Democracy · General

Talking Theresa May, a feminist’s inner debate

I have written a number of poems about Theresa May and her policies over the years. This included when I was a women’s worker heavily involved in grassroots and party politics myself and she was Home Secretary. I have grappled with myself many times over my feelings towards her. I analyze and judge myself because she is a visible representation of women in power, still such a rarity in the UK. Two British Prime Ministers have been assigned the same sex at birth as I have, and I’ve not been a fan of either. But, do I, as a longterm equalist and feminist pull her down? My answer, as someone who has been involved in politics and been a women’s worker, is complex.

I have done and will criticize her policies and question her moral compass, often passionately. I have queried her actions and even at times her basic ethics. I get angry when her womanhood is attacked but I wonder if I do it too. I’ve been involved in helping make harassment of women recognized as a hate crime in my county but I wonder where the line is when criticizing someone whose ethos as well as their actions often seem abhorrent to me.  Is it different because I am a woman and a feminist? Is it unbiased because my poems question the acts, ethics, and judgments of other politicians across genders, including the leader of the opposition? Or, does the volume and nature of my criticism veil a different or concurrent story? In all the poems I have written there is one controversial line from 2014 I still now wrestle with, but I will come to that.

Poems like Shoes? and The Poisoned Cup and A gender very clearly and firmly explore my anger at criticisms of her as a woman rather than a politician, whilst still raging against her policies and political acts. Too many talk about female politicians’ appearance, which is irrelevant to their politics. This is a kind of bating and belittling no heterosexual man in politics has to contend with. It morphs into analogies of sticking high heels in and other suggestions that certain behaviour is ‘unwomanly’, whatever that is, or because we have no children, or because we do. I’ve lived this toxic bias myself. Told as the only woman on a panel that I was talking too much, asked if I have children or what my husband thinks. Told I should not be standing because I have a man in my life. I was stalked and verbally abused. All this rubbish no politician from any party should have to contend with but they do, and they have to deal with far worse too. A diabetic heavily pregnant woman having to postpone a cesarian to vote in one of the most important parliament ballots in a century. Another pregnant woman receiving death threats for being Jewish. A serving MP stabbed to death. Straight white abled males that make up most of our parliament don’t experience this type of abuse.

I left my own political party citing discrimination, having been involved to some extent at local, regional and national level voluntarily in the years I was a member. No, I didn’t receive death threats or anything so horrific, but I left shaken, unwell and soul-weary, treated as a pariah despite having got some of the party’s best results in the 2015 elections. I was not alone in leaving. The party concerned is not remotely unique in this, but I had ploughed in everything I had and expected fairness for myself and others. All parties have discrimination in their ranks, politics and human society generally is full of it, but it’s what they do about it that counts. I’m not convinced either of the main political parties or many if not all of the smaller ones have yet developed enough self-awareness to tackle the different forms of racism, ableism and, for the main part gender bias within their membership and leaders. Do I have the self-awareness to recognize bias in myself? Perhaps. Hopefully.

I have written a lot of poems about Theresa May; more than any other single politician except perhaps Tony Blair many years ago. I’ve asked myself why and I do sense a bias in me; I think I expect higher morals from her because we have so few visible female leaders and those who would chain us in homogenous misogyny blame her womanhood and so in a way all women for her failures. In this, I have internalized the sexism and must be careful of that.  Will it stop me being angry and speaking out against burning injustices. No. Very, very no.

Dear Ministers, Lies in Old Westminster, What the Dickens? and The Big Riot (a political satire) are all pretty scathing about a number of politicians from across the house. There are many others. Yet I am often provoked by my emotions to writing about Theresa May. A large part of this is because she is Prime Minister during a time of steeply rising inequity, homelessness, hunger, and insecurity where acts of terror and racist policies hold hands. She is the Brexit PM and I have strong feelings about Brexit and the lies that warped the referendum and what came after. In The Poisoned Cup  I talk about her inheriting an unanswerable problem, but I think she helped create that problem too, long before the rise of calls for Brexit.

