Halfway through his second year in office, it became fashionable to claim that the Prime Minister and his party have a ‘problem with women’. Female voting intentions favoured Labour for the first time in years, public sector cuts meant fewer part-time roles (predominately held by women) and a quick scan over the front bench revealed a less representative picture than most would hope for.
But the omissions of this summary analysis were two-fold: firstly that filling a party with female MPs doesn’t mean they’ll look after female concerns or guarantee the female vote; and secondly that in modern Britain the possession of certain reproductive organs does not bind the experiences or simplify the preferences of voters.
Going 18-years into Demos’ back catalogue, there was a consensus that relations between men and women was no longer a zero sum game. My predecessors argued that an older agenda of rights was being superseded by a more complex set of issues: overwork for some and not enough for others; discrimination against men as well as women; divides along race, religion and income. They predicted that British women “are unlikely to coalesce into a single movement, and politicians, advertisers and businesses will find it increasingly hard to appeal to a ‘typical’ woman.” By ’97 women were more likely to define themselves by their intelligence than they were by their gender.
But since the financial crisis we’ve seen a return to the rhetoric of an imagined group-think and the rise once again of those who claim to speak for a homogenous 51 per cent of the population. When the crisis first hit, there was talk of a “mancession” with men less able to cope with the instability and emotional blow of redundancy. Then came legal challenges to the 2010 Emergency Budget over whether an equalities impact assessment had been carried out – the accusation being that Government policy would harm women across the board more than it would their male counterparts.
This binary distinction is damaging in more than ways than one, not least because it fails to recognise the diverse and diverging demands and requirements of Britain’s women. It blindly prioritises need on the basis of gender, dismissing the other half of the population. It presents women as victims rather than the architects of our own destinies, and the Conservative Party as singularly male meting out judgment upon a population of helpless females who failed to understand or support the drive for deficit reduction.
None of this, of course, is true. While the Conservative Party may have fewer female MPs by head-count (33 per cent of Labour MPs are female, compared to 16 per cent of Conservative MPs, meaning neither party can be too proud), it has a different approach to feminism than that present on the Opposition benches — but one that is no less feminist.
It was with this in mind that Demos decided to commission essays from leading voices amongst the Conservative Party’s female MPs. It is clear — not least from the contributions to this collection — that the Conservative party does not have much of a difficulty recruiting strong, intelligent and experienced women to its ranks. The media may be obsessed with the number of women in cabinet — five in total — but it is to the 2010 intake that we should really look. There you see a generation of Conservative women elected to parliament on their own terms, interested in and articulate on a range of issues and destined for great things in politics. They make up today's Iron Ladies.