Another tumultuous year roles by alongside the political fall out of Brexit and the continued instability of the current government. The #MeToo movement, and the increasingly popularised participation in activism, has led to an unprecedented rise in awareness surrounding Feminism. Yet there is one group of women that has looked further than the power of the Internet, taking the fractured system head on. For the last three years, the Women’s Equality Party has been working tirelessly to fight for a place in parliament, to address the issues still affecting women today. Co-founded by Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig in 2015, the WEP has steadily been gaining influence and expanding their membership. With seven candidates in the 2017 General Election, it’s clear the WEP is driven by a strong ambition for women’s place in the future.

For the WEP, “equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population and a society at ease with itself”. It’s for this reason that the party focuses on equal representation and pay in politics, and throughout working life, equal caregiving, an education system that creates opportunities for children, equal health, and an end to violence against women. In doing so, the party hopes to create a better future for everyone, regardless of gender, hoping to fix the fractured gender relations that are embedded in our society.

After the original Brighton branch was split into four, the WEP Brighton has been recruiting more members in the lead up to the local elections. Brighton Branch Leader Bev Barstow, the WEP’s candidate for the Hanover elections, spoke to The Badger about her move into politics around 7 months ago.

“The “trigger” to join, and usually there is a trigger, was the “Me Too” movement, John Worboys potential release, the sex pay gap and the fact that 2018 is the suffragette centenary. I realised that although it was 100 years ago that some women got the vote, there was still a long way to go before full equality between the sexes could be achieved.”

“Whilst all women may be able to vote, we are not equally represented in Parliament. You either have equality or you don’t, you don’t just have a bit of it. I also read some figures on violence against women by men and I was, and still am, outraged by them… and statistics are usually the tip of the iceberg. Women and girls are being let down by the State when it comes to providing a safe, harassment free, violence free society. The result of inequality is the cause of sexual violence. It has become structurally and culturally embedded in our society, and it has to stop. I felt I had to get involved in the WEP because it’s the only political party in the UK that has a clear feminist focus with clear feminist policies”.

You either have equality or you don’t, you don’t just have a bit of it.

Bev’s background in sociology and strong interest in feminist politics has made a huge impact on her political views. “Sociology gives an individual the analytical tools by which to understand social structures and human agency, to think critically, and to evidence arguments. Feminism gives me a very different political and ideological perspective. Once you start thinking from a feminist perspective and about women’s equality and why it doesn’t exist, the world looks quite different, it’s about being ‘awake’”.

Whilst Bev’s reference to staying ‘woke’, now a common phrase in our repertoire, reveals the public drive towards self-education, the party relies on a small number of volunteers to help the party become part of the conversation. “Social media enables us to communicate easily with branch members, between branches etc., and to find news items of relevance, and for us to reach our public audience in seconds”. The Internet has become the largest resource available to growing political parties, providing easy access to their ever-growing pool of members.

Despite the party’s quick growth, the WEP have struggled to secure seats, and electorate votes have failed to bring about political representation. The party has received some backlash from other parties hoping to put forward their own female representatives. For Bev, “the biggest challenge is to get the electorate to vote WEP so we can have a fresh feminist focus on gender equality within the Council. A few comments have been made along the lines of splitting the vote, by that I assume the Labour or Green vote, but that makes a wrong assumption that these candidates have already won, which only adds to the complacency they have in the first place. The electorate owns the vote, and they can do what they like with it. Hanover is a three-candidate ward, so we ask that people give us a chance and vote for Labour or Green but to cast one of their votes for WEP to elect the first WEP candidate in the country. Now that would be something to be proud of!”

It was a brave move to split and allow the new branches to organically grow and be more localised

It’s clear that Bev has big plans for the future, represented in the recent split of the Brighton branch into Brighton, Hove and Lewes. Bev tells us, “the idea is to grow the Party by growing branches. The split occurred because the Brighton Branch became very large and it was the right time to branch off and rekindle new branches. Also members were scattered in the areas you mentioned. It was a brave move to split and allow the new branches to organically grow and be more localised”. Still working closely with other branches, particularly Hove and Portslade, the team hope to work together to achieve their aims.

“There are many pressing issues and all fall within our 7 policy areas. The top two for me are:

  1. To have equal representation in positions of influence and decision-making (local council, House of Commons, EU). It is important to get women elected to influential positions in order to create a positive culture of equality within our society, to ensure equal representation between the sexes at the point of decision-making. The importance of this is to give women a voice, and to get women’s lives and experiences on the political agenda so that changes can be affected. At the moment, only 32% of elected MP’s are women, it should be 50-50. Female MEPS are about 37% in the EU, so not much improvement there either. Unfortunately men don’t represent women’s issues, or think about them, or think about how cuts in services as a result in “austerity” disproportionally impacts on women’s lives. Lack of women’s representation has created a male status quo, a culture of masculinity and the norm that men should be in positions of power, and it becomes a cycle.
  2. Violence against women is the most pressing issue. The statistics are appalling.  Violence against women and girls exists because we don’t have equality. The Government’s Equality Committee has 3 pieces of research that show how extensive this is, and how vast numbers of women and girls have been sexually harassed at work, at school, and in public places. Porn is now being routinely watched by men and boys on phones on buses, at work, and in school. That’s not creating a safe environment for women and girls in which to flourish. We live in a culture of male violence, and victim blaming. The tide has to turn”.

