Maybe a feminist call to arms is a cyclical part of the 20th Century, with each wave of feminism an upgrade, a new iteration that refreshes and improves on the last and inches us ever closer to the goal: you know, the civilized society we think we live in. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) is an exciting manifestation of the latest coming of feminism. ‘Women aren’t a minority group. We’re talking about fundamental human rights without which equality cannot function, nor can society,’ says Sophie Walker, leader of the WEP.
That’s more or less how I felt as I walked away from meeting Walker. At one point during our meeting she catches my face, which has descended into gloom in response to her statement of an undeniable truth: that for women across the world ‘the pay gap starts when you are born’. But she buoys me up with an impressively off-the-cuff rhyming call to arms: ‘But that’s why we’re here! Have courage, have cheer!’ Hallelujah, Sophie.
You’d have to have had your head in the sand if you hadn’t noticed the pitch of public discourse on ‘women’s issues’ growing from a grumble into a roar. One symptom of the phenomenon is how the WEP – only months old, born out of a conversation at 2015’s Women of the World Festival between writer Catherine Mayer and everyone’s favourite Great Dane, Sandi Toksvig – exploded onto the scene at what they dubbed their ‘test run’: this year’s London Mayoral Election. 1 in 20 Londoners cast a vote for the infant party, giving them over 350,000 votes. So I spoke to Walker for our women’s issue, in order to find out what the WEP means for women, and also for men.
Public disillusionment with our form of democracy may have slumped over a decade ago, when millions turned out onto the street to demonstrate against war and the will of the people was plainly ignored. But the last year has seen a hopeful, and much needed, resurgence of interest in politics. That’s thanks to movements like WEP and – much as Walker might wish to distance the WEP from such associations – Momentum. Walker attributes the use of language like ‘collaboration’ and ‘grassroots’ to the work of the WEP. Think what you may about today’s disruptors, the effect of the grassroots movements and the importance of such empowerment among their membership is seeping into mainstream politics.
With more politicians exhausting the rhetoric ‘politics is broken’ so ‘let’s do things differently’, the WEP is tangibly doing something differently, it’s in the party’s makeup (get it? Makeup. ‘Cos they’re women). The party was formed with the ethos of collaboration and co-operation at its heart. As the only party that makes the bold claim to be non-partisan, WEP offers a joint membership in order that people who bear allegiance to other parties can still join – and help to build – the WEP. (Whether other parties will concede to this approach remains to be seen. Reports have surfaced of Labour members being expelled, and new applicants denied Labour membership owing to association with WEP, but Labour has yet to respond.) At this crucial juncture, WEP is giving members the opportunity to build their own party, ‘to build their constitution, to create the policy documents by which the party will be run’. ‘We’re inviting members to propose the motions,’ says Walker.
It’s undeniable that 2016 is a remarkable period of political and social unrest heightened by structural inequalities, the causes of which have been fermenting for years. ’If women make up 51% of the population, but they’re only 29% of MPs, 25% of judges and 24% of FTSE 100 directors, then in politics, the law and in business, women’s voices are not getting heard.’ For Walker, this means that 2016 presents a crucial and unique time for women to take some control. ‘Women’s issues,’ she says, ‘have been treated as a political football for too long.’
So what does having Theresa May in power mean for the WEP? Some (female) writers at The Spectator would argue that a female Prime Minister means there’s no longer any need for a party that promotes women’s equality. See we did it, job done. For Walker, it’s important to have a woman in a position of power provided she leads in a way that reflects the experiences of her own sex, and the extent to which this will happen remains to be seen. The WEP is calling for action from Theresa May through a campaign called 100 Days of May. 100 Days of May calls on the Prime Minister to act on domestic violence and coercive control (a form of emotional abuse and psychological abuse that reduces a person’s identity); Yarl’s Wood, the secretive women’s immigration centre embroiled in controversy about abuse of vulnerable women; the pay gap (thanks Dave); and making childcare viable for more young families.
‘We’re in uncertain waters right now,’ concedes Walker, referring to the post-Brexit political and economic landscape. Nonetheless, Walker questions May’s focus on infrastructure. ‘Of course infrastructure is fundamental, but there are other ways to grow an economy.’ According to the WEP, by getting 10% more women back to work, we could generate an additional £1.5bn for the economy.
