It’s over a decade since Theresa May was photographed in a T-shirt bearing the words “this is what a feminist looks like”.
But never before have those words been quite so starkly tested. Her junior Brexit minister, Mark Garnier, is being investigated over claims he called his ex-secretary “sugar tits” and sent her to buy vibrators for his wife and another female staffer. Further rumours of sexual misconduct in high places are swirling round Westminster and we’re told Tory whips hold a list of 36 MPs accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour down the years; that’s more than a tenth of the Conservative parliamentary party, plus who knows how many more similar cases in all the other parties.
All of which leaves voters wondering, not unreasonably, what the point of an unashamedly feminist prime minister is if she can’t tackle creeps in her own workplace. There’s a certain grim irony, admittedly, in expecting a woman to clear up a mess made by men. But there’s an inescapable logic to it nonetheless.
For, unlike other times when May’s feminism has been questioned – say, when poorer women bore the brunt of Tory economic policies – this time, the buck stops squarely with her. She alone has the power of hire and fire over her own government and she is uniquely positioned to set the tone for politics more broadly. Her personal instincts on this stuff are unwavering (three years ago, when the junior minister Brooks Newmark was caught sending explicit selfies to an undercover reporter posing as a besotted young woman, May was adamant that he had to go, even though he was a longstanding friend and ally). All that stands in the way is her own political weakness.
If the whips are right about the numbers, then rooting out every last bad apple in parliament could potentially be the biggest blow to parliament’s reputation since the expenses scandal put four MPs in jail and triggered countless more resignations, retirements, sackings and de-selections. Given the near-impossibility of organising a reshuffle that pleases all sides of an angrily divided Tory party, meanwhile, any ministerial resignations could directly affect the stability of May’s already fragile government.
Some of the scandals now simmering beneath the surface are basically open secrets – things everyone in the know had been hearing about for years
No wonder she is proceeding rather cautiously, ordering an inquiry into what Garnier has described as office “high jinks”, rather than making an immediate decision on his future, while outlining plans for a parliament-wide mediation service to tackle complaints of harassment against MPs from all parties. This is, perhaps, what a feminist clinging to power in difficult circumstances looks like. But while she may be in no position politically to make enemies, as only the second woman ever to occupy Downing Street she can’t afford not to do so either if she is to live up to the expectations other women have of her.
As in every industry that’s had a Weinstein moment, some of the scandals now simmering beneath the surface are basically open secrets – things everyone in the know had been hearing about for years, even if only second- or third-hand, and which wouldn’t have been hard for any determined party leader to unearth. If you asked every woman in Westminster to guess who was about to be publicly unmasked as a serial predator, the same few names would come up repeatedly. What has kept them buried until now is a mixture of embarrassment, isolation, the difficulty of proving something to the satisfaction of libel lawyers or of breaking another woman’s confidence, and victims’ fear of the consequences in workplaces where senior men simply aren’t held to account. Sexual harassment flourishes where it’s tacitly accepted that Mr X is just too important to be challenged, and the unwritten deal becomes that women can warn each other about him – which is how it becomes an open secret – so long as they don’t go public and make Mr X’s bosses actually do something about it.
And what a feminist looks like, in this context, is someone strong enough to let all the embarrassing, awkward stories come flooding out.
It’s someone unafraid of turning over stones and capable of taking decisive action over whatever crawls out, but confident enough to tell the difference between misdemeanours in private life (for example, a married man having a happily consensual affair with a staffer) and abuse of power at work.
And it’s someone who doesn’t argue that younger women should just laugh it off or toughen up, even if women of her generation often had little choice but to do likewise – even sometimes if she personally wouldn’t have made a formal complaint. (Something that’s no big deal for her might be genuinely intimidating for someone younger, less confident or more junior.) May has made a start on all of that, but only a start. And, unfortunately, that’s not what it said on the T-shirt.