Suzanne Triviere, a Founding Member of the WEP, and the current co-Data Manager, spoke to us about her move into politics, and the impact of the party on her life.

“I have been with the WEP since the beginning and early on joined the Brighton Branch (July 2015); I was inspired by the WEP’s focus on women’s inequality as I felt none of the mainstream parties had much interest at all in some of the challenges facing women, and indeed social structures STILL to this day work against women’s equality especially in media representation, sport, politics; this I find quite extraordinary in 2018 (I remember my mum’s own feminist perspectives from the 1970s with the second wave of feminist action). Brighton has always had a very active women’s movement, and I know my mum would be disappointed that though equality is talked about, social structures still struggle to shift and change to accommodate women”.

The structures that reinstate the gender divide, seen in the political system and the media, continue to fracture our society. The mainstream media gives little airtime to women’s issues, and the female voice is continually marred. “Sophie Walker has worked tirelessly to break into mainstream politics, and has certainly been successful in getting women’s voices heard more; however, this is where the system is stacked against women (and others). I have heard it said that mainstream media is refusing to give Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn, much exposure, and the same is true of women’s issues generally. The reasons are complex, so the challenge is to get ourselves into the arena of public debate – it is still very much a closed shop. If we can’t get exposure through mainstream media, we have to go out to the people – this takes time and manpower.”

“In Brighton growing our branch is our target and goal; with supporters and volunteers we can go door to door and talk to people about why (in the first instance) it makes sense to get a WEP rep onto the council. Having said that, we have the brilliant Caroline Lucas representing Brighton in parliament but as she noted in the last budget, almost no money was given over to environmental challenges currently facing our world; even once we have broken in getting voices heard and making change happen is an uphill battle. I try not to think about it as it becomes rather depressing!!!!”

Suzanne’s work with the Survivor’s Network in Brighton, Age UK and The Girls Network, as well as being the Chair of the Board for the Tarner Community Project, dominates much of her time. Trying to strike a balance between politics, work and volunteering is just one of the realities affecting women who want to bring about change, especially someone working as much as Suzanne.

“After leaving teaching I was keen to grow a portfolio of work that suited my values and interests and allowed me to work when I want. This I have achieved! WEP could take up all my time, but the Exec are great at collaboration and team work, and we tag in and out depending on our other commitments; it is a new way of working for me, but I am enjoying all the new skills I am acquiring! I loved my teaching career but was definitely ready to work in a more flexible and free way”.

Institutional sexism has led to the ‘boys club’ attitude that still governs the political system, and has been evident as #MeToo stories come to light

This background in teaching has inspired her desire to change the male dominated status quo, which begins right from childhood. The ‘lad culture’ of male party politics is one that has dominated the press recently, after party leader Sophie Walker spoke about the proliferation of magazines such as Nuts and Zoo during the 80s. Such institutional sexism has led to the ‘boys club’ attitude that still governs the political system, and has been evident as #MeToo stories come to light. For those daunted by this ‘exclusive’ aspect of politics, Bev says, “don’t over think it and just throw yourself in. Don’t question your ability just believe in yourself. Be fair and respectful, but most of all, be confident. Stay focussed and think big”.

Within the current political climate, it is impossible to ignore the question of Brexit, and whether there should be a second referendum. Sophie Walker pointed out the way in which Brexit left out women from the debate at the Women’s Equality Party conference in September, prompting discussion about what Brexit means for women socially and politically after the changes are implemented.

Bev says that the “Brexit discourse was between men in the UK and men in Europe. The impact of Brexit on women was not considered. Whether staying in the EU or leaving the EU, women as a class are not fully considered in either political system, yet women are the ones who disproportionately bear the brunt of cuts in education, health, benefits, housing issues. Women are more likely to live in poverty because of the gender pay gap, and female pensioners are living in poverty because of this. Sophie has said that the Party will campaign for a “people’s vote” and further, to get feminist politics on the European agenda”.