Walker finds it shameful that we’re not making use of the full talent of women. ‘We risk losing out on talent because we don’t support it.’ She’s passionate about normalising childcare and pregnancy, both in and out of work. The boldly named campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed claims that 54,000 women are forced out of work owing to pregnancy each year. But just as women are pushed out of work, Walker says, ‘men are shunted out of family life’. She elaborates through her own experience of pregnancy, where all questions were directed towards her – how’s mum? – while her husband was left feeling like a spare part.
This year the news that there are now more new mothers over 40 than under 20 made the headlines. Many reports chose to focus on the ‘choosiness’ of generation Y; few talked in real terms about the impact of a housing crisis, the realities of sacrificing a hard-won career, the cost of childcare or surviving on a maternity allowance. Statutory maternity pay is £139.58 per week across the country, while the average weekly rent for one room in a shared London property in zones 1-4 is over £130. ‘And where is the choice?’ begs Walker. ‘Just where is the choice when childcare costs the same as what most women earn?’ Walker and the members of the WEP desperately want to speed up a shift away from the socially accepted idea that women are ‘choosing’ to have children, and lumping parenting in with ‘women’s issues’.
The WEP proposes 6 weeks of leave at 90% of pay for men (as opposed to the current 2 weeks), and 10 months of leave at statutory pay for gay couples. They propose for single parents to be able to share their leave with a nominated partner. And in terms of getting back to work, WEP will be campaigning for greater flexibility in the form of part-time working and workplace crèches to help families manage the astronomical costs of childcare. Integrating childcare into the workplace, she argues, would go some way into normalising pregnancy. She refers to a new generation of trailblazing businesses: The Third Door, a workplace hub with inbuilt crèche facilities, and Digital Mums, which trains mothers to operate social media accounts on behalf of brands and helps to set them up with flexible roles in companies, since the work can be done on a mobile phone.
When it comes to housing, Walker points out that this is a crisis that does discriminate. And yet, she says, nobody will face up to it. If there’s an hourly wage gap for women, then it follows that women will be living in greater poverty. She also points out that we need to challenge what we’re building. Handing more power to women architects, town planners and decision makers will mean we can build communities that cater for the people who live in them: communities for everyone. Offensively long toilet queues, and seats in public spaces that are too high for many, have become such a status quo that we rarely think to question them. ‘We live within constructs that fail to account for the physical needs of over half of the population!’ The WEP wants to encourage parties to collaborate better. The problem of the housing crisis is too big for partisan politics, she says. ‘Parties need to do what’s best for the people, to put the needs of the electorate first. That’s what they’re paid to do.’
When it comes to ensuring these skills are in place in the next generation, the WEP wants to ensure that in education there are more role models in both arts and sciences that encourage both boys and girls. ‘It’s not simply a question of getting more women into engineering and sciences, but equally of getting more men into the arts and creative fields.’ The Crafts Council states that the last five years have seen participation in craft-related GCSEs, including design technology, fall by 25%, while the number of higher education craft courses fell by 46%. But with craft contributing £3.4bn to the economy (and over 150,000 people across the UK deploy craft skills in other industries), and the creative industries being one of our fastest growing industries (8.9% growth in 2014), Walker asks us to rid ourselves of the idea that the arts are a frivolity.
It’s clear to me that the WEP’s agenda is simple: feminism, which I understand to mean fairness. Yes, WEP has the word ‘women’ in the name, because much of the WEP’s work must focus on women in order to achieve equality. But the consequences of their work promise to yield positive outcomes for all genders. So it surprised me how many of the men I spoke to about my interview with Walker – my friends and colleagues: well-adjusted, educated and well-intentioned people – assumed supporting the WEP wouldn’t be for them. It must be that troublesome word ‘women’.
As our meeting draws to a close, Walker chips in with a call for hope– with a dose of moderation. ‘There are reasons to be cheerful,’ she says, ‘but there’s a huge amount of work to do.’
Interview by Jessica Templeton Smith | Photography by Diana Patient