By Editor-In-Chief Guinevere Poncia
I’m heading to Bermondsey, where the Women’s Equality Party has its headquarters. Situated in a typical south-London hotspot, filled with coffee shops and overpriced home-ware stores, the WEP offices are set back from the main street in a quiet studio. Although unassuming from the outside, the office walls are covered in memorabilia from past campaigns, testament to the pride the team and their activists take in their work.
The Women’s Equality Party has been in existence since March 2015, and has put forward candidates for both London Mayor and the House of Commons, and run several high-profile campaigns. These include protecting the rights of women online, calling for pay transparency in media organisations, challenging damaging attitudes towards body image in the fashion industry, lobbying to decriminalise abortion - the list goes on.
Sophie Walker has been their leader since May 2016, having had a successful career as a financial journalist. Her drive is immediately apparent, and she speaks about her party’s policies with vigour and understanding. This is someone who occupies a unique position in the political sphere, and loves it.
GP: So, simple question first, how did you become involved in politics?
SW: I think I first became an activist. That happened as a result of the coming together, if you like, of all my experiences as a woman of inequality - the daily nudges, the tweaks, the reminders, the discomforts, the irritations that bit by bit form a picture of “hey wait a minute!” And then on top of that becoming a parent, at which point that inequality as a carer becomes even more impossible to ignore. When my daughter was diagnosed with autism, that was the moment where everything came together for me, and I realised that not only are we exceptionally bad in this country, and in many others, at understanding difference and tackling intolerance, but that there was nobody coming to my rescue, and that if I wanted to make a real change to my daily experiences it was going to have to be me.
So, that was when I became an activist, primarily for the the National Autistic Society, working for a better understanding of autism, trying to support my daughter. The politics bit came in the run up to the 2015 general election when I was frankly dismayed by the options on offer. I’d gone through this process of understanding the environment in which I was moving, existing, and behaving as a woman, and then suddenly realising that none of those inequalities and the double discrimination my daughter faces as a disabled woman were actually at the top of anybody's to do list. That was when discussions about the WEP started and I put my hand up to say “yes absolutely”, because for me it was not just that there was nobody there that was putting my daughter and me and the experiences of women first - they thought they already had us in their pocket! The assumption was that we would continue to vote for what was on offer, and that we’d continue to wait in line.
GP: On your blog, 'Grace Under Pressure', you liken the political system to a financial system - do you think there has been any recent improvement in that system? For example, the higher student turnout at the last election…
SW: I think there’s huge opportunity in the turbulence that we see in front of us, and we are very much about seizing that turbulence to make change. It’s incredibly positive to see the renewed political engagement of so many people from the 2015 election, the Referendum, and the election last year. There is a huge amount of ‘churn’, and in those circumstances there is a possibility to re-think and rebuild that I find really exciting and invigorating.
GP: As the mother of a daughter with autism, do you think there is a particularly good way to tackle the problem of diversity and inclusion in the UK?
SW: Yes, the Women’s Equality Party! That’s why I’m doing it. I think there are a lot of people who have been talking of doing something about this and failing to act for a very long time. This isn’t some intractable problem, it’s not something about which we should gravely stroke our chins and ponder how to fix it - it’s a matter of political will. That is why we’ve set up this party to exist in the political space because when you make this a political issue you can get it to the top of everybody's agenda, and then you can actually get something done.
GP: Do you fear that the appeal of the WEP is too narrow?
SW: No, never! Because what we are doing is designing a system that works for the furthest first - essentially turning politics upside down. If you create politics that speak to the experiences of the most disenfranchised people, who are always women - black women, gay women, working class women, disabled women - then you make everything work better for everybody.
It is very clear to me that equality for women is absolutely vital to a functioning economy and a flourishing society. The reason, for example, that this country’s productivity lags behind all of the other G7 nations is because of women’s inequality. The reason we lack 20,000 engineers to fill crucial jobs is because of women’s inequality. The reason that two women a week are murdered by their partner, or their former partner, is because of women’s inequality. It is the single biggest and most important issue of our time, and until we tackle it we are going to be perpetually living in this spluttering one-sided economy, and a fractured, divided society. There is nothing bigger than this, frankly.
GP: You’ve been involved in politics in a more ‘direct’ way since 2015, how have you found being a woman in politics?
SW: Well, I think I have been very lucky, because I am a woman in politics working within the UK’s first feminist political party. I’m working with an agenda that actually reflects women’s lives, experiences, and needs, and that makes a huge difference as a woman in politics to be presenting policies that speak to women’s lives. I am discovering the inner activist in so many women who had been totally turned off by politics, growing a movement from the ground up.
We are outsiders in a system in a way that enables us to say “well, are we doing it like this because it works, or are we doing it like this because its the way everyone else does it?” And then being totally able to say, “right, well let’s do it in a different way then!” It’s been the most challenging job of my life, but its also been, and continues to be, the most invigorating, and a huge privilege. There is a big difference between being a women in politics and being a women doing politics with an understanding of women’s experience and prioritising that as a means of making a difference. That’s what sustains me.
GP: A lot of people today feel alienated from the political system, how do you make politics relevant to them again - how to do you get them engaged?
SW: I take my lead from other women, our membership, and our activists. So, the idea that I’m going round telling people some ‘great truth’ is not how it works. It’s a process that works by like-minded people coming together and inspiring each other. Some of the most exciting conversations I’ve had have been when we have come to this understanding that politics isn’t Westminster. There’s this idea in this country that politics is Westminster, and it’s two tribes lining up on either side of that House to throw insults at each other and score points. I think that puts people off politics massively, both the tribalism and point-scoring, but also the idea that it happens in some overheated room in an ancient building in the middle of London.
Politics happens on your doorstep, it happens in your communities, it happens amongst your friends, neighbours, and the bits of your local area that you don’t know and get to know. You can make a change to the most immediate experiences around you, and I think that is very galvanising when you think of politics as something much, much closer to hand.
GP: So, do you see the WEP as ultimately being part of Westminster? Are you aiming for election, or are you more focused on grassroots activism?
SW: I think both of those go hand in hand. We have set ourselves up to be a political party because it’s only when you threaten the vote-share of the other parties that they pay attention to what you’re doing. What we wanted to do is support the work of many brilliant women’s organisations - we want to amplify the voices of other women doing this work, we want to amplify the voices of feminists in other parties, we want to create a common consensus that equality form women has to happen, and it has to happen now.
We are doing that through working with women’s organisations to represent and move their agendas on in ways that can be helpful to them, we are doing it through working with other political parties to find cross-party consensus, we are doing it by mobilising activists and new party members who have never done politics before, we are doing it by standing in general and local elections… We will do all of this, and we will continue to look for other new ways of doing it, because we’re not going to be bound by set ideas of how you do politics. We want to be effective and find the most imaginative ways to achieve progress.
GP: I noted that you ran for London Mayor, what was that experience like?
SW: It was quite surprising to find myself in that position! When I originally said I wanted to help with this party, I just wanted to help, so to find myself in that position was extraordinary. That election was a blast, we had so many fantastic campaigners, canvassers, and volunteers - brilliant minds that came together to work on a manifesto, a strategy, and a mobilisation. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.
It was also wonderful to see the impact that we had, both in terms of the other parties, because you could see as the campaign went on the other parties moving to change the way they talked about women and women’s equality. It’s no accident that Sadiq Khan refers to himself as often as possible as a “proud feminist”, or that he conducted a gender pay audit in City Hall, that’s a brilliant policy, it was our policy! You know, when other parities and politicians steal our policies, we cheer, and then we raise the bar.
There were moments that were tough. One of the very first hustings I did, all of the other candidates were heard in silence, and then I stood up, and I think I said one sentence before I got barracked from someone at the back. That’s what happens when you stand up as a woman to say “I’m a feminist, I want women’s equality to matter, and I am taking this into the political space” - there will always be someone who stands up and says “no, sit down, be quiet”. That was the most immediate example in the starting moments of the whole campaign. I learnt a lot about standing my ground.