For Suzanne, who proclaims to be “European in sensibility”, the question of a second referendum is at the forefront of political debate the moment, and must be addressed. “My father is Belgian, my step-mother is Dutch; my sister is married to a French man and lives in France; my daughter has lived in Lisbon and Berlin; I went to school in France for three years when I was a child!!!) So it’s very personal! I believe Cameron’s initial referendum was naïve, both in terms of what it asked, and how it was constructed; and I believe too many voices driving the campaigns lacked integrity, honesty and transparency. I am still blown away that Rees-Mogg’s fortune has been moved to Ireland to protect his assets while the rest of us grow poorer every day. I don’t subscribe to the ‘people have voted’ line when they 1) were lied to 2) were asked the wrong question 3) didn’t know what they were voting for – no one did”.

I believe Cameron’s initial referendum was naïve, both in terms of what it asked, and how it was constructed; and I believe too many voices driving the campaigns lacked integrity, honesty and transparency

The WEP attempts to forge a path for discussion surrounding issues such as these, which are often left out of the feminist debate. Whilst the WEP aims to represent all equally, the party has come under criticism for not being diverse enough, reflecting the whitewashing of feminism. Bev wants to move away from this image, stating that the “WEP is open to everyone, anyone who wants to join. We even have an affiliate membership to allow members of other political parties to join us whilst being in another political party. We want our membership to be diverse, to be representative of British society, to have members from different classes, religions, cultures. Everyone is welcome to get involved. I am aware that western feminism has been seen to be a white middle class movement; I think that is a bit of a stereotype put forward by a negative media. Intersectional feminism has been around for decades, and it really interacts with marginal sections of society in terms of race, sex, gender, disability, religion, etc., and WEP embraces intersectional feminism wholeheartedly”.

Suzanne recognises that this is something they need to work on, believing the party is “at a crossroads”. Both the BAME and Trans community believe there is more to be done in the WEP to represent their concerns, which Suzanne hopes to embrace in the future, and is currently working towards.

These people are working too hard to keep their heads above water to have the time to come to us – we need to go to them to show them that we can make a difference for them

“It has been consistently criticised for being the ‘women’s’ equality party, while also suggesting that ‘equality is better for everyone’ and these are definitely two different things I think we have also demonstrated this with a rather narrow representation in the current Branch. In Brighton we have a big LGBT demographic but our BAME demographic is smaller. We are very aware that we need to reach out to a broader audience – again, having the volunteers on the ground to talk to people is the way forward. These people are working too hard to keep their heads above water to have the time to come to us – we need to go to them to show them that we can make a difference for them”.

As female politicians part of the job description includes dealing with the daily abuse and criticism that comes hand in hand with female power. Suzanne says that she tries not to take it personally.

“People are absolutely entitled to their opinions; sometimes they can be expressed in unfortunate ways, but I respect their right to think differently. We recently posted on our Facebook site an article which gained a lot of negative attention and comments and we really wrestled with whether or not to take it down, but I truly believe that people show their true colours if they are allowed to speak for themselves and in the end such nastiness says more about them than me, I roll on. Grow a thick skin – you will face challenge every day and it can feel very personal”.

For others, she advices to be “clear of your values and your motives – why do you want to be here – that will help you push through the difficult times. Be realistic – it’s really hard to get change to happen – and get creative – we can disrupt mainstream politics by stealth and innovation, not by trying to play their game (and sadly it is a bit of a game so develop a really good sense of humour!). Make time for yourself – or you will burn out – this is most important.”

The resilience of these hard-working women only serves to demonstrate the strength of their vision for women’s future. For students, volunteer roles provided by the WEP would open up possibilities in politics and activism that would be crucial to their futures. Both Bev and Suzanne hope to encourage students to partake in the WEP, saying, “there’s lots to do and lots of roles you can fill as a student, and the roles you perform in the Party can always be translated into skills that could easily be put on a CV. I would say come along to a meeting or drop us an email. We need you”.

There’s lots to do and lots of roles you can fill as a student, and the roles you perform in the Party can always be translated into skills that could easily be put on a CV

“Students are as busy as everyone else, but I still believe that the ‘personal is political’ and therefore every day we come up against systems and structures that keep us quiet… so I guess I would say 1) Figure out what really matters to you 2) figure out where your unconscious biases lie (we all have them!!!) 3) challenge everyday sexism and racism and every other ‘ism’ whenever they are in front of you 4) start looking around at what is presented to you as ‘normal’ and interrogate that ‘normal’ – why is it this way? 5) Get involved, go to a meeting or event with friends, meet and talk with lots of different people, and then commit a small amount of time to one small change you want to happen. No one can change the world on their own – but, for example, if every person in Brighton had their own reusable coffee cup and bottle think what a difference we could make – tiny changes can have a huge impact – it’s the power of the people in action!”

After their stall in the Falmer Square market, the WEP encouraged any students interested in getting involved to contact them directly, with many volunteer roles available. With the Hanover elections round the corner, it is the tireless work of volunteers and staff that make campaigns happen, of which you could be a part.

Categories: Features

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