The ascendant 'Tory feminism' is not about equality for all British women. So what is it about?
Tory feminism takes a similar “strength in womanhood” posture as Sarah Palin's brand of “mama grizzly” feminism. It is loudly and proudly conservative. A major theme of Tory feminism is a rejection of the notion of “box-ticking”: Tory feminists rail hard against impact equalities assessments, with poster child for Tory feminism Louise Mensch going so far as to suggest that this is “ghetto feminism”. Mensch dismisses the significance of equality assessments in favour of producing some cherry-picked statistics to back up her laughable argument that the Tories are “relentlessly focused on social justice”. It is not hard to see why this idea is so decried by Tory feminism: the government austerity programme is affecting women disproportionately, and will continue to do so.
What is Tory feminism about, then, if not equality for women? Ultimately, it equates to career success, a personal quest for power. The “glass ceiling” is a focal point of Tory feminism, with the goal of getting as many women into high-earning positions as possible. This, according to Mensch, can only be achieved through playing the capitalist system: "A feminism that stigmatises the profit motive stigmatises women's ability to get on and break the glass ceiling."
This notion plays into the same neoliberal individualism as Thatcherism: while Tory feminists will accept some measures to facilitate more women achieving career success—such as a shift towards more flexible parental leave—this brand of feminism still leaves the vast majority of women out in the cold. Breaking the glass ceiling is only possible if one stood a chance of gaining an executive position in the first place.
On other issues, Tory feminism provides a less coherent agenda. Some Tories who declare themselves feminist pursue an anti-abortion agenda, most notably Nadine Dorries, who recently attempted to add an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill which would have blocked the ability of experts in abortion to provide advice to women. Although this amendment failed to pass, and was voted against by fellow Tory feminist Louise Mensch, it suggests a socially conservative view of women's rights lurking within Tory feminism.
This social conservatism manifests more obviously in Tory feminists' attitude towards the sexualisation of children. Dorries's latest project involves attempting to incorporate abstinence-based sex education for girls into the curriculum, and is evidenced well in this Cristina Odone piece which crows about the superiority of Tory feminism followed by a call to ban Boots from displaying sex aids. The conservative thread of argument translates into proposed legislation for internet blocks, with a hefty dollop of corporate sponsorship on the side.
Tory feminism makes bold claims to represent the interests of all women in a way that other stripes of feminism cannot. It argues that women are not a homogeneous group and that therefore women should be provided with the choice to act in a way that suits them. The first part of this assertion is spot-on: women are not a homogeneous group. The thing is, many flavours of modern feminism acknowledge this, and look at the intersections within an uneven power system of various forms of oppression.
The crux of the problem with Tory feminism is the second part of this assertion, that everything is a choice. The intersectional approach allows us to understand that choices are a product of opportunity, and not every woman is presented with the same opportunities in life: a woman from a poorer background will have fewer opportunities than a woman of a richer background; a disabled woman will have fewer opportunities than an able-bodied woman; and so forth. The Tory feminist line that everything can be a choice works only on a level playing field, which is not an accurate reflection of the world we inhabit.
While a cynic may suggest that Tory feminism is a bid to win greater support for the government from women voters, the blindness to issues affecting most women can perhaps be explained by the fact that the most prominent Tory feminists are white, well-educated, able-bodied women working in well-paid jobs. Their view of liberation—the freedom to earn ever-increasing paycheques—is therefore unsurprising: this is their concern. Just as the neoliberal ideology benefits only the privileged few, so, too, does Tory feminism.