Look at the political landscape of the West over the past couple of years and you’ll see a swing of power towards right-wing governments and nationalistic political parties. Look a little harder, and you’ll notice the prominence of women on the right.
Alongside emerging political figures like Norway’s Siv Jensen and Germany’s Frauke Petry, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen gave Emmanuel Macron a run for his money in the 2017 French presidential election, and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen boasts similar right-wing views and increasing influence. In the UK, Conservative Party leader Theresa May is prime minister. And although the Labour Party turned out a higher number of female MPs than the Conservative Party in the 2015 general election, certain Conservative women have been fiercely pushing for greater representation in parliament. Since 2005, Women2Win, an initiative founded by Baroness Jenkin of Kennington and Theresa May, has helped to grow the proportion of female Conservative Party MPs from 9% to just over 20% today. And in America, as leadership has returned to the Republican Party, First Lady Melania Trump has declared her dedication to the rights of women while standing by her husband through repeat offences of misogyny, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka has talked up her feminist credentials while supporting her father's tax reform bill, which could drastically affect working class American women’s access to childcare.
What is the appeal of the right to these women? And can women on the right truly be feminists? These are questions we have always struggled with. Traditionally, the liberal socialist agenda associated with women’s emancipation and feminism is seen to be at odds with a right-wing political outlook. The right tends to advocate less social care provision from the state, with a knock-on effect for women who need childcare, healthcare or, say, access to tampons. As Labour MP Harriet Harman said in 2012, you can’t be a feminist and a Conservative, “because it’s all about equality and fairness”. But a couple of weeks ago, Harman changed her mind, hailing a new wave of Tory feminists including former Education Secretary Justine Greening, Maria Miller and Nicky Morgan. This, she argued, allows for cooperation across party lines.
Historian Julie Gottlieb of Sheffield University is an expert in the area of Conservative women. Her recent edited essay collection Rethinking Right-Wing Women explains that women on the right have always been there, we just never paid them enough attention; Julie likened them to an “elephant in the room”. Both historians and journalists, she argues, have tended to overlook these figures as they go in search of more attractive foremothers, radical women who feel they have represented their cause and history. Although Julie makes the point that you can study Conservative women without sharing their political outlook and ideology, she finds that right-wing women are harder to understand, and can therefore offer an interesting challenge.
“The idea for the book came around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013, when British people sent the song 'Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead' back into the UK charts,” explains Julie. “I was struck but not surprised by this very visceral response, and I started to think about what people were reacting against, why feeling was so incredibly polarised about Thatcher’s legacy and how gender comes into that.” She gives me examples: Thatcher has often been described as a “man in a woman’s body” and actively distanced herself from women’s issues and causes.
Although Thatcher is our most famous woman on the right, there have been many others we’ve heard little about, Julie points out. After fighting to win women’s partial suffrage in 1918, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party and became a prospective parliamentary candidate shortly before her death in 1928; other suffragettes moved even further to the right and joined the British fascist movement in the 1930s. According to Julie, 25% of the membership of the British Union of Fascists was female, a striking figure when we remember how fascists were explicit about wanting to return women to the home and reversing the gains of the feminist movement, which they saw as decadent and bourgeois.
The feminist writer Andrea Dworkin portrayed women on the right in America as having little agency, but Julie warns that this is a simplification: "There’s a lot of choice involved and a lot of self-styling, it’s not all just the 'blue rinse brigade'" (meaning elderly women with conservative views). One such example is Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP to take her seat, in 1919 (an Astor100 centenary campaign is currently being planned for next year). Astor was an American, a Conservative, married to the British Lord Astor. “She emerged as a strong voice for women’s rights between the wars,” says Julie, and held her seat until 1945, during which time she was joined by other women. Astor “became a figurehead and a celebrity, belying expectation in many ways; she was a complex figure, hated by Winston Churchill, seeking Anglo-German friendship even when the Nazis were in power. She wasn’t just another backbench MP.”
While women have always been on the right, then, Julie agrees that we are reaching what feels like a “critical mass”. Given the history, the existence of women on the right should not come as a surprise, “but what is striking is the number of women in leadership positions on the right, and that it’s not seen as a problem at the electorate level or within these parties themselves in terms of their projection of their identities,” says the historian. “The point of view of the right has been traditionally advocating quite an anti-feminist or even overtly misogynistic set of policies and values, but right now most right-wing and far-right parties don’t see any inherent contradiction between female leadership and a rearguard xenophobic platform.”
Could it be the feminist movement itself that’s paved the way for this change? Julie agrees it’s likely. She adds that, while in the past, left- and right-wing brands of feminism might have looked different, today the gap may be closing. The main strand of feminism for women in the Conservative Party, says Julie, has traditionally meant standing up for women to perform their national duty and believing in the idea that no woman should be excluded from citizenship on the basis of their gender (in the first part of the 20th century, Lady Londonderry used this language, as did Thelma Cazalet-Keir, Mavis Tate, and Nancy Astor to some extent, Julie adds). However, today, the pay gap and childcare are cross-party issues, as is combating FGM. Having more women in parliament also seems important to women in parties on the left and the right (see the aforementioned Women2Win and campaigns like Momentum and 50:50 Parliament).
Julie believes that a lot of women on the right are making themselves more visible and talking about their identities as women due to a kind of “newborn feminism” that is a product of their experiences. “I think what has really united women in parliament recently is the attack on women, the abuse of women in public life and on social media. And if they are LGBT or ethnic minority women in public life, of course it can be even worse. That’s created this new sense of sisterhood and solidarity.” Julie compares this to the way in which the threat of Nazism united women across party lines in the 1930s: “They had a common enemy, a racist, misogynistic anti-democratic fascist enemy.”
Still, we need to be careful, Julie warns. “I think there’s a default we have that if a woman puts themselves forward in public life, she must be a feminist. But that is not the case; the most prominent example of that was Thatcher herself, who was hostile to feminism and hostile to the feminist movement and the label, even if she paid some lip service to the suffragettes,” she continues. “Feminism is its own ideology rooted in a progressive tradition usually around ideas of gender equality and social justice. I wouldn’t say that’s entirely incompatible with Conservatism but it is incompatible with fascism, and therefore women further to the right.”
So what about Theresa May, our right-wing self-identified feminist woman in power? “I think her self-identification as a feminist is genuine, I don't think she’s an opportunist in this regard,” Julie responds. “The point is that we’re surprised by it, and it’s because the only precedent we have is Thatcher, who counterintuitively went against a feminist legacy. May is what we should expect, rather than the other way around!”
To be a real feminist, you need to put your money where your mouth is – “deeds not words” as the suffragettes put it. Former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron won “the Mumsnet vote” with his promises for gender equality in the 2015 general election, and while he fulfilled some of these promises, like shared parental leave and boosting the number of women in parliament, Tory austerity has still disproportionately affected the lives of women, particularly poorer women and women with disabilities. Domestic violence shelters for women have closed, the housing crisis has displaced young mums, and women across Britain are living in period poverty. If Theresa May truly is a feminist, the question that remains is what will she do about it?