By Jessie Williams
This year, International Women’s Day came and went in a blur of Instagram posts, tweets and hashtags. A plethora of inspirational women popped up on my feeds; smiling, protesting, and generally showing so much #GirlPower that it put the Spice Girls circa 1997 to shame. Which made me ponder on what exactly is a feminist icon, and most importantly, who is mine?
The American literary critic, Elaine Showalter, defined a feminist icon as someone on to whom a disproportionate amount of adulation and loathing is projected. That sounds about right: today feminism has never been more championed and controversial. What’s more an icon is completely subjective depending on the person – one person’s icon could be another person’s nemesis. Just look at Margaret Thatcher, the Marmite of British politics; worshipped by some, and hated by others. Which led me to think about Britain’s current prime minister, Theresa May, the first woman to hold the role in over 25 years. She famously posed in a Fawcett Society T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like’, but was her appointment a win for women?
I admit, my initial reaction when I heard that May was taking over the reins of our Conservative government was excitement: surely this is a victory for women – surely with a woman in charge it should mean that women’s rights and equality are at the top of her agenda.
Perhaps this was wishful thinking. After all she’s certainly not a feminist favourite. The brilliant comedian, Bridget Christie, joked that May’s “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt must be longer at the back because on it is written “I cut child benefit and slashed tax credits. I shut down shelters for battered wives and children. I cut rape counselling and legal aid”.
Indeed, the prime minister has consistently voted for curbing welfare spending, which women bear the brunt of. She is part of a government that cut 23 domestic violence courts, child benefits and funding for women’s refuges. Funding cuts are also hitting contraceptive services around the UK; totaling more than £800m over six years.
In December last year, the Guardian reported on the rise of ‘Period Poverty’ which was recently highlighted in Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake. Evidence shows that women are being forced to use tissues, newspaper or socks instead of proper sanitary products, and new reports have emerged of girls missing school due to embarrassment when they are on their period because of lack of access. Menstrual inequality is real and it’s happening in a country run by a woman who claims to be a feminist.
And what is she doing to fix the gender pay gap? Figures show that the average pay for full-time female employees was 9.4% less than their male counterparts. In May’s first speech as prime minister she called the pay gap one of the first “burning injustices” that she planned to fight, but she seems to have done little in her tenure so far.
It’s not all bad, in the past May has pushed colleagues to do more to tackle domestic violence, she has a tough stance on female genital mutilation and she supported the shared parental leave scheme.
And, as Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, tweeted alongside a photo of her and May shaking hands: “Politics aside – I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits to them.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with May’s policies, the fact that she is a woman in the highest position of power in Britain is great for girls and young women to see that it is possible and hopefully will encourage more of them to get into politics.
But pure symbolism is not enough – she may have broken the glass ceiling, but is she helping other women to break through it? According to her she’s “always championed women in politics” and to be fair to her she did co-found Women2Win in 2005, an organisation which supports the Conservative party to select more women to fight for seats and help them become MP’s. Her cabinet is made up of 7 women out of 24, so 30% of her special advisors are female (all of which are white, except one) – but she was expected to include a lot more. It is hardly representative of Britain today (in 2015 there were more women than men – 33,065,600 to 32,074,400), and is only one more than David Cameron’s cabinet. Comparing it globally, it is really quite pathetic; Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made sure his cabinet included an equal amount of men and women, as well as being ethnically diverse. He said it was a cabinet that looked like Canada. And it does.
At the end of the day it is not enough simply having a woman Prime Minister if she is not committed to fighting for true equality for women, as well as all marginalised groups.
One thing is for sure, she is not my feminist icon. Here are a few of my potential front-runners for that trophy: Malala Yousafzai – who fights for girls’ education, Caitlin Moran – for writing about all the things women think but are too scared to say aloud, Laura Bates – the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, Jess Phillips – the Labour MP who used to work at Woman’s Aid and who consistently fights for women’s rights, Nimko Ali – who fights to protect girls from FGM, and Gloria Steinem – just for being an all-round feminist powerhouse.
These are all the women who actively fight for other women, but there are also plenty of ‘quiet’ feminist icons out there – one’s whose achievements aren’t broadcasted for the world to hear, but should be appreciated nonetheless. One of them being my mum; she’s brought up four daughters (an achievement in itself) and taught us that anything is possible if you work hard. And surely that should be the message given to every child – no matter their gender.
Who are your feminist icons? Share them in the comment section below…