«The Feminising Fallout of Britain’s EU Referendum: Is this the New Face of Feminism?»

Posted on July 5, 2016

By Clarisse Berthezène and Julie Gottlieb

Who would have thought that one of the most remarkable outcomes of Britain’s EU referendum would have been the rise of women in politics—across the board, across the spectrum, and across Europe. At this moment (and we better get this out fast before events take the next unpredictable dramatic turns) Britain is poised to be led by women. This is the culmination of what adversarial sides in the battle of the sexes had prophesized for more than a century, the anti-feminists with dread, generations of feminists with aspiration and hope: the feminisation of politics.

Ironically, this momentous achievement for feminism, precarious as it is in the Shakespearean intrigue that characterises Conservative and Labour politics at this moment, seems to be almost entirely accidental and unintentional.

Women are, or are poised to become, leaders of almost every mainstream party in the United Kingdom. Angela Eagle for Labour. Theresa May for the Conservatives, with other female aspirants for the leadership nipping at her kitten heels. Nicola Sturgeon is leader of the SNP, Ruth Davidson leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and Kezia Dugdale leads Scottish Labour—and all three passionate Remainers. Leanne Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru in Wales. Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the TUC, the first woman to reach this position in what is often portrayed as a masculine and macho world of trade union politics. The Green Party is led by Natalie Bennett and its only MP is Caroline Lucas.

Despite the fact that women have been underrepresented in the press coverage leading up to the Referendum, there were still aspects of the debate that were notably feminised. For example, four of the six debaters at Wembley on Tuesday 21 June were women. Tragically, the martyr of this campaign is murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.

And we haven’t even mentioned Europe yet: Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany, one of the main interlocutors in forthcoming Brexit negotiations, and firmly mobilised in favour of the refugees. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, has been a vocal contributor to this debate, exulting over and capitalizing on the Brexit result, while Beata Szydło is Prime Minister in Poland representing the Nationalist Party. What we are seeing is the unmistakable ascendency of women on the Right.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg warned Britons they ‘won’t like’ life on the margins of the EU, opposing Leave campaigners who take Norway’s relationship with the EU as a model. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, said the European project would carry on. Outside Europe, Hillary Clinton could be the first woman President, and is the first woman to be the presumptive nominee of one of the two major parties in US history.

In Britain is this the end of patriarchy and the beginning of a new matriarchy? In the aftermath of the First World War and the achievement of women’s (partial) suffrage in 1918, that is just what women activists hopefully predicted—a world of women, and a women’s peace to bring an end to a man-made war. Are these women today providing a ‘safe pair of hands’ to clean up the mess left by their male counterparts?

One of the other remarkable things about this group of women is how few are themselves mothers. May, Eagle, Sturgeon, Davidson are childless, as is Merkel despite being the nation’s ‘Mutti’. These women therefore fit the model of ‘social mothers’, the description given to so many women activists in political and humanitarian efforts since the late 19th century who were not married or who did not have children by design or due to missed opportunity.

However fulfilling of feminist aspirations the rise of women in politics may be, what are the implications of the rise of these women for working mothers, and for those working mothers out there in search of role models? Theresa May might come to fill Margaret Thatcher’s shoes in many respects. Yet it is paradoxical that professional mother-of-two Thatcher should have deemed feminism a poison, while May proudly dons the T-shirt of the Fawcett Society and is on record as a self-identified feminist.

From the turn of the twentieth century and increasingly onwards, the Conservative Party presented itself as the party of domesticity, celebrating the values of “home and hearth”. This has been explored in the past by historians and political commentators— for example, Beatrix Campbell, Jon Lawrence, David Jarvis, David Thackeray, and Sarah Childs& Paul Webb—and this new set of circumstances will no doubt reinvigorate the historically-informed debates.

Conservative women working within the party were seen as building on their expertise as housewives in order to extend their caring role to local, national and international affairs. This did not mean they were all mothers of course. Marjorie Maxse, the first administrator of the Women’s Unionist Organisation in 1923, Deputy Principal Agent of the party in 1928, vice-chair of the Conservative Party Organisation in 1944 was unmarried and had no children.

So too many of the first Conservative women MPs after suffrage were childless and/or unmarried. Marjorie Graves, Florence Horsbrugh, and Irene Ward were single, while Thelma Cazalet-Keir and the Duchess of Atholl never had children. No wonder the reactionaries talked about ‘our spinster MPs’.  Nonetheless, the political communication of the Conservative Party was based on the equation between domesticity and modernity.

The rhetoric of domesticity was one that Margaret Thatcher mastered particularly well, telling the feminist Jill Tweedie in the late 1960s that: ‘I’ve got a housekeeper but I still do the cooking myself … rush in, peel the vegetables, put the roast in … all before I take off my hat.’

On 28 June, The Telegraph noted that Theresa May has been “married to the same man since 1980,” and the fact that she does not have “any children” means “she’s less likely to be distracted on the job”. Did anyone worry about Boris’s children? Clearly the Conservative party’s strategies of political communication have changed since Thatcher. Also, unlike Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May is seen as helping others of her sex, having co-founded Women2Win in 2005, with Baroness Jenkins,  to increase the number of Conservative women in Parliament

Whatever happens, wherever the chips eventually fall in this Russian roulette of post-referendum political unrest, the feminisation of politics has to mean something. Even if this is just a Polaroid snap shot of one day in British political history, it still represents a sea change in our political culture.

To what extent can the rise of women be explained by political disenchantment and disengagement, deep distress about and distrust of the political establishment and its old-boy-old-school-tie politics? These questions are pertinent to both the Conservative and Labour parties, and it is in no way just ‘small talk’. However unintended or accidental, this is the new face of feminism and we need to look it straight in the eye.

Julie Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and the author of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Interwar Britain(Palgrave, 2015). She tweets @julievgottliebClarisse Berthezène is the author of Training minds for the war of ideas. Ashridge College, the Conservative Party and the cultural politics of Britain, 1929-54 (MUP, 2015). She tweets @C_Berthezene. Together with the Conservative Party Archives, last June they organised a conference on ‘Rethinking Right-Wing Women: Gender, Women and the Conservative Party, 1880s to the Present’, and they are currently co-editing a book on the same theme for Manchester University Press. You can read other History Matters blogs related to the project here.