I’ve become aware that for me it is personal.  When I was an interfaith women’s worker active in politics in squeezed spare time, I saw for myself some of the affects of her Home Office policies. Just one example of this was a wonderful Malawian nurse who had been in this country and active in her community for 14 years snatched off the streets and taken to Yarlswood, where all the guards are white and all those detained are black or minority ethnicity. It was an oppressive place to even visit and they took visitors fingerprints. She was not given vital medicine and was in hospital when we finally managed to get her out. Getting her legal help – even getting clean underwear to her, felt like a battle. This is one of many stories I know, including of a woman, who when 14, having lived in this country since infancy, had to fight to stay. I was and am angry at this.

I feel this, together with David Cameron’s capitulation to other pressures, put in place the foundations for many present ills. The farcical process of Brexit spurred on by, amongst other things, spreading lies about immigration as a smokescreen for the real reasons too many are struggling. The racist policy of exiling citizens of the Windrush generations. The attacks on the wellbeing and security of those whose ill health or disability prevents them from being able to work. The undermining of women’s rights through the disproportionate effects of austerity. The failure to act as pledged in their 2017 election manifesto to handle the burning injustices of our time, including those linked to seriously tackling domestic violence and the exploitation of tenants and workers.

My experiences as a witness in 2014 of Theresa May as Home Secretary has placed her as one of the main authors of our current climate of insecurity. Furthermore, watching her undemocratically limiting parliamentary debating the shape of Brexit for nearly three years while the flames of burning injustices rise across the nation has not gentled my ire. Brexit, to my mind, was always going to be a vicious beast, but her actions are among those that have potentially sharpened its teeth – if it happens. May’s bad deal, created after years of negotiations with the EU but near none with Westminster until the eleventh hour, has put us at greater risk of a disastrous no deal Brexit.

My thoughts on her approach to governance can be found in poems such as Democracy, GoatskinAlternative ArrangementsContempt and in the 2014-2015 poems Dear Theresa and Securing A Bitter Future. Of all of them, it is only the last and Madame Dictator in which I question whether I have projected internalized misogynistic undertones. In my heart of hearts, I am ultimately unhappy with only one line in which I suggest she should be hushed up. It is in the context of her pushing a piece of legislation in 2014 that effectively hushed up everyone who had widely different opinions to her own. Legislation that potentially left millions voiceless, including myself and the women in the organizations I was working with.  The idea of hushing an outspoken woman up is deeply problematic. Mary Beard, in ‘Women and Power’ draws our attention to the fact that silencing of women in public life has been normalized in art and politics from the times the Classics were written. In this, I am a bad feminist.

Yet, where does my moral compass point when I am talking about someone who was with the non-violent extremism act hushing up others? It is a difficult one. Writing it I was thinking only of her as a politician not as a woman. Yet we live in a gendered society where that will be misused and / or misinterpreted by others. In that particular phrase and that particular poem I used gender-neutral phrasing to help distant it from gender rhetoric but I’m not sure, when the person is such a prominent figure, that this unpicks millennia of ‘hush hate’.

Never-the-less, I counter myself in this internal debate, the mirrored context of the others she was hushing up raged in my mind, with the knowledge I was not about to expect less from her as a politician or not say things, just because of her – and my assigned gender. I think it is telling that I would not choose to reuse the phrase, ever.

I feel Theresa May does actually believe she is doing the best for Britain. I feel more strongly than I have felt most things in my entire life that she is very dangerously wrong and misguided by prejudice, her own or other people’s . I do not believe this is because she was assigned female sex at birth, or because of her clothing choice as a woman. Most certainly May will have had a much tougher journey getting where she is now than her male colleagues and contemporaries. I do recognise that this places pressure on a person but it is no excuse for policies and processes that alienate, disenfranchise and impoverish millions while curbing parliamentary debate until there is no other option.  I will not let any person or administration singe democracy for fear of being impartial but I must choose the words I use wisely. Perhaps at times, I think unfairly she should be more astute because so few women have gained her level of influence as well as because the stakes are so high in the present political, social and environmental climate.

My fear and experience of being arbitrarily judged as a woman against a person I feel little affinity with does tint my own assessment of their actions. One woman’s social crimes become, in the eyes of many, the crimes of all women, and so we are taught to judge fellow females more harshly than males.  Yes, I’ve written critically about male MPs, No Discrimination, Making Progress? and Johnson & Drones being prime examples. However, I think I’ve ingested some of the shame poured on myself and others assigned the same sex at birth, regardless of how they identify. It is the mechanisms of misogyny, not Theresa May I should be furious at for that. Even when I take this into account, there is plenty to be angry at Theresa May about, but I should be equally angry at others. I am.

