People

How feminist are the Tory leadership candidates, really?

In a sign of the times, most of the Conservative politicians vying to be the UK’s next prime minister now call themselves feminists. But do their records back up their claim to support gender equality? Stylist investigates.

One could argue that it’s a good thing. Once upon a time (and indeed, in many other countries today), the idea of right-wing politicians falling over to describe themselves as feminists would be laughable. Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst might have eventually wanted to be a Tory MP, but as a whole, the feminist movement has historically been associated with left-wing ideals: with radical, progressive values, not traditional, conservative ones.

And yet here we are. At the time of writing, 10 of the 12 candidates currently in the running for the Conservative party leadership – all of whom have a chance of becoming the next UK prime minister after Theresa May formally resigns on 7 June – have announced that they consider themselves feminists. 

You may also like

“The media’s sexism towards Theresa May obscures the real criticism we should be levelling at her”

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Jeremy Hunt, Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Matthew Hancock, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse and Mark Harper are the 10 candidates to nail their colours to the mast this way. Esther McVey has so far refrained from commenting during this leadership race, although she described herself as a “Tory feminist” back in 2014. In fact, just one of the candidates for PM – former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab – has explicitly said that he isn’t a feminist.

Why are Raab’s rivals suddenly so eager to claim feminism for themselves? A cynic might wonder if it has more to do with their desire to defeat him, rather than any long-standing passion for gender equality (though far be it from us to be so sceptical). But while it’s undeniably positive to see so many leading politicians publicly align themselves with the feminist movement, their words mean relatively little if they haven’t actively supported women’s rights throughout their careers. Think of it like a T-shirt with a feminist slogan: the message is irrelevant if it was made in a factory that exploits vulnerable women workers.

Below, we’ve dug into the voting records and professional histories of the six leading candidates in the race for the Tory leadership, based on the bookies’ odds at the time of publication. Have any of them walked the feminist walk – or are they just talking the talk?

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson says he’s a feminist 

Current role: MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip

Odds of becoming Prime Minister: 2/1

Does he call himself a feminist? Yes

Good points: His belief in the importance of properly educating girls around the globe (he’s described it as “the Black and Decker toolkit that solves a multitude of the world’s problems”). In 2018, while foreign secretary, Johnson committed the UK to spending £212 million on educating 1m girls across the Commonwealth, and he’s also been broadly sympathetic to the #MeToo movement, writing in his Telegraph column that “we need that feminist rage”. As Mayor of London, he pledged £5m to support victims of domestic violence (although the number of victims reporting abuse continued to rise), and increased the number of Rape Crisis centres in the capital from one to four. 

You may also like

“A female politician would never get away with acting like Boris Johnson. Why?”

Bad points: He has a long history of making offensive statements about women. Just last year, Johnson wrote a racist column comparing Muslim women who wear the burka to “letterboxes”; previously, he’s joked that female students in Malaysia attend uni to “find men to marry”, and described female volleyball players at London 2012 as “glistening like wet otters”.

During his time as an MP, he hasn’t turned up to a single vote explicitly related to women’s reproductive rights, and has often voted against measures to tackle or investigate gender inequality in the UK. As Mayor of London he axed the role of Women’s Advisor and cut five jobs (and £90,000 in budget) from the London Domestic Violence Strategy Team – and while he did quadruple the number of Rape Crisis centres, his critics say he only did so after coming under pressure from opponents.

Michael Gove

Michael Gove
Michael Gove after announcing his Tory leadership bid 

Current role/s: Environment secretary and MP for Surrey Heath

Odds of becoming Prime Minister: 3/1

Does he call himself a feminist? Yes

Good points: We’ve scoured through his voting record, and it’s hard to find many examples of Gove really putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to gender equality. A high point seems to have come in 2014, when the then-education secretary sent guidance to all English schools reminding headteachers of their duty to protect girls from female genital mutilation (FGM).

Bad points: At the height of the #MeToo movement, Gove was forced to apologise after making a joke about Harvey Weinstein on BBC Radio 4, and he’s been absent from all votes relating to abortion rights during his time in office. He’s also voted (in line with the Tory whip) against several measures intended to improve women’s lives – including an amendment that would have given more domestic violence victims access to civil legal aid and the publication of a gender equality strategy to improve the position of women. 

Dominic Raab

Dominic Raab says he “probably isn’t” a feminist. At least he’s honest? 

Current role/s: MP for Esher and Walton

Odds of becoming Prime Minister: 6/1

Does he call himself a feminist? No

Good points: If the hardline Brexiteer becomes PM, he has pledged to introduce a policy that would stop women being sacked on maternity leave and give all fathers two weeks of paid paternity leave. He also claims to have defended women’s rights in his former career as a lawyer at the European Court of Human Rights.

