Right wing thinkers, like me, have a problem. We refuse to use the word “feminist” and seem blind that this is to our own detriment. We have created a vacuum allowing the feminist debate to be taken over by the left. As a result, the word “feminist” is now derided by the right because it seems to imply “‘bra burning’” or “man hating”. Conservative-minded people may be uncomfortable with the word – but it is time to reclaim it.
As a conservative woman, I rage at socialist visions, with its male interpretation of what female problems need solving. A vision of “brothers and sisters of the world unite” which treats men and women as the same. The individual is lost for the greater good of all. The right wing feminist can help put the individual woman back in to feminist debate that at times it so lacks.
The Conservatives have ignored “feminist” and “female” issues for too long. It is untenable when you know that women under-40 have deserted the Conservative Party on mass since the 2017 election. Younger women, educated to be equal to men, are happy to use the term “feminism” and it is time that we all became comfortable with it. It is not feminism that chooses political parties, but parties who choose feminism to make political points. On this journey of conservative renewal we also need to show that the right have always had feminists within their ranks and listened to women.
Despite having had two female prime ministers, nobody counts Margaret Thatcher as one of the best examples of feminism the UK has. When Geri Halliwell tweeted in 2013 “The first lady of #GirlPower, Mrs Thatcher” she was howled down and deleted the tweet. The right won’t use the word, and the left deny her as a real woman, as if a female Prime Minister has to behave in a way that only socialists can define.
It makes no sense to measure all female success in terms of what men value. And the state, as formed by successive generations of men, does not value the work of family or those private spaces of home and hearth. GDP itself counts wealth in terms of how much each person earns, where we are all subject to Karl Marx and his “units of production.” George Osborne was hooked on this male definition of usefulness, wanting ever more women and men in the endless drudgery of work so that they can get money for the greater good of all (or for the Exchequer).
As so many women struggle with the “I don’t know how she does it” society, it is not so much that the argument should be how many women are on boards, an issue that right wing feminists support fully, but more nuanced feminist debate would include how many men choose to stay at home and participate in “feminine” and undervalued caring roles. As a Conservative I believe strongly that women, and men, deserve choice. Right wing feminism would allow more focus on the individual to act as they wish rather than following the state dictum and social expectations that women deserve everything from babies to top jobs, and are failures if they don’t reach these dizzy heights.
There were times in my life when I was fully capable of participating on boards and being a taxpayer, including being leader of Richmondshire District Council, but other times when caring for my children, ageing parents in the community and relations with mental health issues, took priority. I earned less, but achieved greater choice and have been successful in my chosen spheres. But the GDP was unable to measure this success. To them I was unemployed, a mere burden on society, rather than a producer of caring that kept others off state support. And to the left wing feminists I was a middle class member of the bourgeoisie who doesn’t understand “real” women. Both are insulting.
Some women (and do read “men” in whenever you wish) want to work full time – others wish to leave the work place and re-join it when their own priorities allow. So where are the policies allowing this greater flexibility? Women should no more be forced in to the home than join the traditionally male world of success measured only by what you earn. Conservative discourse needs to rescue women’s priorities from this political narrowness. I realise that now I’m sounding like a left wing lecturer but the word feminism belongs to all women, not just lefties, so let’s use it to widen women’s choices – not narrow them down.
Interestingly attempts at feminist economics have tried to measure wealth and its supposed corollary, happiness, to include traditionally unpaid female activities, as well as paid work measured by the traditional GDP. They found that it was not the USA who was the richest country in the world but France. Money is needed but after a basic income is achieved a work life balance becomes more important.
The new feminism might bring forward new policies ideas, such as a carer’s pension, guaranteed to those who take the burden off the state by looking after their family. Not the equal state pension that we all get at present, if we work long enough, but an enhanced pension for carers when they cannot contribute to their own pensions, but are still doing valued work for society.
It is not 16-24 year olds who suffer the greatest from lack of job opportunities, but middle aged women who struggle to re-enter the work place after time off. What policies could be introduced here? The low paid in part time jobs are often mothers trying to balance child care and economic work, so where are the well paid part time jobs?
The suffragettes may have secured a partial vote for women in 1918 but there is still a long way to go before we live in a society with equal voices from men and women at decision making level. It is disgraceful that only 23 per cent of the Conservative parliamentary party are MPs. Within Local Government there’s a shocking shortfall of 12,000 women councillors needed across all parties. This lack of balance between men and women must be acknowledged and changed. Right wing feminism can help conservative minded women re-engage with the world of politics. After all, who wants to be a member of a party that women don’t want to stand for?
If the Conservatives don’t accept that women have political policy needs of particular interest to women, and these can coalesce around the word “feminist”, then the Conservative Party will be seen by younger women, and men, as speaking a different language.
Fleur Butler is the Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO) Yorkshire and Humber
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies