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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

Women are Fighting for Survival. So is the Women's Equality Party

I grew up believing the world was getting better. Equality for women and other disadvantaged populations shimmered on the near horizon.

It was easy to buy into this notion from the comfort of a white, middle-class family in small-town America, even if my childhood carried hints of harsher realities, whether flashers at the school gates or reverberations from Vietnam. My parents marched against the war and, after we relocated to the UK, took in a draft dodger, who lived with us for years. Their politics was informed by recent history, Pearl Harbour, US internment camps. My father had served during Korea.

These experiences might have warned against the dangers of trusting to linear progress. Instead, that myth gripped their generation, transmitted to mine, and to cohorts beyond.

It has proved hugely damaging.

Even now some Pollyannas insist things aren’t that bad, characterising climate change as a bonus for English winegrowers or Vladimir Putin’s murderous adventures as the root of the cost-of-living and energy crises rather than a manifestation of the deeper dysfunctions driving them.

Things are bad, very bad, and getting worse—and always the most vulnerable suffer first and most. Across the world, far-right populists are infiltrating the political mainstream, spreading lies and spewing poison, targeting vital laws and protections. Legislation anyway lags social and technological change, struggling with its speed and ferocity. A declining old media takes cues from the platforms that undermined it, amplifying the hatreds and polarisation of the online sphere and speeding the death of trust. Power and wealth aren’t merely increasingly concentrated, but their workings have become ever more obscure and therefore harder to challenge.

This happened on our watch, aided and abetted by the kind of optimism that thinks political activism unnecessary or limits its scope and ambition to tinkering around the edges.

Into my fifties, I persisted in supporting parties and organisations that promised to boost progress, no matter that they mirrored and enshrined the inequalities they pledged to address. Finally, in 2015, I could no longer ignore the warning signs. I’d watched the media organisations that employed me take all the wrong decisions in their attempts to survive, choosing aggregation over reporting, reducing their already limited diversity as they slashed staff numbers and, in the name of balance, normalising the toxic strands of populism that I’d covered for them.

I saw younger women enduring levels of harassment and abuse, of silencing and marginalisation that I’d imagined would by now be consigned to the past and instead had found new forms and outlets, of course afflicting some women more severely than others. My generation had at various times hailed the end of class, even the end of history itself. Instead, class remains among the most potent determinants of life course together with factors such as sex and gender identity, race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, disability and neurodiversity. Liberal democracy could never have delivered equality without addressing these intersections, but the alternatives currently bubbling up don’t even pretend to care.

My friend Sandi Toksvig shared my concerns, and together we responded not by abandoning our optimism, but by doing something crazily optimistic. We founded the Women’s Equality Party.

Because we agreed: the response to the current adversity cannot be to do nothing. The response cannot be to give in to helplessness and hopelessness. It must be to do more, as much as individual circumstances permit. And at our ages and stages of life and with our advantages, Sandi and I felt we could do a lot.

All activism is inherently optimistic, a political choice, and right now that choice couldn’t be more urgent—or more challenging.

The optimism of the Women’s Equality Party is grounded in the understanding that it is possible to create momentum towards a more equal and inclusive world, but only if it is combined with a clear-eyed recognition of the structural and systemic nature of inequalities and a constant search for ways to illuminate and dismantle these mechanisms.

It means ignoring the voices that say small parties can’t make a difference—as if UKIP hadn’t already disproved this assumption, albeit in disastrous ways. Over the past seven years, the Women’s Equality Party has again and again shown how to harness the power of the small party for good. We’ve pushed old parties to do better, seen two councillors elected, helped shore up reproductive rights and spotlight violence against women and girls. Every step towards our goals makes a difference too, as Mandu Reid, WEP leader and first woman of colour ever to lead a UK political party, articulated in her speech to party conference last weekend. She described our ten-mile march from Fryent Park, where sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were murdered and then failed by police, to New Scotland Yard. Numbers swelled for the final mile. But, said Mandu, “the real power was in the nine miles that came before the last one”, in their symbolism of the long road to justice and in engaging and energising people all along the route.

Her speech inspired, but she gave it in the knowledge that it might be her last to conference. The Women’s Equality Party is flat broke.

