Theresa May’s positive legacy? She’s a feminist champion

Martha Gill
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Can you call yourself a feminist? Here’s my test, and it applies to both men and women: how do you treat your female juniors? Do you talk passionately about female advancement in public while quietly squashing the careers of the women under you? Or are you a true champion? It is easy to identify the latter: women who have worked for them sing their praises for the rest of their lives. And whatever else you may think of Theresa May, she is a true champion of women.

How history judges the UK’s second female prime minister depends on whether her successor messes up Brexit even more spectacularly than she has done. But she already has one positive legacy despite the fact the battle to be her successor is being fought by two men. She has made the Tory party more female. In 2005, sexism was particularly rife in the selection of female Tory candidates: associations then had a firm idea of what an MP should be, and this was a man with two labradors and a stay-at-home wife. When applying for selection that year, Margot James, who went on to become MP for Stourbridge in 2010, has talked about a letter she received, outlining what might happen if she won, that blithely assumed she was a man. Laura Sandys, who had lost a selection contest in Arundel and South Downs to Nick Herbert, who was gay, overheard one Tory member say to another: “Well, he may be a homosexual, but at least we didn’t get a woman.”

Then the shadow culture secretary, May made a speech at the 2005 autumn party conference that had a unusual feminist edge: “Every day that we are unwilling to embrace a future in which all men and women respect each other as absolute equals is another day we will be out of government.” Elsewhere in the conference centre, David Davis, then the leadership frontrunner, was having his photo taken with two female supporters in T-shirts bearing the message: “It’s DD for me”.

It was in this atmosphere, later that year, that May launched Women2Win, a mentoring and pressure group that is widely credited with helping almost every female Tory MP elected since. In 2005, the party had just 17 female MPs out of a total of 198 – the number had shifted by a pathetic four in the eight years since May had become an MP. (As May later pointed out, there were more men called David in the shadow cabinet than there were women.) After the 2010 election, the Tory party had 48 female MPs, and after 2015, there were 68.

“Theresa looked after that whole generation,” recalls Andrea Jenkyns, elected MP for Morley and Outwood in West Yorkshire in 2015, in Rosa Prince’s book, Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minster. “She would take a call from anybody, she would send letters to people saying ‘keep going’, she was very much a personal mentor to that generation. I can picture her office … and her being on the phone and saying to individuals: ‘Go on, keep going, don’t worry, there’s a seat with your name on it.’ She would make time for coffees, she was absolutely proactive.”

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Amber Rudd has described May as “an inspiration … she made a personal effort to meet candidates, advise them and then quite often call us on the day of selection to give us a motivating pep talk and push”. Chloe Smith, who won a seat in Norwich North in 2009, has said May was an invaluable mentor, “supportive and warm”, an “instinctive listener”.

Has May’s feminism gone beyond helping women in her party? In her first few years as an MP she lobbied the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, to make maternity leave better paid and more flexible, and fought supposed modernisers such as David Cameron to get them to take the issue seriously.

As home secretary she helped survivors of FGM and cracked down on the practice. She stood up for victims of domestic abuse, introducing a law against coercive control, and launched a national inquiry into how the police dealt with it. She supported shared parental leave and fought for equal pay. And as prime minister, she has introduced laws to tackle modern slavery, doubling the UK’s spending on the issue. Yet under her premiership the government has done little to roll back cuts made under austerity, which have affected women most harshly. She has instead raised the state pension age for women, done little to make pay more transparent, and made a deal with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist party.

But even if her real legacy is simply to have supported women in the party, that is likely to lead to more feminist policies. As May said when she announced her resignation, she may have been the second female prime minister, but she certainly won’t be the last.

• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent