David Cameron struggled to say it, and refused to wear the T-shirt; Theresa May had no such trouble. This week, Boris Johnson’s press secretary uttered the F-word: contrary to fears, the prime minister is a feminist, she said. And what’s more, he’ll prove it by promoting more women to the cabinet.
To Johnson’s detractors – from his previous partners to his current political opponents – this is news indeed. After all, this is a man who once joked (or perhaps he was being serious) a Conservative government would “cause your wife to have bigger breasts”; a man who salivated about the prospect of “semi-naked women ... glistening like wet otters” playing beach volleyball in the 2012 London Olympics; a man whose romantic entanglements have, to put it politely, reportedly made life complicated for the women sharing his bed.
In fact, the prime minister’s allies have long suggested he’s an ardent supporter of gender equality. Nimco Ali, now an independent government adviser for tackling violence against women and girls, raised eyebrows during the Conservative leadership election in 2019 when she pronounced Johnson “a real feminist”. Her argument was that when he was London Mayor, she’d lobbied him about ending female genital mutilation. He’d listened, and gone on to work with her for several years on the issue.
And since entering No 10, he has at the very least paid lip service to championing women’s rights. According to his press secretary, Allegra Stratton, he described himself as a feminist in a meeting with female MPs last autumn.
When he announced the current lockdown in January, he went out of his way to make clear that victims of domestic abuse were exempt from the stay at home law. And, at Monday’s press conference, he acknowledged – unlike some in his government – that the burden of homeschooling “has disproportionately fallen on women, often holding down jobs and providing childcare at the same time”.
Whether these manifestations of his feminist beliefs are deeply felt or partly impressed upon him by Stratton and her friend, his fiancee Carrie Symonds, remains to be seen.
And in any case, as the suffragettes might have said, the proof will be in deeds – not words.
Which brings me onto the looming post-pandemic cabinet reshuffle. Promoting capable women is, without a doubt, urgently needed. There are just five women out of 23 full members of the cabinet – less than a quarter.
The coronavirus press conferences have been overwhelmingly fronted by men. The “optics”, as spin doctors like to say, are not good, particularly when women have been most weighed down by the pandemic – economically, emotionally and physically. As I’ve observed before, the job losses have disproportionately affected women.
Calls to domestic abuse charities have soared. And yes, as the prime minister has noted, and several studies have shown, women are shouldering far more of the domestic and childcare responsibilities than men.
As the government tries to pick up the pieces of the pandemic, Johnson’s feminist cheerleaders say women should be front and centre; not as a PR exercise, but to ensure they’re crafting policies which don’t perpetuate the inequalities brutally exposed by Covid-19.
The reshuffle won’t be easy, though. The prime minister is under pressure to move Priti Patel from the Home Office, but there’s no obvious female replacement for her. And there’s unlikely to be an imminent vacancy at the Treasury, so making history by appointing the first female chancellor may elude Johnson for now.
But there are plenty of other impressive women tipped for promotion elsewhere. Victoria Atkins, currently a junior minister at the Home Office, has impressed many colleagues, though Johnson reportedly hasn’t in the past been a big fan. The solicitor general Lucy Frazer is in line for better things, and Stratton herself singled out Vicky Ford, children’s minister, and Helen Whately, minister for social care.
Newer MPs expected to get a foot in the door with more junior ministerial roles include Claire Coutinho, currently a Treasury aid; and Laura Trott, who sits on the health select committee.
So, really, if Mr Johnson sets his mind to it, it’s possible for him to not only show he’s got the T-shirt, but – like his immediate predecessor – is prepared to wear it, too.
Stratton made her comments about the prime minister’s intentions on International Women’s Day. But he surely needs to make this commitment 365 days a year.
When a woman can disappear off the streets of London, leaving others fearful for their safety; when two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner, centuries of inequality needs to be overturned from the very top. There’s no time to waste.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm
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