With the news that Kezia Dugdale has decided to resign as leader of the Scottish Labour party, attention has been drawn to the fact that all of the Labour Party’s senior elected figures are male, including the interim Scottish Labour leader, Alex Rowley. This has caused some to criticise how a party which claims to be so progressive has come to such a situation. However, this argument conflates female leaders with feminist leaders: not all female leaders are feminists, and not all feminist leaders are female.
This isn’t the argument to be had however: the debate we should be having is about how important female leaders are to feminism.
It seems clear that there is something in our social conventions and subconscious which makes us instinctively drawn to male political leaders in the United Kingdom. Even with extremely capable and well-established female candidates, such as Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and Angela Eagle, who have all stood against Jeremy Corbyn in Labour Party leadership elections, people still opted for Corbyn.
Granted, Corbyn did offer a radically different vision to the candidates he stood against each time. However, the question remains: if a female candidate with political views akin to Corbyn's had stood for election as leader of the Labour party, would she would have won?
It is interesting to note the public's reception to Theresa May being Prime Minister. Even as a Conservative Prime Minister (something largely favoured by the press), every little detail of May’s appearance, and the fact she doesn’t have children, has been analysed.
Contrast this to David Cameron who, by all means had his fair share of ridicule from the media on occasion (think ‘piggate’), on the whole, was more respected by the press than May has been. Are these political times more challenging than those Cameron governed through? Potentially. Does this warrant a detailed analysis of the suits May wears, or the continued invasion into the details of her domestic life? Absolutely not.
It appears there is a ruling ideology in the media that Theresa May is a less capable leader because she’s a woman. And, because she’s a woman, less time is devoted to unpicking her policies and holding her government to account, and more time criticising her wardrobe.
It is understandable then, that there is increasing support for policies such as all-women shortlists, a 50/50 gender split in the Cabinet, and other forms of positive discrimination for women. The argument that women should get such roles or opportunities through merit alone misses that point that there is a subconscious cultural predisposition to favouring men over women in such situations. Giving women that much more support in these positions will raise their profile, challenge outdated and sexist stereotypes, and encourage more females to believe they are capable of achieving anything their male counterparts can achieve.
It misses the point to say that feminism is championed simply by having female leaders. Feminism is championed by having strong female role models in jobs so frequently dominated by men. Girls come to assume they aren’t able to do these jobs because they’ve never seen a woman do it (or do it without being ridiculed or shamed by the press). Having world leaders such as Angela Merkel and Theresa May discussing world politics and standing at the pinnacle of international relations, women are empowered.
What must happen in conjunction with this, however, is that women themselves must champion the cause of feminism. Proclaiming to be a feminist is not something which comes easy for a number of world leaders, hence why Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement that he is a feminist attracted huge press coverage.
David Cameron had to clarify the definition of feminism before identifying himself with the term, which can do more harm than good: part of the struggle for the feminist movement is distancing from those who go to the extreme and demonise men. Such demonisation is not feminism, and to suggest it could be defined as such, stalls the progress of the movement. This issue runs along the same lines as ISIS representing all Muslims, or right-wing youths talking about gassing chavs as representing all young Conservative voters.
When women proudly and unreservedly declare themselves to be feminists, they empower others to do the same, and raise the aspirations of millions of women and girls around the world, assuring them they can have a world in which there are equal opportunities and no subconscious preconditions.