New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Liz Truss waves as she leaves Conservative Party Headquarters on September 5, 2022 in London, England. The Conservative Party have elected Liz Truss as their new leader replacing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned in July.
Liz Truss went from Liberal Democrat activist to lead the Conservatives
03:07 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of “Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party” and “Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist.” The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more Opinion on CNN.

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This week, Liz Truss became Britain’s third female prime minister. Feminists in the United Kingdom and beyond – even those who disagree with Truss’s policies – will likely appreciate her appointment for the message it sends: There is no longer a “glass ceiling” within British politics.

Laura Beers

Truss, however, is not known for her embrace of gender solidarity. Like Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Truss’s loyalties appear to lie first and foremost with her party, not her sex.

Her lack of solidarity with other female politicians was on display this past month, when Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin was subjected to criticism after a video of her partying with friends surfaced on social media.

Other female politicians rushed to Marin’s defense, noting that Marin was being held to a different standard than her male counterparts. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted a photograph of herself dancing in Cartagena, Colombia, with the caption “As [former Texas governor] Ann Richards said, ‘Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels’” and exhorting Marin to “keep dancing.”

Likewise, US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and former Canadian Cabinet Minister Catherine McKenna rallied to Marin’s defense – with McKenna claiming Marin was only subjected to such scrutiny by merit of being a “younger woman.”

At 47, Truss is similarly a comparatively “younger woman” – Britain’s two other female prime ministers were 53 and 59, respectively, on taking office. Yet, unlike other female leaders, Truss remained silent on the media controversy surrounding Marin’s private life. (Admittedly, Truss may have been reluctant to court controversy in the midst of her campaign for the job of prime minister, acutely aware of the need to woo Conservative Party members voting for the next leader.)

But her lack of public solidarity with Marin hints at an unwillingness to be defined as a “woman” politician, an unwillingness that augurs ill for those who might hope that the new female prime minister will show a particular awareness of the gendered impact of government policy on British women in the face of the current cost-of-living crisis.

Theresa May, Britain’s last female prime minister (who held the top job before Boris Johnson) was a self-proclaimed feminist. A co-founding member of the group Women2Win, which mentors Tory women interested in entering politics, May was famously photographed wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “This is what a feminist looks like.” While many within the feminist movement felt that she could have done more to advance women’s interests, even her detractors praised her legacy on behalf of battered women and victims of female genital mutilation and in support of an extended maternity leave provision.

Truss, in contrast, has remained largely silent on her attitude towards gender politics, despite the fact that, until assuming her premiership, she held the title of Minister for Women and Equalities alongside her brief as Foreign Secretary.

Her campaign plans to tackle violence against women included making street harassment a crime. She has never voted to restrict abortion access; however, even some critics within her own party have questioned her commitment to defending reproductive rights. As foreign secretary, she made no comment on the US’s recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, and endorsed the rewriting of a multi-national statement on freedom of religion and gender equality to remove references to abortion access.

In one of the few interviews in which Truss has used the term “feminism,” she told the BBC in October 2019 that she saw herself as a “Destiny’s Child feminist” (in reference to the music group whose alumnae include Beyoncé Knowles). This was because Truss believed women should be “independent,” which she clarified to mean that they should not be treated as “victims” in need of special government support, but rather as “individuals with their own abilities” who should be “empowered” by the state to achieve their own potential – a limited definition of feminism that emphasizes the freedom to make your own choices and succeed, rather than the freedom conferred by protection from systemic obstacles.

Almost three years later, Truss comes to power at a time of acute economic crisis, with the Labour opposition arguing that the government needs to raise “the floor provided by our social safety net.” Truss, in contrast, has argued that the solution to Britain’s economic woes is not social welfare spending but the stimulation of growth through low tax policies.

When Thatcher was prime minister, feminists criticized her for failing to take account of how her government’s determination to cut social welfare spending disproportionately impacted unmarried women workers in particular, who were more likely to be in part-time employment and dependent on state benefits to support a household.

While the difference in pay between male and female workers – the so-called gender pay gap – has declined since Thatcher was prime minister, men continue to be paid nearly 8% more than women for comparable work. In 2021, for the first time in decades, the gender pay gap actually increased in Britain. Women remain more likely to be dependent on state benefits – 53% of universal credit claimants are female. And, according to a study by the New Education Union, British women are more likely than men to experience persistent poverty.

That study was supported by a recent analysis of Department of Work and Pensions data undertaken by the opposition Labour Party. According to Labour’s shadow women and equalities minister Anneliese Dodds, women in particular feel “brutally exposed” to the cost of living crisis engulfing Britain today. “The government’s own statistics show women feel less likely to cope with a sudden rise in bills than men,” she added.

Truss’s promise of a freeze to energy bills will come as welcome news to many of these women, and to others who risk being pushed into poverty by soaring energy prices. In contrast, her commitment to regressive taxation policies will exacerbate the comparative disadvantage of poorly paid British women.

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    Unless Truss discovers that feminism means more than “independence,” she risks legislating in ways that increase the persistent disadvantages under which British women labor – and push more women into comparative poverty.

    It is, of course, possible that the experience of office will awaken in Truss a deeper appreciation of her obligation to be, not only a woman prime minister, but a prime minister for women. Former long-serving German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not campaign as a feminist before being elected leader, but her experience in office led her to an increased appreciation of feminism and gender politics.

    However, if Truss ignores the disproportionate impact of government austerity policies on Britain’s women, they may end up punishing her at the ballot box further down the road – ensuring the UK’s third female prime minister is a one-term prime minister.