You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Empowerment for What?

The limits of a feminist politics of elite representation

Illustration by Tony Rodriguez

Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher: I’ve known that rhyme for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight when my mother explained to me that when she was my age, all children were given free milk at school, but a mean woman who used to be prime minister had taken it away. Some children still got milk if their parents, like mine, could afford to pay for it. But other children had to go without. I understood that this was grossly unfair, and that it was all the fault of Margaret Thatcher.

For most of my childhood, my parents weren’t particularly political. Certainly, I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up being dragged back and forth between protests, rallies, and party meetings. Our household didn’t take a daily newspaper. But I lived in a part of the U.K. where hating Thatcher wasn’t understood as an extreme or partisan stance. It was basically the default position. Over time, I came to understand this loathing as a thread running through seemingly disparate adult conversations. A family friend who’d lost his steel industry job in the early 1980s and had never worked again? Well, it was Thatcher who closed the steelworks. The physical decline, and associated rise in antisocial behavior, afflicting previously thriving, bustling neighborhoods that had been “left to rot” by the government? Well, you can guess by now just who was in charge when things started to go wrong.

Thatcher and Thatcherism have long stood as a forceful rebuke to one of the central articles of faith among many feminist thinkers and critics in the United States: the notion that in order for gender equality to be achieved, a woman, any woman, must be installed in the Oval Office with utmost priority. The vehemence of this belief brings to mind the now-quaint and overexuberant pundit prophecies in the wake of Barack Obama’s elevation to the presidency, which proclaimed in near-unison that America had officially passed into a “post-racial” phase of political life. In this view of things, more than four centuries of institutional racism and political terror simply vanished the moment that Obama placed his hand on the Bible and was sworn into office in 2009. It took the terrible wave of police killings of unarmed young black suspects, and the mobilization of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, to jolt the American political establishment back into the recognition that the country was far away indeed from anything resembling a “post-racial” social order.

As America launches a new presidential primary season featuring a record number of female Democratic candidates, it’s worth recalling one of the most startling statistics from the 2016 general election: Self-proclaimed sexual assaulter Donald Trump, so pure an avatar of the patriarchal world’s will-to-power that he would be deemed over-the-top as a Marvel Comics villain, won the vote of a majority of white women. What’s more, he did so by running against the first female presidential nominee of a major party in American history, widely revered as the living embodiment of female empowerment.

How did this come to pass? Here’s one clue: On election night 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign team had lavishly choreographed an allegorical rendering of a giant glass ceiling being shattered, to commemorate what nearly all Democratic operatives and consultants agreed would be her inevitable and automatic ascension to the presidency. For those of us who were more than a little skeptical about the prospect of another Clinton presidency (less “With Her,” as the slogan went, than desperately appalled at the alternative), the elitist, corporate connotations were overwhelming. It seemed an unwittingly revealing statement about which women’s interests Clinton’s particular brand of feminism was supposed to represent.

The flaws of individual candidates in no way diminish the centrality of gender and racial equality as critical, non-negotiable priorities in Anglo-American left politics. But at the outset of an unprecedented, female-heavy 2020 campaign cycle, the example of Thatcher, in particular, merits closer investigation as a case study in what representation can and cannot achieve.

My own sense of what Thatcherism stood for in British political debate underwent something of a rude awakening as I came of political age. Until I moved to a different, more affluent city to attend college, I don’t think I’d heard anyone say a single positive thing about Thatcher or her legacy. I must have realized, at some level, that my hometown of Sheffield wasn’t representative of the entire country. A city of about half a million in the industrial north of England, it had been hit hard by the decline of the steel industry and was surrounded by struggling ex-mining towns. Just a few miles east was the site of the infamous Battle of Orgreave, during which mounted police officers were deployed against picketing National Union of Mineworkers members during the strike of 1984–85. Sheffield had, in short, every imaginable reason to detest the so-called Iron Lady. Still, it came as a shock to discover that the perception of her as one of history’s major villains was not as universal as I’d previously assumed.

In a first-year seminar, I was introduced to the idea that my own hatred of Thatcher might be rooted in internalized misogyny. I remember the moment clearly, because it was so flabbergasting. No, I remember thinking, avoiding eye contact with the glossy-haired, poshly spoken undergraduate who’d leveled the indirect accusation. No, that’s not it. The things I despise her for really happened. People’s futures truly were ruined when she destroyed the industries in which they’d worked their whole lives, with no effort to mitigate the worst effects of those changes. Whole cities actually were left to decay after she knowingly sucked the lifeblood from them. She really did take milk away from schoolkids.

