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Love her or hate her, today Theresa May tendered her resignation to the Queen and stepped down as U.K. Prime Minister. With net favorability ratings in the U.K. lower than U.S. President Donald Trump, many people will celebrate her departure. But as a strong advocate for gender parity in the Conservative Party and a female head of government when the world is short quite a few, she should be missed.
May became Prime Minister in 2016 when the U.K. voted to leave the European Union and Prime Minister David Cameron promptly resigned. Even though May had campaigned against Brexit, as Prime Minister she made it her goal to deliver it. Taking leadership of a country and a party split in two, the odds were never in her favor.
But her legacy should be more than just a failed Brexit deal.
When she announced her resignation, May reflected on her tenure as the country’s second female prime minister with hope:
I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honor of my life to hold – the second female prime minister but certainly not the last. I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.
Prime Minister Margret Thatcher famously made little effort to promote women into office. When she became the U.K.’s first female Prime Minister, there were only eight female Conservative Members of Parliament, constituting 2% of the Conservative members. In her 11 year tenure she only ever promoted one woman to the cabinet.
While much progress still needs to be made, May has played a significant role in pushing for gender parity in the Conservative Party. In 2005 she co-founded Women2Win, an organization which has led the campaign to get more Conservative women in office. At the time, only 9% of Conservative MPs were women, and May was one of 17. At the announcement of the campaign, when David Davis and David Cameron were both competing to be Conservative party leader, May said, “It is a little-known fact that there are more men in the shadow cabinet called David than there are women.”
Although Women2Win has not brought effective systemic strategies like gender quotas or gender-balanced candidate lists to the Conservative Party, many credit them in part with the increase that has occurred in female Conservative MPs, from 17 in 2005 to 68 in 2019. They recruited and supported female candidates, and pushed the conversation forward about getting more Conservative women in Parliament.
Conservatives are still one of the worst U.K. parties when it comes to women’s representation. Only 21% of their MPs are women; compare to Labour at 45% or the Scottish National Party at 34%, according to a House of Commons briefing. And they will likely remain low on women’s representation as long as they avoid implementing systematic reforms instead of focusing on recruiting individual women to run. But May’s group deserves credit for at least pushing the conversation forward, and for pushing for progress at all.
May was not a perfect champion for women in government; however, to hold her to a higher standard than her male colleagues would be a mistake. She did not break records with women in her cabinet, and she has not expressed support for serious changes in the Conservative party.
But today Boris Johnson becomes the new U.K. Prime Minister. He is a man well known for his offensive remarks, many of them dripping with sexism. So as Theresa May leaves, and the G20 loses one of two women leaders, a reflection on her efforts to promote women’s representation in Britain seems appropriate. Leadership is important, and one might wonder if the Conservatives will find it even more difficult to recruit strong female candidates with Johnson, as opposed to May at the helm.