What Did Liz Truss’ Leadership Mean For Feminism?

Caitlin O’Donoghue addresses the turbulent Truss era – or lack thereof – and why we should make sure that female leaders are not automatically viewed as a win for feminism.

Liz Truss has resigned. After a shambolic six weeks of British politics, with the economy plummeting, ministerial resignations and a sprinkling of coercive government conduct, she has finally shown some integrity and left office. It’s a great joy of mine to watch the Tories in turmoil. Twelve years of Tory reign has ruined our country, decimated our local communities, and produced a generation disenchanted with our political system. The devastation and violence their policies have caused has proven disastrous for so many. So any signs of Tory failure, of cracks in their apparent stronghold on our democracy, are a cause for personal celebration. 

I know that many across the country do not share this sentiment with this resignation: this revelling in the Tories’ self-destruction. I can almost hear the faint cries of Conservative ‘feminists’, heartbroken to see the back of their third female Prime Minister. The Tories love to attack Labour with this, arguing that Labour cannot claim to be the party of progress when they have never had a female Prime Minister. And this argument resonates, creating a great source of shame for the Labour Party, a party founded on principles of equality and justice. 

Even feminists who do not align themselves with Conservative politics struggle with analysing the feminist implications of Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Liz Truss having been in the most esteemed political role in the country. They all technically smashed the glass ceiling, and acted as role models for little girls growing up in an age where British politics is a man’s game. Despite what they did with their position – just by the fact of them being Prime Minister – they paved the way for others, showing us that you too can be PM one day, that it is possible. Thatcher, undoubtedly one of the most influential political actors of the 20th century (or so the argument goes) normalised female success and showed that women, from working-class backgrounds no less, can be considered as serious politicians, and have the power to single-handedly change the world. 

And this logic is not limited to the political arena. Sheryl Sandburg’s book ‘Lean In Feminism: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’ , a self-proclaimed ‘sort-of feminist manifesto’, epouses this same ideology, and proved a great cultural phenomenon when it was first published. She seeks to empower women, to unleash our great potential, to reach for our dreams. If women just work hard enough, and simply assert themselves, they can thrive. And this is what many believe equates to feminist politics. Those women who manage to ‘make it’, then provide important role models for the rest of us. They give women a sense of hope that patriarchy is not all consuming and oppressive, that, with grit and determination, we can succeed in a world which works to keep us locked in our place. Female leaders are role models, and show that society is progressing, and slowly becoming more equal. 

However, as intersectional feminists who fight for the liberation of all women, this hollow identity politics will not get us to the imagined future we so desperately need. Liberation does not rest on the success of a few women to hold top jobs in a system of patriarchal capitalism, if they only work to uphold these very systems. 

Artwork by Nancy Taylor

British politics is still designed on a patriarchal, masculine notion of leadership. The best leader is one who is strong, who is stable, unemotional, rational. Not to essentialise men and women into these dichotomous categories (of course, women can too be unemotive and rational), but it does nothing for feminism if the women who become leaders simply seek to confine themselves into this patriarchal understanding. There is nothing transgressive if a leader is not reflective on the notion of ‘leadership’, if she does nothing to reimagine how this role might look like, freed from patriarchy. Without this redefining, the only way for a woman to become a leader is to fit neatly into the masculine ideal. 

More importantly, when considering the political record of Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and now Liz Truss, it is clear that their agendas were not founded on any feminist principles, that they did nothing with their power to improve the lives of women, and in fact only made them worse. 

Liz Truss’ history on political issues impacting women is bleak. She was in power for six weeks, and during her leadership, the cost of living crisis raged, putting women at more risk of financial dependence on abusive partners. Her reponse to violence against women is to rely even more on the carceral state to lock up abusers – a system which is not working and does nothing to prevent violence from taking place. Her attack on the anti-growth coalition (basically anyone who doesn’t share her hard-right neoliberal agenda) will only work to make women, disproportionately impacted by economic disparity, worse off. Furthermore, in her position as minister for women and equalities, she remained silent after Roe v Wade was overturned, and when asked in an interview if trans women were women, said ‘no’. 

Liz Truss, then, is not a feminist. Nor was Theresa May, nor was Margaret Thatcher. And while some suggest that, while their politics may not have been feminist, they have advanced the movement no less by providing important role models, I don’t buy it. Of course, Prime Ministers today represent complex political figureheads, roles which have multiple political purposes. But unless their symbolic value is more important than the substance of their policies, Liz Truss does nothing to advance feminism in our country. So while we should celebrate her resignation, rejoice in Conservative destruction, and seize this opportunity to advance a feminist agenda for all, we must too engage in the more complex process of reimagining ways to achieve our feminist utopia. Because the answer will not be a Tory female Prime Minister. 


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