“We just don’t know what’s going to happen next” has become the giddy political axiom of the immediate post-“Brexit” environment – and I, like most, have given up trying to predict the next dramatic schism to manifest. Instead I would like to assess the contrasting fortunes of two long-serving politicians; the new Prime Minister Theresa May, and the brief leadership candidate for the opposition Labour Party, Angela Eagle. What can feminist thinkers learn from these experiences at the top-end of political manoeuvring, and to what extent is this influenced by their ideological commitment to opposing parties?
I am particularly interested in complicating adjoining narratives that cast (1) May’s victory as “proof” that having women in leadership positions is inherently meaningless (if the woman in question is not vocalizing and enacting a specific feminist agenda) or a bona fide “feminist victory”, while simultaneously positing (2) Eagle’s decision to and rationale for stand[ing] down as emblematic of the feminist “blind-spot” in the British left. I conclude with reference to the transformative characteristics of all feminist analyses, and to suggest an alternative narrative: that a feminist politics can work most coherently outside of organised political spaces, and that grounding those politics within traditional political environments ultimately limits feminist possibilities.
Theresa May: a feminist victory?
The new Tory leader (and Prime Minister) Theresa May is only the second woman to hold that position, while the ostensibly more progressive Labour Party has only ever been led by [cis, white] men. It is not without irony that descriptions such as these infuriate the “sensible Left” – sensible presumably because they hold to just such selective positivist indices (e.g. a focus on polling data, on bending idealism towards the aim of securing “real” results and power). Perhaps surprisingly the question of whether May’s ascension has been a “feminist victory” has been the focus of multiple op-eds since her premiership became a formality.
On closer inspection of course, the desire to speculate on May’s feminist credentials is entirely predictable: May will be expected to “represent” women just as she will be keen to distance herself from any notion that her gender validates her promotion. That would be antithesis of conservative meritocracy. The at best qualified, at worst scorched-earth legacy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, led to something resembling a consensus within feminist academia: having women leaders will not necessarily improve the material prospects, nor emancipate the imaginative function, of the women they lead. In the wider press and academy, Thatcher was the archetype of a “postfeminist” model. So, female leaders can be empowered by [further] weaponising patriarchal logic/s: the infamous (and best-selling) “Lean In” (Sandberg, 2014) claimed to reimagine the traditional role of women in competitive corporate environments even as it maintained a highly conservative conception of gender and success. However performative this conception might be, the vision of women CEOs aping the “survival of the fittest” mantra of homo economicus while sustaining “advantageous” feminine traits (sensitivity, emotional intellect etc), has continued to attract high level institutional support (Budgeon, 2011).
I am reminded at this point of two remarks which highlight hegemonic double-speak. Firstly, the manner in which the ruling Communist Party has legitimised increased FDI and marketization through its vision of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Nina Power’s (2011) summation that “The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both justified by an appeal to the emancipation of women, and the discourse of feminism was specifically invoked” similarly warns of how cutely an event or process can explicitly recall emancipatory theory as its justificatory license.
Does calling the rise of Theresa May a “feminist victory” partake in the same game? May’s record while Home Secretary (2010-2016) of anti-feminist policymaking (see the detention practices of Yarl’s Wood and the plight of asylum seekers, particularly women and trans* asylum seekers) underlines the selectivity of any claim that hers is a “feminist victory”. May’s gender does not take precedence from this history of gendered violence. Ergo, this is no feminist victory, and to suggest that it is simply by virtue of May’s gender is to debase the feminist argument – to essentialise it.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that May’s ascension is a feminist victory only when understood in strictly positivist-institutionalist-historicist terms. When understood as an impossibly rare event wherein one woman reaches the zenith of British political power, for only the second time ever, we can re-approach this as a “feminist victory” – but not a victory for feminists:
“…it is one of the gains of the feminist movement that women can access the highest positions of political power and influence, without condition, and it should be a basic tenet of any feminist politics that our right to such positions is not contingent on our using power better than men have traditionally used it. Some feminist goals, especially those related to welfare provision, might be better realised by other governments, with other Prime Ministers, who might very well be male. But at least one important feminist goal – the goal of women exercising power, for its own sake, just because it is something we have a right to – has been realised for one woman, and made a tiny bit easier for all the women that follow.” (Reilly-Cooper, 2016)
Angela Eagle: A feminist fail?
Eagle’s attempt to not only become the first woman, but also the first “out” lesbian to lead any major British party (shout-out here to Sandi Tosvig and the Women’s Equality Party) never left the ground. To some this was further proof, in addition to the brick through a window close to her constituency office, and the relentless drivel of twitter trolls, of the Labour base’s neglect and general disregard for gender politics.
We dislike her politics, gender has nothing whatsoever to do with who we rally around and who we heckle.
It is worth noting here that Eagle crucially lacked support from other PLP members, not the wider membership, and it was the rush to unify around Owen Smith (supposedly less easily bracketed as a “Blairite” in spite of his past lobbying for Pfizer) that was ultimately responsible for her withdrawal from the leadership election. However, I am always attracted to the “problem of perception” (Ahmed, 2015) and its peculiar influence on issues of public interest. In this case, the suggestion that the vitriol Eagle received might have been filtered through particular hurdles facing high profile women, let alone older and lesbian women, was a trigger for many Corbyn supporters. Merely the suggestion that gender played a role was enough to magnify the ridicule, and led to accusations of opportunism, as if Eagle was using her gender to out-manoeuvre our more authentically feminist-friendly leader.
I voted for Corbyn as leader once, and I will do so again. Even so, the Eagle experience can serve as an eye-opener for anyone who considers gender an irrelevance in British politics, and particularly within whatever constitutes the British left.
“I’m not a Blairite, I’m not a Brownite, I’m not a Corbynista… I am my own woman”
With these words Eagle announced her candidacy. We all know what happened next, but this short statement immediately opposes schools of political thought associated with past leaders, with Eagle’s own claim to uniqueness: her gender.
That’s no substitute for political theory, that’s the opportunism of a politician real-politiking off the back of her accidental gender – she’s just a Blairite who has run out of arguments.
Or so some would argue. In truth, Eagle is perfectly entitled to oppose these schools of thought with her gender, if only because the Labour Party has always been led by men. No, there is no “school of thought” shared by women, not institutionally nor through lived experience. But it remains an opposition by virtue of the same positivist schema that makes May’s leadership a feminist victory if not a victory for feminists.