The right, empowered: British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the U.N. General Assembly in 2017.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more circumspect in my opinion. Gendered thinking no doubt contributed to Thatcher’s image as a pantomime villain in Sheffield and other outposts of deindustrializing Britain. Had it been a man making those decisions, maybe the criticism would be somewhat less venomous and personalized—though it would have still been unrelentingly bitter, given the stakes of the debate. My seminar accuser was correct in stating that society is hostile to strong women, that it likes to take them down a peg or two—and certainly no one could deny that Margaret Thatcher was a strong woman.

Still, it seems clear that the relative weight you attach to these two issues—the sexism that has contributed to the demonization of Thatcher as a heartless, inhuman witch, gleefully inflicting pain on working people and small children, and the quite severe negative consequences suffered by many as a result of her policy choices—is very much a matter of perspective. Personally, though I fully recognize that much of the rhetoric about her is tainted with misogyny, I find it difficult to care. Indeed, considered alongside the suffering Thatcher was responsible for, it seems an utter triviality.

Of course, I’m aware of the obvious counterargument—that the rote demonization of Thatcher mattered because it was about much more than Thatcher as an individual. Rather, this argument insists, we feminists should stay focused on the wider issue of endemic sexism creating extra hurdles for women seeking political power, no matter what their agenda. On its own terms, this claim is hard to argue with. You only have to read the social-media mentions of any random selection of female politicians to realize that misogyny knows no ideological bounds. More dubious is the flip side argument, sometimes stated explicitly, but often made through a kind of sleight of hand: Because it’s bad that there are additional struggles for women in politics, it’s by definition good for women in politics to succeed. When a woman obtains high office, that candidate’s ascension marks a victory for women as a whole. Therefore, because we are feminists, it is our duty to support female candidates wherever possible.

This is where things get thorny—and before plunging headlong into the brambles, I’d like to clearly state that I do believe representation matters. It matters, first of all, as an indirect indication of women’s freedoms and status in wider society. If I knew nothing about a country other than that it lacked a single female elected representative, I’d likely conclude that the wider social order in question was not much interested in women’s liberation. Hard evidence suggests that the correlation between female representation in politics and other indicators of gender equality isn’t exact, but a correlation certainly exists.

Gender balance in politics is also crucial because it matters that girls grow up knowing everything possible for boys to achieve is possible for them too. That knowledge will help shape their understanding of the world and their place within it, regardless of whether they personally pursue a high-flying career. It also seems reasonable to assume that women’s individual life experiences make them statistically more likely to legislate in a way that benefits women generally. For example, abortion access may be a higher priority for a politician who’d had to terminate a pregnancy.

I think this last point—while not always argued explicitly by champions of gender representation—is what lends most power to claims that female legislators are by definition beneficial for women as a whole. It’s not always easy to tell from mainstream media coverage, but politics is ultimately about policy. The sorts of issues that tend to excite Capitol Hill and Westminster reporters—gaffes, apologies, withering anonymous quotes, even rumors about particular candidates mistreating their staffers—have little impact on the lives of the majority of people. As plainly self-evident as it might sound, what matters most are the concrete, material consequences of legislation passed and administrative decisions made. How much money is collected through taxation, how are those taxes structured, and what is the money spent on? Who has which formal legal rights, and who has access to the resources necessary to actually enjoy those rights?

To a remarkable degree, mainstream feminist discourse in America tends to downplay these sorts of questions. In order to trace the consequences of this policy-aversion, it’s clarifying to break down the broad category of “women or girls” into smaller constituent groups. All other things being equal, we might expect that young girls would derive some benefit from seeing a woman occupying the highest political office in their country. They may feel inspired to pursue their own dreams, or to be more confident around male peers. These things are hard to quantify, but it seems reasonable to assume that such a prominent female role model would have some positive effect.

The issue, of course, is that other things never are truly equal. Even within a single party, competing political candidates never have precisely the same policy platforms, priorities, and goals. What’s more, different groups of women and girls are differently affected by the various policies candidates might support. Universal free child care means something very different for a working-class single mother than it does for a woman in a two-parent family with an income of $200,000 per year. Something like the DREAM Act’s provision for a limited immigration amnesty doesn’t really affect a U.S.-born citizen, but it could transform the life of an undocumented migrant woman. Gun control, regulation of law enforcement practices, border policy, tax hikes, tax cuts, free college, minimum wage increases and decreases, employment rights, tenants’ rights, infrastructure investment, government bailouts of employers, health care policy—all of these things affect some girls and women far more than others.

Even seemingly universal issues like abortion access influence the lives of different women on a strikingly variable calculus, depending on the kinds of resources available to them. If you have sufficient savings and a passport, flying to a country with more liberal abortion laws is available as a last-ditch option; likewise, within the United States, comparatively privileged women seeking to terminate a pregnancy within a state that’s enacted draconian anti-choice laws can travel out of state for the procedure. But for less fortunate women, the choice may be between attempting to secure an unmanageable loan to fund a life-threatening illegal termination (since it continues to be true that when abortion is criminalized, dangerous backstreet operations become far more common) or carrying and giving birth to a baby you feel entirely unequipped to care for.

