Jo Swinson Is Not Your Feminist Icon

The virtue of simply "being a woman" does not automatically make you good for women.
Photo via BBC.

Jo Swinson has a hard job. Beyond the fact the Lib Dems have a real problem with producing election material that isn't misleading, it's no easy feat being the woman leader of a political party.

While men tend to fail upwards (see: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), women must work harder to be considered equal. Women also face a disproportionate amount of abuse in politics, and many have stepped down this election cycle as a result. Swinson's experience in politics – as a woman, and as someone with kids – will have been challenging. But this does not make her feminist icon.


This week, Swinson attempted to frame herself as the feminist protagonist of this election. Taking aim at the upcoming ITV debate, which will only feature the leaders of the two largest parties, Swinson has accused Johnson and Corbyn of sexism, and of "refusing to debate". Swinson has also threatened ITV with legal action if the channel won't change the format.

Like a marketing exec smelling the opportunity to crowbar feminism into the selling of a water bottle, by printing #girlboss along it in hot pink font, the Liberal Democratic launched a campaign for the Tory and Labour leaders to #DebateHer, with no mention of including other party leaders who are women, like Green co-leader Siân Berry. Yass, sister – preach!

There's undoubtedly a plethora of women-hating idiots who work in TV, just as there are in every walk of life. There's also a good argument to be made that our voting system disadvantages any other party than the main two. But Swinson's tactical feminist-washing is simply not how fighting sexism works.

You can't position yourself as a feminist figure when it suits you if you have been happy to disadvantage women when it was convenient politically. Just take a look at Swinson's voting record while working in a coalition with the Conservatives during the introduction of austerity – a policy that hit women hardest and was described in a 2018 UN report as inflicting "great misery" upon the people of Britain.


Voting records aren't the be all and end of political beliefs, but it's hard to see how concerned Swinson was about women's lives while voting against increasing benefits in line with inflation, or voting 25 times against an increase in welfare spending, or voting 11 times for the bedroom tax (she has now said "we shouldn't have let that through").

Swinson's claim to feminism is symptomatic of the belief that it's not your actions but your identity as a woman that helps to promote a feminist cause. How else to explain her fandom of Margaret Thatcher, that other woman leader who just sort of forgot to promote or improve the lives of women while in power? Last year, Swinson wrote an article for feminist bible the Mail on Sunday arguing for a statue of the godmother of neo-liberalism to be erected in Parliament.

We live in a world where you can slap "empowered" on the front of a ballpoint pen and pretend it's feminist. The concept of feminism has been co-opted by capitalism to sell, twisted out of its original meaning of "furthering the rights of women" and extracted from its radical roots to superficially encompass, well, literally anything. Crucially, being a woman does not enter you into some sort of club where every action you take is a feminist statement. Enacting true social change is a little harder than that.

Swinson as a woman leader of a party? Great! Swinson's voting record? Not feminist. Any action she takes as a woman? Like eating a doughnut? Grey area, but not necessarily feminist.

The Lib Dems have not released their manifesto yet, so it's too soon to dive into the specifics of what Swinson might be offering women – but has said the Lib Dems' plan is to fund free childcare and "tackle inequalities". Of course, it's unlikely they will get to implement any promises they do make. Ultimately, the true power of the Lib Dems isn't in forming a majority government, but helping either Labour or the Tories get the numbers. Swinson has ruled out forming a coalition with either, but whether that's a sustainable position remains to be seem.

Jo Swinson will undoubtedly have experienced sexism – vast swathes of it. All women have, and those who also experience other forms of oppression like racism (such as Labour MP Diane Abott, the first black woman MP elected to Parliament) will have it even worse. It's good to see a woman front and centre of this election, but that does not outweigh voting for austerity for years, hyping up Margaret Thatcher or ruling out forming a government with a party actively forwarding the rights of women. It takes a little more than just "being a woman" to create positive social change.