GP: Maybe you’ve already answered it, but I’d be curious to hear about the toughest moment of your career, and how you overcome it?
SW: It’s interesting… You know I get asked as a ‘Woman Leader’ to give talks about resilience, wellbeing, and overcoming difficulties. It makes me laugh because I would have thought long before I did this job that if I wanted to protect my resilience and my wellbeing being the leader of a political party would be the last job I’d want to do!
We have this idea that … yoga and healthy eating, and its really not, its about doing the thing, and being very clear about the thing, and holding tight to the thing that is real and true to you. That has seen me through countless moments of fear, trepidation, upset, worry and challenge. I have always had that ‘glowing ember’ if you like… I could tell you that this and that happened, but I think what’s more relevant is that when you have that sense of self and sense of purpose it will see you through the hard times.
GP: What advice would you give to women, or others from minority backgrounds, going into politics?
SW: Please do it! The more of us that speak together, the louder our voices are, the more space we individually take up, the more collectively as women we will be seen.
However, there is a tendency to feel as women, because we are told this all our lives, that it’s on us to fix ourselves. You know, the pay gap is a result of women not speaking out, or violence against women is a result of women bringing it upon themselves, or having children for women is a ‘lifestyle choice’. There is this narrative that surround us our whole lives that the inequalities we experience, we experience as individuals, and it’s on us to deal with them.
I think it’s very important when women from different backgrounds, when women from all intersecting experiences of inequality consider putting themselves forward for office or as political activists, it’s really important to remember that there is a network here. It is a sisterhood and we need to make space for one another, and we have to see, hear, and support one another because in the whole history of inequality the structural barriers to inequity have only ever been removed by movements. So, it’s that sense of every single person who comes forward is important, but this is not a job for you alone, it’s a job that we’ll all do together. We’ll all back one each other up, and learn from each other, and make each person’s individual push part of a bigger mobilisation towards taking down those barriers.
GP: What’s something that the WEP is working on currently that you are particularly excited about?
SW: There are regular questions I get asked as the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, and one of them is “what’s the one thing you want?” And I think, well, I’m the leader of the WEP, what do you think I want? What they really mean by that question is “what’s the silver bullet?”, what is the one thing that we can all do… and the thing is that there is no silver bullet. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable, and that’s why we’ve chosen and worked out very specifically our seven policies, because you can’t do this unless you do it in a joined up, cohesive way.
The fact that we have not done it in that way is why progress has been so very slow. There’s never been this joined up approach that understands that you have to build an equal education system, for example, if you are to tackle occupational segregation that holds women back and forces onto boys ideas of toxic masculinity. You have to also simultaneously tackle ideas around valuing care and sharing care, and sharing parenting, you also have to tackle at the same time equal representation in business, politics, and right across working life. At the same time you have to tackle equal pay and pay transparency, and understand the intersectionality of the pay gap, at the same time that you have to tackle violence against women, create equality in the media, have a fair and equal healthcare system. All of this has to happen together, which doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it actually means its entirely doable and the path is very clear. All of this stuff is like a circle of progress, a theory of change that is deeply practical that moves forward each area simultaneously as we go on.
I think outside of that, obviously next year is a big year because it’s the centenary of when women first got the right to vote. It was a very small proportion of women who got that vote, so, next year will be a big year and there will be a lot of talk about how far we’ve come, but I think the point we have to be really clear about is how much more there is still to do. In celebrating this centenary, we need to be really clear that there was so much more to do then, and there’s so much more to do now in terms of understanding the experiences of women from all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. We must understand that so many women are still disenfranchised, unable to vote or be seen and heard, there is a vast amount of work to do, and we are really looking forward to getting stuck in!
Interview conducted at the WEP Headquarters, 12th October 2017.
Image: Women's Equality Party @Flickr