices as women elsewhere. The unhappy compromise granted to those in England, Scotland and Wales – whereby abortion remains a criminal act, albeit one permitted under certain circumstances – may still hold, while for Northern Irish women, all hope of change recedes. Standing still will be repackaged as progress. This is unacceptable, if not particularly surprising.
Today’s Tory Party may not wish to appear openly anti-feminist. Any vote on abortion would be a free vote, with the implication that it is a complex question of personal religion, philosophy, understandings of medical progress etc, and not the rather simple one of “do you think pregnant women are human or not?”
Nevertheless, even if one sets aside questions of reproductive choice, modern Conservatism remains firmly in favour of the exploitation of female bodies. No Tory politician will dare admit it in so many words, but low-and unpaid female labour remains essential to their concept of freedom for everyone else. This is why austerity has hit women the hardest. It is natural and necessary for human beings to depend on one another; in order for the Tory vision of self-sufficiency and independence to maintain any credibility, female reproductive and domestic work must be rendered invisible. The DUP may take this a step further than the Conservatives, but the underlying principles remain the same.
It is less than a year since the Telegraph asked “Is Theresa May Britain’s most feminist Prime Minister ever?” No one would ask it now (not that anyone is necessarily deserving of such a title; “least misogynist” might be a more reasonable point at which to start).
Even so, what is happening now does not teach us anything new about the Conservatives and their attitude towards women’s rights. Of course they’d sell us out, and they’d get a woman to do it too. It’s not a so much a compromise as an article of faith.