There’s a similar, and rarely acknowledged, class element to the current hot-button topic of sexual harassment and assault. The #MeToo movement has shown that the plague of male sexual predation affects even the wealthy and glamorous, but the options available to A-listers preyed on by monsters like Harvey Weinstein are different from those available to struggling newbies trying to get a foothold in the entertainment industry. And the newbies’ range of choices are, by the transitive property of socioeconomic power, often greater than those on offer for hospitality, domestic, and farm workers. Victims at the bottom of the economic food chain may be terrified by the genuine possibility that kicking up a fuss will lose them the income they rely on to put food on the table. They also may refrain from seeking police help, for fear of losing their public-subsidized housing or being handed over to immigration authorities. Likewise, though domestic violence knows no class or cultural boundaries, it’s far easier to leave a violent home when you’re confident the alternative isn’t sleeping on the street. Gendered violence is about power, and two things that significantly decrease the power disparity between two people are legal rights and independent financial means.

Despite the claims of the many high-profile apostles of trickle-down feminism, women simply cannot live on inspiration alone. It doesn’t matter how many kick-ass, powerful role models present themselves on the public stage; material factors significantly shape what’s possible for different people. Imagine two teenage girls, both smart, driven, and keen to pursue a career in politics. One has her own bedroom, no caregiving commitments within her family, and a quiet place to study each night. The other looks after her two small siblings after school until her mother gets home from work at around 8 p.m. One works hard, secures a place at Harvard and completes unpaid internships on the Hill during summer breaks—something that’s only possible because her parents agree to pay her rent. Against the odds, the other also gets the grades to be admitted to an Ivy, but she decides to attend a local college to minimize debt and stay close to her mother, who still sometimes needs help with child care. She works a fast-food job on the side to cover her basic living costs. The first graduates with honors. The second starts off well, but then her little brother gets sick, and the family’s insurance won’t cover all the expenses. It becomes harder to justify staying in college, and eventually she drops out to work full-time and help more with bills. Which one of these two young women, both brimming with potential, is more likely to achieve her dream?

Now think of two presidential candidates. One is standing on a platform of universal free health care, free public college tuition for all, universal child care and preschool, and a $15 federal minimum wage. The second is standing on a platform of slightly expanding existing, patchy health care coverage, free tuition for in-state students at public colleges, a cap to ensure that no family has to spend more than 10 percent of its income on child care, and a vague proposal for a minimum wage increase. The second candidate is a woman, the first is a man. Without expending too much time relitigating the well-worn, bitter particulars of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, it seems clear to me that the first candidate’s platform is more beneficial for the second of our imaginary teenage girls, the one whose life chances are severely restricted by economic factors and family responsibilities. For the first girl, however, the policy differences described don’t matter much. Her family already has excellent health insurance. She’s already attending an Ivy League college. Her family doesn’t struggle with child care costs. It’s unlikely she’ll ever work for minimum wage, and, if she does, her income will probably be subsidized by her parents. In her case, it seems quite plausible that the benefit she derives from having a female president as a role model is greater than the benefit she’ll derive from more materially redistributive social policies.

Of course, there are all sorts of possible objections to the short summaries of Sanders’s and Clinton’s respective 2016 platforms that I’ve provided here. I chose a select handful of policies because I personally think they are important, and because they lend themselves well to direct comparison. Your mileage may vary. There are also parallel debates about electability, not to mention the political and economic feasibility, of each candidate’s platform, all of which are plausible reasons to favor one candidate over the other. For what it’s worth, I believe that, taking all factors into account, Sanders was the preferable candidate, but for the purpose of this essay it doesn’t matter whether I’m right. The point is this: It was my sincerely held opinion that the male candidate was better for women than the female candidate, because his policies did more to improve the lives of low- and middle-income people.

The power circuit: Hillary Clinton and a fan at a New York Fashion Week event last year.
Landon Nordeman/Trunk Archive

What was striking during the primary wasn’t that prominent Clinton supporters disagreed with this assessment, which is only to be expected. It’s that many seemed hostile to discussing policy at all. Clinton was both a woman and (unlike Thatcher, who vehemently rejected the label) a proud feminist. On this basis alone, various Clinton surrogates attempted to frame backing Sanders over her as an inherently sexist act. The well-flogged archetype of the Bernie Bro—a brash, angry young man with a blind spot on identity and a tendency to argue aggressively on social media—was presented and derided as someone entirely representative of Sanders’s base. Women, particularly women of color, who couldn’t be easily dismissed this way were sometimes labeled “bro-adjacent.” Feminist author Gloria Steinem suggested that young women, who were statistically even more likely to back Sanders than young men were, did so in order to appeal to “the boys.”