The main reason for this is an economic model that has relied on membership fees rather than large donations. While this helped keep us honest—unlike other parties we’ve never been in hock to people, organisations or corporations trying to buy political influence—it always meant that our survival depended heavily on the generosity of the poorer half of the population. From the outset, we rejected the idea that politics should work on a pay-for-access basis, so we’ve continued to welcome registered supporters, who pay nothing, while keeping fees low for members and providing all sorts of concessions and subventions to enable women to run for office who might otherwise be prevented by caring costs from doing so. Our staff is tiny, our overheads low.

At the beginning, sceptics labelled WEP a party for privileged women, and there was some truth to that. Sandi and I are privileged, and we drew on existing contacts to get the party started. An irony is that one reason the double-whammy of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis has bitten so hard is that the party has managed to draw support far beyond its origins, from communities and sectors heavily impacted by these crises. In the past two months, members have asked in record numbers to pause their subscriptions.

These members will not, in coming months, perhaps years, be paying us. They will be staying with us, they say—for as long as we remain afloat. We’re determined to do what we can to make sure we survive. We’ve launched a Crowdfunder and will be looking at other ways to raise money too. The work of the party has never been more urgent.

Some will attribute our difficulties to another cause—the debate around reconciling trans rights with the fight for women’s equality. Again, there is some truth to that. From our earliest days, arguments about the party’s path and policies have prompted occasional small exoduses of members. Some gender critical feminists have left, citing fears that women’s rights are susceptible to erosion if the route to changing gender in law is simplified. There have been departures on the other side of the argument too, people who felt the party did too little to push back as the motivations of trans and nonbinary people were questioned and their existence denied, ascribed to a pathology and an ideology.

Though I’ve never concealed my views—I wrote the party’s founding statement which includes support for gender self ID and have occasionally set out my thoughts in greater detail—I’ve avoided rehearsing the arguments on social media or broadcast. How often have I seen well-meaning debates online deteriorate not only into abuse but hardened positions and confirmed hatreds. How often have I seen algorithms boost exactly the falsehoods and distortions participants in these exchanges are attempting to unpick. How often have I turned down approaches from TV producers talking about how the discussion they’re planning will finally get to the nub of the matter only later to see the programme in question pit extremes against each other, generating heat but no light.

Most people on either side of the divide are engaged for the best of reasons. They believe these questions to be existential. They argue in good faith and most of them are hurting. It’s easy to forget this, because the debate is also being weaponised by people who don’t give a damn about women’s rights, trans rights, human rights. I’m talking about a cynical media and that surging populist far right which is profiteering from the confected culture war.

I’ve witnessed a lot of tragedy in the last few years, so I don’t use this word lightly. But it is a tragedy that the battle for equality has become a battle between the oppressed. It is a tragedy that progressive movements are splintered and divided exactly when they’re so desperately needed not just to push towards a better future but to stand guard over the precious, fragile advances they’ve achieved.

It is possible to have constructive, nuanced discussions around the questions thrown up by self ID. I know this, because I am lucky enough to have these discussions with close friends and colleagues at WEP, who represent significantly different shades of view. The party has tried to facilitate such conversations within the membership too, but although I’m proud of some of those efforts—in particular, setting up a members’ assembly, modelled on Ireland’s citizen’s assembly that helped inform the country’s abortion referendum—I won’t pretend there haven’t been significant stumbles, not just by the party, but by me. In 2018, when members first brought a motion on self ID to conference, I supported moves to kick the can down the road by referring the motion back to the steering committee, assuming that time would provide the opportunity to find consensus. Instead, the debate has grown more bitter.

When Mandu brought a fresh motion to conference last weekend backing self ID, asserting the importance single-sex spaces and identifying the under-provision of key services as a source of friction, I spoke in its favour. She didn’t seek to offer detailed solutions, but to provide a framework for resolution, to point to the possibility and prize of resolving these issues. She chose to be optimistic, not out of naivety but the opposite: a recognition that the alternative is the current spiral dragging both sides, and many movements, down.

Optimism is a political choice.

I choose optimism. I choose to believe the women’s movement can find ways through this storm. I choose to believe in the power of activism to create positive change, even in these darkest of times.

I hope the Women’s Equality Party survives. It has much more to offer and urgent work to do. Whatever happens, its achievements will stand.

Words ©Catherine Mayer, photo of WEP 5th birthday celebrations, March 2020 ©Chris Paouros


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Nov 29, 2022

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