18 December 2020

Liz Truss has made the intellectual case for Conservative feminism, now the Government must get things done

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Liz Truss has parked a big – and definitely not pink – tank on Labour’s lawn. In a barnstorming speech at the Centre for Policy Studies yesterday, the Equalities Minister said she would “reject the approach taken by the left, captured as they are by identity politics, loud lobby groups and the idea of ‘lived experience’”, and set out a new philosophy based on “the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity”.

It was noticeable, however, that in a lengthy speech on equality she only used the word ‘feminism’ once – and that was to repudiate “pink bus” feminism, “where women are left to fix sexism and campaign for childcare”. For Conservatives like me, who also consider themselves feminists, it was frustrating. Because this was a powerfully feminist speech, which fundamentally rejected the idea that being a woman should be an impediment to success.

It has never made sense to me that a party steeped in ideas of freedom and empowerment is not naturally seen as the party of feminism. Conservatives like Truss shouldn’t be so squeamish about using the word. Perhaps her reticence reflects the fact that the debate about women’s equality has been a leftwing bastion for so long. To quote another noteworthy Truss speech: That. Is. A. Disgrace.

Believing women should have the same freedoms and opportunities as men is now a mainstream – and fairly unarguable – view. Harriet Harman wrote a furious attack on Truss’s speech saying it “signals an attack on the consensus which has been gaining ground over the last 40 years that regards all inequality and discrimination as bad”. With respect to a woman who knows more about the fight for feminism than almost anyone, I think there’s a touch of bad faith here. Nowhere in her speech did Truss say she thinks discrimination of any sort is good. Harman writes that, “successful economies are those which draw on the talents of all their citizens irrespective of whether they are black or white, straight or gay, women or men” – that’s exactly what Conservatives believe too.

How you go about creating a level playing field is, however, a quite different matter – but it’s a debate Conservatives should play a full part in. There’s an influential strand of Marxist feminist thinking that argues capitalism is an inherently patriarchal system. Other CapX writers have done a better job than me of deconstructing these kinds of tedious arguments and how they play in to a politics of victimhood, but as Truss said in her speech, it’s a worldview underpinned by “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

The fact that the loudest voices come from the fringes enables others to dismiss the barriers women still face as just ‘woke’ nonsense. There are structural problems in society and ingrained gender stereotypes that harm women, and the right should take its share of responsibility for tackling them. It’s not enough to point to the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Priti Patel or Truss herself and claim they prove women can do whatever they want. The success of a few exceptional women doesn’t cancel out the hegemony unexceptional men have enjoyed for centuries.

Equal representation

It also belies the Conservative’s mixed record on actually increasing female representation in politics. While it’s plainly ludicrous to suggest that Margaret Thatcher, despite being the first female Prime Minister, somehow did nothing to promote diversity in Parliament. It is true that she never appointed a single female cabinet minister, but she showed that there need be no limits to a woman’s ambition, and that has inspired generations.

Nonetheless, by some metrics, the Conservatives still lag Labour when it comes to female representation. At present just 25% of Conservative MPs are women compared to 51% for Labour and 33% for the SNP. Overall, the current Parliament is 34% women, which is the highest it’s ever been. Labour and the SNP use all-women shortlists to gerrymander their candidates lists, but in Labour’s case that still hasn’t helped them get a woman leader and in the SNP’s case it’s landed them with bad MPs like Covid’s own typhoid Mary, Margaret Ferrier.

That’s not to say Conservatives should not want to increase female representation, it’s just that quotas and shortlists are the wrong way to do so. Instead, as as Isabel Hardman has argued in Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, we should look at the peripatetic lifestyle, toxic media atmosphere and ceaseless demands from constituents which put many women off going into politics in the first place.

The fact a Secretary of State has made a case for equality rooted in freedom and choice, rather than identity and power structures, is a good start. In some ways it’s surprising it’s taken this long. Backbenchers have been pushing this agenda for years. As Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee Maria Miller has been a powerful parliamentary force. In 2019 Helen Whately, then Conservative Vice Chair for Women, and I co-wrote an essay on Conservative Feminism for the 21st Century in which we argued for a vision of feminism based on having the freedom to achieve your aspirations regardless of gender, not on being angry at a society that’s standing in your way – themes that Truss also alluded to. And Theresa May would have done a lot more on this if she’d had longer in office.

A better deal for women in the workplace

But if Conservatives are going to reclaim feminism for the right, they will have to make a real difference to women’s lives. The kind of universalism Truss espoused is in many ways welcome, but you also need policies that address the barriers to success faced by specific groups. The only women-specific policies Truss mentioned were pregnancy discrimination and workplace dress codes, the latter of which is hardly the most pressing challenge women are facing. It was disappointing that she made no reference to, for example, sexual harassment which remains rife in many work places including the House of Commons.

A comprehensive Conservative vision of feminism must have economic opportunity at its heart. Women still earn less than men over a lifetime, have fewer assets and smaller pensions. The gender wage gap is non-existent only until women reach their 30s and have their first child – after that it increases as women work fewer, lower-paid hours once they have children. Indeed, women who return to work after having children find their hourly wages are £2 lower for every year they were absent from the workforce. That’s a tremendous waste of potential – it’s estimated that if women participated in the workforce at the same level as men, UK GDP would increase by 10% by 2030. As it stands, women are paying a life-long penalty for taking time off work to raise a family.

Unequal parental leave is a significant barrier to women achieving their career ambitions. It’s ludicrous that mothers are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, while fathers get just a fortnight. Granted, shared parental leave is an option but take-up remains low. This entrenches the assumption that it has to be the mother who takes a significant career break to look after a child. More equal parental leave wouldn’t just be good for partners, it would spread the risk to an employer of hiring someone in their childbearing years more equally across the genders.

Another big practical difference the Government could make to women’s lives would be to give mothers much greater access to affordable childcare. At the moment parents of three- to four- year-olds can get 30 hours subsidised childcare per week, but there’s very little help for parents with children under three, except for people on certain benefits. This is nonsensical and leaves many women facing a pernicious choice between having a family and pursuing a career. It also pushes up the cost of childcare for under-threes. The subsidised childcare offer should be much more flexible, and allow parents far greater choice of how they use it in the years before their child goes to school. As Early Years Minister in the Coalition, Truss herself argued for changes to childcare regulation, pointing out that Britain has some of lowest staff-child ratios in Europe, but on this she was blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps she will revisit the idea now.

Being a Conservative and a feminist doesn’t mean having a foot in both camps, but it has sometimes felt that way. Some Guardian columnists, for whom seeing another person’s point of view seems to present a particularly acute challenge, have even suggested that to be a feminist you have to be a socialist. Truss has made a powerful case that fairness and equality are Conservative values, now the Government will have to prove it. Deeds as well as words.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.