Sian Norris asks whether the symbolic representation of a female-dominated leadership race will translate to substantive representation of women’s concerns

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The women may not yet be running the show, but they are certainly running. 

Compared to 2019’s Conservative leadership election – when Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom were the only women in the race, only to fall at the first hurdle – 2022’s first round was 50:50 on gender diversity. After Zahawi and Hunt were knocked out, prominent Conservative women made up four of the six contenders to be the next Prime Minister: Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman. 

The gender and racial diversity of the candidates has led to the usual debate about whether having lots of women or black and minority ethnic people is good for feminism and race issues – or whether the diversity of the candidates is a distraction away from their policy platforms. 

The fact is, both are true. Representation matters – both symbolic and substantive. 

Let’s take symbolic representation first. It matters in a country that has only had two female Prime Ministers, and where up until 103 years ago had no female political representation at all, that there are prominent women being considered for senior leadership roles. 

You can’t be what you cannot see, the old mantra goes, and the same applies in politics. That so many women are standing to be Prime Minister, and being taken seriously as contenders, tells us that society’s attitudes towards women holding power have started to shift.

It’s one thing to say you’re a feminist – the symbol – and quite another to do feminism, or the substantive change. 

Of course, they have not shifted anywhere near enough. Women face more abuse, more scrutiny, and more tone policing than their male colleagues. Still, these are girls who grew up seeing women in positions of seniority and recognised they could do the same. Symbolic representation opens a door.   

Before 1997 saw the influx of Labour women, female MPs made up less than 10% (9.2) of Parliament. The year I was born, Margaret Thatcher may have held the top job, but she was one of 23 women in the House of Commons (3.5%). Since then, women’s representation in politics has increased ten-fold to 34% of MPs. Not brilliant, but not as bad. 

Further, unlike in previous years, there’s been little coverage of what the women runners are wearing. The commentary on the Downing Street “catwalk” and Theresa May’s leather trousers are about as passé as kitten heels and skinny jeans. Voters might not like the look of the women’s policies, but at least the focus is not on what they look like.

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What Are They Doing?

This brings us to that question of what is it that they want to do, and will those doings advance women’s equality and representation, or stall it. This is the issue of substantive versus symbolic representation.

The clearest example of when the two forms of representation did not meet is the UK’s first woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was a woman who knew all about the importance of symbols – from the handbag to posing on a tank.

But when it came to substantive representation, she failed to do much at all to advance women’s rights. Indeed, she was entirely dismissive of the notion, saying she owed nothing to women’s liberation. 

Liz Truss, the favourite to make it to the last two, has said she is committed to women’s rights – indeed, she is the Women’s And Equalities Minister, alongside being Foreign Secretary. In her leadership pitch, that commitment has seemed to boil down to being more about recognising women as a biological category than active policies to advance women’s liberation. She has traditionally voted with the Conservative Party on austerity – policies that disproportionately impacted on women’s access to equality. 

Truss laid out her pitch for what equality means in a 2020 speech that focused on agency, signalled by her focus on women’s economic empowerment through entrepreneurship, and criticised an equalities agenda that was led by “fashion” and not “facts”. The speech announced the promotion of new chairs of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, including Jessica Butcher who derided feminism as having a “victimhood narrative” and who worried that working class women were being deprived of jobs due to the demise of Page 3.

In the Foreign Office, Truss has committed to investing in improving access to girls’ education around the world. Getting girls into school is one the main drivers of women’s rights, although the cuts to the aid budget risks derailing laudable efforts.

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Truss’ colleague in the Equalities Office was Kemi Badenoch, who resigned from her ministerial role last week. The ‘anti-woke’ candidate has put a lot of focus on trans rights in her campaign. Her attitude to feminism seems to follow that of Butcher’s – when Labour MP Stella Creasy was campaigning for maternity rights for MPs, Badenoch warned that “we should not present ourselves as victims” and that “asking for more privileges looks like golden-skirt feminism to improve the lot of well-paid MPs”. Her comments raise the question as to whether maternity leave should be considered a privilege or a right… free-market Brexiteers have long seen it as the former.

Badenoch has generally voted in favour of abortion rights, although did vote against allowing telemedicine for abortion back in March. 

Vying for anti-woke candidate status is Suella Braverman, who again has focused on trans rights in the contest as an avatar for her position on women’s rights. Braverman was much criticised for using the phrase “cultural Marxism”, an anti-semitic dog whistle that also portrays feminism as an enemy of society. It’s not clear whether she was aware of this meaning.

Like Truss, she has supported the austerity agenda that did significant harm to women’s access to equality. She has also consistently voted against abortion rights, including voting no on extending telemedicine, introducing a law change that brought abortion rights to Northern Ireland, and decriminalising abortion. 

The last candidate is Penny Mordaunt, a former Minister for Women and Equalities and one who used that position to speak out against the barriers women still face, particularly the gender pay gap and sexist stereotypes. She is pro-choice, although has abstained on some abortion votes. Mordaunt is loyal to the Party line – someone who rarely rebelled on Government policy, therefore supporting austerity and the subsequent impact on women’s equality. She’s known for being an ardent Brexiteer, with leaving the EU causing some concern in feminist circles about the impact on women’s rights. No longer being governed by European regulations could lead to a rollback on protections for workers, with women disproportionately impacted.


Feminist Minds, Feminist Bodies

The issue of symbolic versus substantive representation is about whether Parliament has feminist minds, or feminist bodies. 

It’s perhaps less true now, with the woke wars putting feminism out of fashion on the right, but over the past decade it has been much more common – and comfortable – for MPs to declare they are feminists. Even Theresa May sported a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt, a long way from her predecessor disavowing women’s lib. 

But it’s one thing to say you’re a feminist – the symbol – and quite another to do feminism, or the substantive change. 

May is a case in point: while she made positive steps on issues of modern slavery and introduced the Domestic Violence Act, her harsh migration policies led to women being trapped in domestic abuse situations because they had no recourse to public funds to escape their homes, and rape survivors being held in detention centres such as Yarls Wood. 

In contrast, the 1997 Parliament had fewer feminist bodies – but plenty of feminist minds. Women MPs were more wary of using the term to define their politics, not least because the word ‘feminist’ had come to be associated with negative stereotypes in the backlash against the women’s liberation movement.

But not calling themselves feminists didn’t stop them from pushing for feminist policies such as child tax credits, or for taking up space in traditionally male-dominated ministries and ensuring women’s concerns were heard. 

If Britain does have a third female Prime Minister come September, it will be a win for symbolic representation. But will that feminist body have a feminist mind? We will have to wait and see.  

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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