Jess Phillips: The second woman prime minister, and a feminist – but what difference did Theresa May actually make for women in the UK?

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

May Days: Under the reign of Theresa May the statute books became more feminist while the lives of real women got harder, says Jess Phillips

May speaks at an event concerning domestic abuse
Credit: 
PA Images

Theresa Mays legacy on women’s rights and issues gets off to a good start just by virtue of her being a woman herself. It may seem like nothing to lots of people, but it matters; it matters that when little girls watch Newsround in their classrooms, they see a woman in a position of power and leadership. I thought it was telling that Theresa May even in her resignation speech mentioned being only the second ever woman prime minister and was certain that she wasn’t the last. It will always be a key part of her story, and if nothing else it shames and pushes the Labour Party who have squarely failed to ever elect a woman as their leader.

Aside from her own chromosomes I think it is safe to say that women’s rights campaigners like me were hopeful for the May years. As home secretary she changed a number of key laws around domestic abuse, including making coercive control a crime and extending the age a person could be considered a domestic abuse victim to include 16 and 17-year olds. She brought in the Modern Slavery Act, which no one could doubt has changed the landscape for women victims of sex and servitude trafficking, and she was a champion of new stalking legislation. As prime minister however, despite the promise of a ground-breaking Domestic Abuse Bill which is still yet to have its parliamentary outing, she has underperformed compared to her tenure as home secretary.

Under the reign of Theresa May the statute books became more feminist while the lives of real women got harder. She failed to see how – outside of the Home Office laws and regulations around domestic abuse – her government’s policies were impoverishing and trapping women on universal credit, endangering migrant women victims through the hostile environment, damning homeless women through cuts to local authorities, terrifying women and children in the family courts no longer able to access legal aid, and was decimating support services through austerity.

Women at the top may well have fared more favourably under the May government, with the dawn of demands around representation on boards and the gender pay gap monitoring which came to pass in her time. I will cut her some slack when I say this has yet to make a demonstrable difference to the lives of working women as we are only a year in – she never really had the time or bandwidth to lean in to these changes as she might have wished.

Theresa May was the prime minister during the era of #MeToo and she herself made many statements about how we must end the scourge of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, these were largely words not deeds, as all the recommendations suggested by various women’s rights groups and also the Women and Equalities Select Committee such as putting back regulation that protects women from being harassed by customers, or putting a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment, have led to little more than a review or a consultation from her government. To date, as she herself once said, nothing has changed. 

This sums up the story of Theresa May’s premiership, a woman with a core set of beliefs and goals with little in the way of steel to deliver. I have no doubt that Theresa May is a feminist, in fact I am certain she is. But for women I am afraid that the problem is that she was not a natural finisher.

Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley