Today is Theresa May’s last as prime minister. She will take part in her final PMQs at noon, make her final speech as Prime Minister outside Number 10 after 2pm this afternoon and then go to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen and tender her resignation.
She was historically significant – our second ever woman prime minister – "but" as she said in her resignation speech, "certainly not the last". Regardless of your politics, there was a sense that this mattered.
As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see, and the sheer fact of having a woman head of state contributes towards changing attitudes about gender. But equally, the sheer act of acknowledging this is to give our politics a depressing audit and find it wanting, because in the entire history of our parliament we’ve only had two woman leaders, both from the Conservative Party, never from the left.
Significant then, yes, but significant doesn’t necessarily mean good. May has been nothing if not contradiction, an oxymoron: a self-described feminist long before it was cool. As she said in a 2012 interview with Total Politics: "Some people don’t like the term feminist because they think it portrays a certain type of woman. To me, it’s about ensuring there’s a level playing field and equal opportunity."
I worked in the male-dominated environment that is parliament around then and I can confirm that many women politicians on the right were unsure about how they would be perceived if they used the term.
May was a feminist who founded Women2Win to get more women into politics and yet, as home secretary, she brought in legislation to protect domestic violence survivors and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery at the same time as she defended holding vulnerable women – many of whom were survivors of such kinds of abuse – in detention centres such as Yarl's Wood.
As bell hooks puts it: 'As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realised.'
There can be no doubt that the work May did on trafficking with the Modern Slavery Act was groundbreaking. The same can be said of the landmark domestic abuse legislation that she was behind. She made coercive control a crime for the first time, drew attention to economic abuse and changed legislation so that those as young as 16 could be considered victims.
Therein lies the rub; while she has been prime minister, government policies like Universal Credit have disproportionately affected women on low incomes all over the country, particularly those who are in or fleeing abusive relationships. She also entered into an agreement with Northern Ireland's DUP, knowing that they were anti-abortion and maintaining an archaic status quo with some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world.
How are we supposed to reconcile these contradictions in words and deeds? Theresa May is, in so many ways, a feminist but her actions beg the question: Can you be a feminist if you only care about certain women? Intersectionality says no. As bell hooks puts it: "As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realised."
On paper, Theresa May has been our most feminist prime minister so far but, in reality, she didn't come close to being feminist enough. She doggedly pursued Brexit, even a no-deal Brexit, despite research from the Women's Budget Group which says the economic impact of this would hurt women more.
If we were being generous, we might acknowledge that it is far harder for women politicians than it is for men, even today. As a Yale study led by academic Andrea Vial says, women in politics are seen as less legitimate than their male counterparts from the off, and as a result they know they have less opportunity to make mistakes. Perhaps May played it safe, perhaps she was playing to the male gallery or, perhaps, she truly holds opposing views about the world in her mind. We’ll never know.
Theresa May was our second ever woman prime minister. That's significant but significant doesn't necessarily mean good.
But even if that were the case, would it explain her masochistic stance on Brexit?
As she resigned – the vicar's daughter standing on the steps of Downing Street – she seemed to mean so well, to truly believe in her (possibly divine) duty to lead. She said she was "proud" to serve a country she "loved" and openly cried, where her glib predecessor David Cameron had casually hummed.
Once again, though, even in her resignation things didn’t add up. When she became prime minister, she stood before us and said she wanted to unite our country after it had fractured violently down the middle, but during her time as prime minister she only acted in ways to further divide it.
She repeated, over and over again, "No deal is better than a bad deal" – before doing everything in her power to convince MPs to vote for her deal in an attempt to avoid us crashing out of the EU without one. She said "Brexit means Brexit" on a loop while continually changing her stance on Brexit. She also used divisive language, referring to EU workers as "queue jumpers" in a speech, and then went on to condemn the divisive nature of politics today.
Theresa May was our prime minister during a period of monumental and unprecedented change. She has not only overseen Brexit but presided over politics post #MeToo at a time when those who have previously been silenced have refused to sit back and allow power imbalances to remain unchallenged. Perhaps she was never up to the challenge. Perhaps our new era of politics needs a new kind of politician. The question of where we will find them remains.