At least Raab was honest about not being a feminist – the remaining candidates are even more dangerous to women

Perhaps the contradictions between declaring yourself a feminist and acting in an entirely unfeminist way make sense in this topsy turvy universe

Kate Townshend
Wednesday 19 June 2019 12:58
Rory Stewart removes his tie during the Tory leadership debate

Ding dong, the witch… I mean, Dominic Raab... is out of the leadership contest. And who could blame women across the nation from breathing a sigh of relief. This, after all, is the man so committed to equality that he refers to feminists as “obnoxious bigots”.

And, good news everyone, the candidates remaining have all declared themselves to be feminists. So that’s all right then. No doubt we have equal pay, properly funded help for victims of domestic violence and full reproductive rights to look forward to in the promised post-Brexit land of milk, honey and liberation.

Or perhaps not.

In fact, I believe that the remaining leadership hopefuls are an embarrassment of riches when it comes to misogyny, patriarchy and sexism. Here's why.

Take “feminist” Jeremy Hunt for instance, who believes that his respect for women is best expressed by by limiting their bodily autonomy – he’d like to see the time limit for abortion reduced to 12 weeks, demonstrating a fundamental lack of empathy and understanding for the decisions women face.

Speaking of which, it’s hard to hear the name Jeremy Hunt without thinking of his bitter conflict with junior doctors over changes to their contracts, which the Department of Health’s own analysis suggested would be disproportionately damaging to female doctors.

Then there’s Sajid Javid, who also got the memo that abortion is the arena where candidates send women's rights to die. He was dismissive about the need for 'buffer zones' around abortion clinics to protect vulnerable women a few years ago. And, to my mind, his approach to Shamina Begum – however abhorrent her actions – clearly put his duties to a pregnant and vulnerable and crucially British young women below the need for political point scoring.

Michael Gove preciously thought that sexual harassment and the Weinstein scandal are suitable subjects for cringey jokes, and boasts the dubious accolade of support from anti-trans, anti-abortion MP Sir John Hayes.

Unsurprising perhaps, given that his attempts to reshape the study of history during his time as education secretary were marked by a focus on the lives of great men – frequently at the expense of women. He was famously forced into a U-turn after he tried to remove Mary Seacole from the curriculum. Because why should little girls be given the impression that they too might have had a hand in shaping the nation?

Boris's infamous comments comparing Muslim women in burkas to “letterboxes” are well documented, but no less shocking for it. To be fair to him, he has at least demonstrated a certain consistency in his sexism over the years, with a grand tradition of anti-women remarks. In 2013 he suggested that an increase in Malaysian women attending university was because they wanted to find husbands and only last year he tried to belittle Emily Thornberry by addressing her using her husband's title.

Arguably even more concerning is his voting record, with 2015 a particular low point as he voted against an assessment of the impact of government policies on women, against mitigating any disproportionate burden on women, and against publishing a gender equality strategy, as well as against annual reports and analysis on the gender pay gap.

Nicola Thorp and Piers Morgan argue about sexism on the red carpet

It’s little wonder that many of us are turning towards Rory Stewart who offers up fewer sexist skeletons in his closet – and let's face it, he's the only port in the storm going right now. It would be a mistake though to imagine that we wouldn’t still find the occasional bone. Stewart voted against banning the immigration detention of pregnant women for instance – and no amount of witty tweets can soften such a record.

In fairness, he did also point out the toxic masculine posturing that has led us to such absurd and paradoxical positions on Brexit… and indirectly to this whole debacle in the first place. The best way to get a deal, we’re told, is to be strong enough to be willing to leave without one. So perhaps the contradictions between declaring yourself a feminist and acting in an entirely unfeminist way make sense in this topsy turvey universe.

But given that one of these men will almost certainly become our next prime minister all of this really does matter.

It’s still genuinely baffling when high profile politicians shy away from the word “feminist”, given that it literally means subscribing to the view that women deserve true parity with men. But equally, just saying the words doesn’t necessarily make them true.

I try really hard not to throw the descriptor “bad feminist” around in general – because in itself it’s often an assessment grounded in sexism. You might have heard it used to suggest that you can’t be a feminist and wear high heels… or you can’t be a feminist and a stay at home mum for instance.

But this situation warrants it. In my mind, I’m simply saying you can’t be a feminist and show disregard, contempt and indifference towards women.

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