Britain's new Prime Minister is a "bloody difficult woman," according to veteran Conservative MP Ken Clarke. What greater accolade could there be? I hope Theresa May has that slogan written on a T-shirt and wears it around 10 Downing Street on weekends as she strategizes how to keep her poor country from falling apart.
We know Theresa May does wear T-shirts, because she was pictured wearing one that said, "This is what a feminist looks like." Here is the rub: Many people question whether Ms. May is indeed a feminist, or, by extension, whether feminists can in good conscience support a politician on the right of the political spectrum, whose policies may not better the lives of women.
Ms. May's ascendance, Laurie Penny writes in the New Statesman, "is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph." Sophie Walker, head of the U.K.'s Women's Equality Party, offered similar sentiments in a Politico article headlined, Theresa May: Female, But Not Feminist.
They argue that Ms. May's six-year tenure as Home Secretary, during which she advocated for lower immigration levels, for the removal of illegal residents in the U.K., and also her approval of brutal austerity cuts, show that she's not the progressive force that women need. I would add that her support of the Trident nuclear deterrent and her vast expansion of government eavesdropping on citizens' electronic communications are equally problematic.
However, she doesn't have to be Germaine Greer in No. 10 to be good for women. The presence of women in the highest echelons of power normalizes the idea that the proper place for women is in the highest echelons of power.
The more we hear women's voices delivering tough policy statements, and see their faces in a sea of suits at G8 meetings, the more comfortable the world will become with the idea of voting women into office. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been alone too long. (South America has been far ahead of the rest of Europe and North America in building up and tearing down its female leaders: See Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Kirchner.)
Ms. May has been compared to Margaret Thatcher, because they're both nail-hard politicians who happened to carry their keys in a handbag. The comparison is facile. "What's women's lib ever done for me?" Ms. Thatcher asked, as she refused to appoint any women to her cabinet. Ms. May is expected to put more in hers. On Wednesday night she named Amber Rudd to her old job, Home Secretary. The Iron Lady thought the markets could look after themselves, and that wealth would find its way into the rightful pockets of those who earned it. Ms. May just gave a speech about reining in executive pay and putting workers on companies' boards.
Upon being named Prime Minister, she offered a radical assessment of Britain's social malaise (for a Tory): "If you're black you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you're white," she said outside her new residence. "… If you're a woman you will earn less than a man."
Will Ms. May's future policies benefit British women? I hope so, but there are so many complicating factors – Brexit, the economy, the relative strength of the Labour Party, the co-operation of the MPs in her cabinet – that it's hard to know. In the best scenario, her agenda will benefit not just women but the legions of poor and disabled who've been battered by Conservative austerity for the past six years.
Perhaps her rise to 10 Downing Street will encourage more young women to go into politics, whatever their ideology. I'm reminded of what U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren would say to girls she met while on the campaign trail: "I'm Elizabeth and I'm running for Senate, because that's what girls do."
Theresa May and Elizabeth Warren are on different ends of the political spectrum, and that's fine. There's something reductive about the idea that all women in politics need to share the same ideology. Feminism is, and always has been, about the primacy of choice in people's lives: In this case, Theresa May has chosen to dedicate her life to a set of conservative political beliefs. I don't agree with most of those beliefs, but many do. I hope when Britain goes to the polls eventually, the Prime Minister will be judged on the basis of those policies. That would be the ultimate feminist act.