Written by Marie Le Conte

A woman in power historically bolsters diversity across the board in politics, but don’t expect Liz Truss to be a force for good on women’s issues, writes Marie Le Conte 

Does anyone care about the person who comes third? The first person to achieve something is a trailblazer; the second is just as important, proving that the achievement wasn’t a one-off. After that, interest usually wanes.

You have probably heard of Nancy Astor, the first woman to win an election and take up her seat in the House of Commons. You may have read, at some point, about Margaret Wintringham, the second woman to do so. It is unlikely you’ve heard about the third.

When former actor Mabel Philipson became an MP in 1923, this limerick did the rounds:

Lady Astor, MP for sobriety,

Mrs Wintringham; She’s for propriety,

Now Berwick-on-Tweed

With all speed has decreed,

Mrs Philipson wins – for Variety

What will be written about Liz Truss, the third woman to become Britain’s prime minister? Is her appointment a victory for feminism by mere virtue of her being a woman? Does it only become one if she decides to use her power to enact feminist policies? Does it matter either way?

Well, yes and no. In 2016, academics from the American Political Science Association found that the appointment of female politicians in senior positions consistently drove up the political engagement of women in their country. “All else being equal,” they wrote, “a higher proportion of women in the cabinet increases women’s conventional participation (voting and party membership), petition signing and engagement in peaceful demonstrations.” Though the UK wasn’t included in their dataset, they looked at surveys from 20 different democracies around the world, and there is no reason to believe that Britain should be an exception.

Higher overall numbers of female parliamentarians also had a positive effect, but to a lesser extent. On that basis, Truss becoming the latest occupant of 10 Downing Street is an undeniably positive step. If more women vote in elections and become activists, political parties will have no choice but to take more of their interests, opinions and experiences into account, even if they are only doing so cynically.

A portion of those women may even end up standing for election themselves, thus completing the virtuous cycle. Though female backbenchers may not be as visible as their more senior colleagues, their internal impact on policy-making remains noteworthy. As UCL’s Constitution Unit discovered by analysing speeches delivered in the Commons between 1997 and 2016, a diverse chamber is a more effective one.

As their research paper states: “Women take a more concrete approach and orient the discussion to consider the effects of these policies on specific groups and individuals in society, such as single mothers, rural families or people with disabilities.”

“Women and men therefore bring different focuses to the discussion of policies; women contribute a more individual and personal focus and, in doing so, offer a different perspective to debate.”

In this respect, it seems good that Truss was picked and subsequently appointed a number of women to her cabinet. Thérèse Coffey is her health secretary and deputy prime minister, Suella Braverman her home secretary, Penny Mordaunt leads the House of Commons and Kemi Badenoch, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Chloe Smith have, among others, taken up seats at the top table. Numerous others have received lower-ranking jobs, meaning that there is a pipeline of more junior women ready to be promoted in future reshuffles.

Still, it isn’t that easy, is it? Representation is only one part of the equation. What these women end up doing with that power matters, and it isn’t clear that good things are coming our way.

For a start, small-state, uber-Thatcherite Tory Truss is in a minority within a minority. At the last election, women were consistently more likely to vote Labour than men, and the figures for younger female voters were striking. In 2019, 58% of women under 25 voted Labour, and only 19% voted Tory. The gap narrowed for women between 26 and 35, but not by much; in that age group, 43% voted Labour and 30% Conservative.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is unlikely that Truss will govern in a way that satisfies those women. Perhaps more interestingly, it also isn’t obvious that she will please those in her own camp. As academics Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs found in 2015: “Women Conservative party members are to the left of men on economic issues,” and so are female Conservative voters.

Liz Truss was the candidate of the right of the party and was, in a way, an exception. If we define a successful female leader by her ability to please female voters, it is unlikely that she will get very far. It also isn’t clear that she cares. 

Her health secretary may be a woman, but Coffey introduced a motion in parliament calling for “mental health assessments” for women seeking an abortion in 2010. More recently, she voted against extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland and in favour of removing the pandemic-era law that allowed women to have abortions at home. Both her and new home secretary Braverman also voted against extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland in 2019.

Truss herself isn’t much better. Though she has long enjoyed tweeting things like “Destiny Child had it right when they celebrated All The Honey’s Making Money. Grab your independence, women! #freedomfeminism”, she hasn’t exactly walked the walk while in government.

A former minister for women and equalities, she was heavily criticised by the cross-party women and equalities committee last year and accused of treating the role, which she held alongside her brief as foreign secretary, as a “side hustle”. She has also criticised her own education in the past, lamenting that “while we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure people could read and write”.

While in the role, she made it clear that she was against gender quotas, all-female shortlists and “women’s policies”. In short: if you were – somehow – expecting Truss to usher in a feminist utopia, you may be a tad disappointed.

This doesn’t mean that her gender should be discounted entirely. As with countless other political topics, the question of representation in politics has become frustratingly black and white. As multiple studies have shown, having female politicians in senior positions is a good thing overall, no matter what they do in that office.

As the witty and bitter refrain goes, society will be equal when rubbish women manage to rise through the ranks in the way that rubbish men have for so long. It is painful that Britain has managed to reach its third female prime minister but is yet to get one hell-bent on making the country better, happier and safer for women, but it is better than nothing.

Fewer than 10 countries in the world have been run by this many women. It is still something we should be proud of. It is also worth wondering if it is fair to place higher expectations on the shoulders of female politicians. Do they really have a duty to be better than their male counterparts? Boris often behaved appallingly while in office but it felt like people expected it of him; female politicians are never given that luxury.

We should also remember that progress is rarely quick or linear, exasperating as that may be. Whatever Truss ends up doing in office, one thing is now for certain: the next woman to become PM will be entirely unremarkable. No one ever thinks about the fourth person to do something. That should be heartening.

Images: Getty

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