Bad points: Raab might have worked for women’s rights as a lawyer, but his track record in parliament reveals scant interest in pushing for gender equality. In 2011, he described feminists as “obnoxious bigots” and argued that men in the UK were “getting a raw deal”. He has said that the Government Equalities Office – where policy relating to women, sexual orientation and transgender equality is developed – should be abolished, describing it as “pointless”.

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the top job, Raab has refused to backpedal on his stance, though he has tried to soften it somewhat. He told ITV News that he was “probably not” a feminist, adding: “The point I was making is that sexism is wrong and it’s wrong if it’s said about a woman or about a man… I’m all for working women making the very best of their potential.”

Andrea Leadsom 

Andrea Leadsom
Andrea Leadsom has changed her stance on feminism since 2016

Current role/s: MP for South Northamptonshire

Odds of becoming Prime Minister: 8/1

Does she call herself a feminist? She does now. (When she first stood for Tory leader in 2016, she said: “I’m not a feminist because I’m not anti-men, I just see people as people… Feminism is a term that’s been used to abuse men so I don’t identify with it.”)

Good points: She has stuck her neck above the parapet when it comes to condemning the harassment of women in politics, and in 2018 announced an investigation into bullying in parliament. “When women speak out and say there is a problem, the answer is not ‘no there isn’t’,” she said.

You may also like

Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid on class, childcare and going after UKIP

Bad points: She scuppered her last shot at the Tory leadership when she suggested that she would make a better PM than Theresa May because she’s a mother. Leadsom generally toes the Conservative party line when it comes to voting on gender-related issues, usually rejecting measures explicitly designed to support women or measure the effects of government policy on gender equality. In 2012, she voted to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, which protects UK citizens from sex-based discrimination (among many other things).

Leadsom has also consistently voted to reduce the time limit on abortion in England and Wales to 12 weeks, and voted against measures that would extend abortion rights to women in Northern Ireland and decriminalise terminations across the rest of the UK. 

Rory Stewart 

Rory Stewart
Could Rory Stewart be our next prime minister? 

Current role/s: International development secretary and MP for Penrith and The Border

Odds of becoming Prime Minister: 14/1

Does he call himself a feminist? Yes

Good points: Stewart has been a staunch defender of the government’s international aid budget – some of which helps empower women and girls around the world. Prior to becoming international development secretary, he worked at the Ministry of Justice, where he played an (admittedly very small) role in helping bring anti-upskirting legislation through parliament.

You may also like

‘I was upskirted. I spoke out. This is what happened’

Bad points: Like all the candidates for PM, Stewart generally votes in line with the Conservative party whip. Consequently, he has voted not to exempt women’s sanitary products from VAT; voted against measures intended to make childcare more affordable and accessible; and rejected clauses in the Modern Slavery Bill that would have launched an investigation into the links between prostitution, human trafficking and sexual exploitation in England and Wales. He has also refused to put pressure on the government to change abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Hunt

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt: reluctant to intervene in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws 

Current role/s: Foreign secretary and MP for South West Surrey

Odds of becoming Prime Minister: 16/1

Does he call himself a feminist? Yes

Good points: Since taking over from Boris Johnson as foreign secretary in 2018, Hunt has reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to helping girls around the world get a proper education. And in 2017, he agreed that women across the UK “should have the rights to access healthcare” – the implication being that this should include abortion access for women in Northern Ireland.

You may also like

The Alabama abortion ban is disturbing. Northern Ireland’s is even worse

Bad points: Hunt’s overall voting record doesn’t suggest a particularly ardent feminist (during his time as health secretary, from 2012 to 2018, he was absent from votes on issues including childcare, women’s pension changes, domestic abuse and the gender pay gap). In 2016, his own government acknowledged that his junior doctors’ contracts would “impact disproportionately on women”.

And while Hunt might support the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, he did very little to make that happen as health secretary. In fact, he presided over a policy that stopped women from Northern Ireland accessing free abortions in England – a ban that was only scrapped in 2017 when Chancellor Philip Hammond intervened, following intense pressure from Labour MP Stella Creasy.

Hunt has also made clear, in statements and through votes, that he would like the abortion time limit in the rest of the UK to be reduced to 12 weeks.

So there you have it. We’re not here to say definitively whether any of these candidates are true feminists. But we do believe that politicians’ actions often speak louder than their words.

Do any of them really deserve the feminist mantle? We’ll let you be the judge.

Update: this story originally stated that eight, not 10, of the Conservative leadership candidates identified as feminists. That list has been updated after Kit Malthouse and Mark Harper also described themselves thus.

With thanks to TheyWorkForYou.com

Images: Getty Images