Fleur Butler is the Chairman of Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO), Yorkshire and Humber.
We Conservatives have allowed our women in history to be removed from the feminist iconography. By refusing to engage with feminist dialogue, we have lost our heroines to the Left, who consequently deride their work and dismiss them. This week alone we have seen Harriet Harman both denying Theresa May as a feminist and declaring that Thatcher was anti-women.
Now neither of our prime ministers are, or were, socialist feminists. But to be told that there is no such thing as a conservative feminist, by both the Left and the Right, is just wrong. We mustn’t let the Left push us out of the feminist debate, but rather reclaim it as our own.
Brilliant right-wing historical women are mocked, either for not liberating other women as the socialist would want, or for being somehow less important, mere stooges of a patriarchal society. And in a modern world, this lack of right-wing role models is important. Why is it that Millicent Fawcett, supported by the left-leaning Fawcett Society and a Labour London mayor, has a new statue in Parliament Square in honour of female suffrage rather than the radical Conservative, Emmeline Pankhurst? Because the Right have not allowed themselves to join feminist debates, and not claimed their own feminist heroines.
Despite her eventual membership of the Conservative Party, the Right have allowed Pankhurst’s history to be written by the Left. Her main biographer is Sylvia Pankhurst – socialist, pacifist and outraged daughter – who condemned her as violent and hysterical, and claims with unexplored contradiction that she was both a weak woman and an autocrat. Where is the counter-argument?
Pankhurst’s brilliant political journey was the other side of the coin of Fawcett’s decorous 40 year campaign for suffrage. But the former’s work from 1914 is ignored, despite being a fantastic example of a conservative feminist understanding the real needs of women. It was her organisation that pushed for the then war government to let women serve in what were then men’s roles as munitions workers, train drivers, police and ship builders. She was among the first to lobby against gender pay discrimination, and her horror after the war when the socialists pushed women back into the home, with their cry of “jobs for the boys”, was one of her reasons for joining the Conservatives.
Having our own history denied us by our own refusal to use the concepts of feminism is political suicide. As the Conservatives continue to allow a party whose MPs are 80 per cent male to speak on behalf of women, we are going to struggle to show we are the party for modern women to choose.
In last year’s election, the majority of young women under 45 voted against us. A new pride in the idea of conservative feminism across history can reassert our right-wing women as brilliant role models for modern women. Thatcher is one of our best icons of feminism. She refused to identify with the socialist feminists of her day, but is still a modern feminist icon. As the first woman in history to be Prime Minister she broke through the glass ceiling, yet we embarrassedly accept that the time is not right for her to have a statue. We have let the Left revile her for so long we have forgotten what she did for women.
Now is the time to say to the Left, yes, loathe Thatcher’s politics if you must, but celebrate the real changes that she brought to women’s lives. It was under her watch that more women left the home and entered the work place, as male industrial jobs were being lost. She empowered more women to own their own homes. She both promoted women, and used ways round the male dominance of her party to get women in o power by using peerages.
So the left should stop confusing outputs with the real outcomes – and we should remind them of women such as Edwina Currie, Lynda Chalker, Angela Rumbold, Jean Trumpington, Janet Young and more. As a modern feminist role model, her life in politics shows how women have had to manoeuvre within the traditional male structures that dominate Parliament. She is neither the monster of the Left nor a Superwoman, but one of us.
Her use of the feminine “shopping basket” was not an apologia for being female, as many left-wingers claim, but a device that explained simple economics to the nation. She made it acceptable for female symbols to be seen as powerful, as no socialist feminist has done. Her handbag is now a verb – to express the female ability to win arguments intellectually with “to handbag”. Geri Halliwell was right to claim her for GirlPower.
As a member of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, I am proud of my conservative feminist heroines, and I need the party to reclaim them so we can show the new younger women looking for inspiration, the wonderful feminist role models for them to aspire to both as they stand for our party and vote for our party. Hence the hashtag #AskHerToStand
If you wish to enter public life, or want to encourage women to enter public life the CWO can give support, guidance and training to build up the political CV for highest office. For the record, all our training is available for both men and women. Have a look at our website.