Never mind that in the United States, as globally, women are disproportionately represented among the poor and precariously employed. And never mind that young people have been hit hardest by the lasting effects of the financial crisis, so have a particularly strong motivation to support a candidate promising both to radically improve baseline living standards, and to take on the concentrated financial power that caused the problem in the first place.

For women who favor comparatively bold policies advancing material equality, the whole thing was dispiriting and exhausting. Conversations I’ve had with female leftists in the United States suggest that, for many, the experience of being smeared as anti-feminist has permanently altered how they relate to both the Democratic Party and mainstream feminism. Even seemingly benign articles celebrating the record number of women running for president as good for women generally—a sentiment that’s hardly objectionable at face value—arouse immediate suspicion on the feminist left over where the argument’s likely to go next. Yes, a larger number of female candidates would seem to be a positive thing, but it doesn’t guarantee that the candidate whose policies are most beneficial for female voters will actually be a woman. In the context of electoral politics, even conceiving of women as a single group, united by shared interests, is something of a fiction. All women are vulnerable to sexual harassment, for example. But policy solutions that might help a low-paid, precariously employed fast-food worker, such as employment protections that allow her to report a male supervisor’s inappropriate behavior without fear of being fired in reprisal, are likely to be considered an inconvenience by female CEOs. In the United States, 40 percent of female fast-food workers have been sexually harassed at work, with many saying they feel powerless to prevent it.

In general, the idea of unitary “women’s interests” makes the most sense when you avoid thinking too much about the gritty details of policy. The intangible, universal benefits of increased representation can seem far more significant in isolation than they do weighed against a list of ways candidates may materially improve or worsen an individual’s situation. Obviously, if your situation is likely to remain fairly comfortable no matter who’s in charge, this will probably influence your priorities. I don’t think it’s any coincidence at all that politics and political media are both dominated by people whose life stories more closely mirror the affluent, relatively untroubled existence of the first imaginary teenage girl I described.

Alternatively, the automatic assumption that female candidates are better for women generally may stem from a kind of benign sexism. The idea that women are inherently gentle, compassionate, and selfless—attributes appropriate for their natural role as caregivers—can insidiously distort expectations of governments with female leaders, while simultaneously making it easier for bad actors in the private sector to apply a thin feminist veneer to activities that are deeply destructive to the lives of less-advantaged women and girls. Immediately following the financial crash, it became something of a meme to contend that if women had been in charge of the banks, none of it would have happened. (In fact, Lehman Brothers, the firm whose collapse helped set off the 2008 global economic meltdown, was known as one of the financial industry’s most enlightened promoters of female executives.) And how many times has it been claimed that if women ran the world, there would be no more war? The track record of Lady Thatcher, the architect of the pointless and bloody Falklands war, stands once again as a bracing policy reminder that women are just as capable of perpetrating imperial folly as male heads of state are. Ditto of course for Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton—and indeed, for several of the 2020 female Democratic presidential candidates, who are strikingly prone to saber-rattling in matters of foreign policy.

The Iron Lady’s reign certainly helps explain why the narrative that female leaders are, by definition, better for women seems to hold less weight in the U.K. than it does in the United States—particularly now that we’re on our second hard-right female prime minister. However positive your opinion of Margaret Thatcher might be, you’re unlikely to reach for words like “caring” or “gentle” to characterize her tour in office. As for Theresa May, as home secretary she was best known for her “hostile environment” immigration policy, under which she proudly boasted she would “deport first and hear appeals later.” As prime minister, May has continued to eagerly exploit widespread British distrust of foreign peoples and advocate for draconian crackdowns on immigration, to the extent that it’s hard to distinguish her stance on these questions from that of stateside bigot-in-chief Donald Trump. May has also chosen to continue with the program of instituting ever-steeper social spending cuts introduced under the last Conservative leader, David Cameron—the burden of which has been overwhelmingly shouldered by women and disabled people.

In other words, though Theresa May lacks both her female predecessor’s force of personality and aptitude for pushing her harmful agenda through Parliament, in many respects the legacy of Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher, is alive and well in the May era. So as the 2020 campaign cycle kicks into gear, consider this a warning from a country that’s had to learn the hard way: Electing a female president would be a wonderful, historic thing, but what really matters is that president’s platform. Don’t let misleadingly universalizing, feel-good feminist rhetoric distract from the most crucial question: What does each candidate intend to do with the power they’re seeking? A more crowded field will force the Democratic female aspirants of 2020 to be more specific than Clinton managed to be in advancing their own versions of female empowerment. Let’s start asking them now just which women will be empowered, and how, by the changes they’re proposing. And equally important, who stands to lose out?