Now, to turn that anger into fuel for justice and the only way I can do that is to link it back to the love I have for those people, including myself, that I feel have been put at risk.  I must choose my words with both care and fire.

Democracy · General

Madame Dictator

 

Madame Dictator, have you not heard

Your deal was voted down historically

And yet you resurrect the interred

Proposal repeatedly, delay after delay

Burning our security & democracy away,

 

Your office not conferred

By any political majority,

You do not listen to a word

From any, except, perhaps, the ERG

Who need an ECG

To find out if they have a heart

Because they seem intent

Only on ripping us apart,

 

But you, Madame Dictator,

Like a modern Bonaparte

Say you hear

But you do not!

Stirring up terror

By running down the clock,

 

Perhaps it’s said best by Andy Serkis;

Your attitude to this rambling failure

Akin to Gollum’s with his ‘precious’;

A gold that deserved the fires of Mordor

But instead you throw our futures in

To that furnace, knowing it will make this nation so much poorer

As the homeless line the streets and food bank ques get longer,

And the extremists get stronger

And injustices reign – those you said you’d bring to order

Yet you disengage to build walls of fire at our borders

And, as for climate change …

 

You focus only on Brexit

But do so without debate

Hushing up all the elected

Tying nation states up in red tape

 

More than

Two years!

Two years

And more!

 

In a cabal of your own

Prescribed parameters,

Your negotiations

In closed door deliberations

And perambulations

As you ignite more tensions

With another deadline gone,

I have literally lost count!

Every time you tell the Commons

There will be later debate

Then roll the calendar on;

The dates for meaningful votes

Eternally postponed,

Except that historic one

Where the deal was trodden on,

The same deal you resuscitate,

 

 

All the while that lie ‘secure and stable’

When there’s nothing on the table

And security service cutbacks

Coincide with terror attacks

And there is legislation against

Generations told to go back

To the commonwealth after decades of life and work in the UK,

So, just because they are black

You citizens to go away,

And now, will more Europeans face the same?

 

I visited Yalswood, while you were Home Secretary,

Children and women fearing their fate,

Caucasian guards, all black and ethnic minority

Detainees – I thought, mine is a racist state,

My friend was denied vital medicine

They took my prints before I could go in

The package of essentials I left

Was only passed on after five days,

She had to fight for legal representation,

Hers not an uncommon story,

I’ve known others, one girl just fourteen,

Britishness part of her identity –

Her humanity you refused to see,

 

How dare you, in self-righteous glory

Proclaim you understand democracy

If you can’t see their lives matter!

 

 

Now,

Your promises in tatters;

When you said you’d listen,

See how skilfully you didn’t,

Your cabinet found in contempt

Of our disjointed constitution,

 

This is wrong! The is so very wrong!

This is becoming authoritarian

And very, very, very dark!

 

You have polluted

“Safe and Secure”

“Meaningful”

“Democracy”

“Listening”

“Vote” –

 

All convoluted

By you

Until the words stick in my throat –

 

And you call this your mission;

To re- enforce your indecent proposition

After the worst historical democratic defeat in the entire history of any Westminster government!

All you are reinforcing are the fault lines of division,

 

And, for the record, I’m not impressed by Corbyn

So, please don’t read this as propaganda

For a weakly lead, anti-Semitic opposition,

Though I will state I’m firmly left of centre

This is less about sides and more concerned

With the slide towards totalitarianism,

 

Only idiots will say it is because you’re a woman,

Though they do, pouring on scorn

For all the agelessly wrong reasons,

As they try to make you dance,

Or comment on your complexion,

In this alone I come to your defence

Yet my complaints could fill a lexicon

From your term feeding hate in the Home Office

Displaying a personal distaste towards migration

To this cutting off of deliberation in Parliament,

It’s not gender defining each subverted action

So, I will not hold back because I’m a feminist;

 

I will call you Madame Dictator,

A title not up for discussion

Unless you decide to govern better

And return the dignities you’ve taken.

 

Antonia Sara Zenkevitch