“We’re Still Treating Equality For Women As A Side Issue”

Photo: Courtesy Women's Equality Party.
While U.S. voters dodge the latest Donald Trump sound bites and ponder Hillary Clinton's chances of becoming the first female American president, the U.K. political system is undergoing something of a transformation. It's all thanks to the Women's Equality Party, formed this spring and already considered the fastest growing political party in the U.K. The nation's first feminist political party, WEP is campaigning with just six goals on its agenda: equal pay, equal representation in business and politics, equal representation in education, equal treatment of women in the media, equal parenting rights, and an end to violence against women. Any questions? Former Reuters journalist Sophie Walker has been leading WEP since July. Though the party didn't present any candidates in this year's elections — it was just weeks old at the time — it's drumming up some major support ahead of 2020 and could lure existing members of parliament (MPs) from their current parties before the next election. You'll note the emphasis on the word "equal," something which Walker, who spoke to Refinery29 in a phone interview, says is not a women's issue; it's an issue for everybody. Here, she explains why there's "plenty of" equality to go around, how the feminist label is getting in the way, and why the last election caused her to take action. How did you get involved in WEP? Was there any sort of breaking point?
"I don't think there was one particular moment in my life when I thought, right, I've got to do this. I'd say it was more a combination or stacking up of factors that made me realize that the current system wasn't changing fast enough. When I was growing up, I had a vague sense that I got the same opportunities as the boys who sat next to me at school. When I went to university, I pretty much felt I would be getting the same opportunities as the young men sitting next to me, though I could already see that there was a lot of sexism that was going to make that tough. When I went into my professional life as a journalist, I saw that women over the age of 35 were just not represented in the same way that men were. Then I had my own children, and my expectations just fell off a cliff when I realized how huge an impact [parenting] has for women and not for men.

Then I had my own children and...realized how huge an impact [parenting] has for women and not for men.

"The last general election in Britain, I found a very depressing experience — because I felt as though the options were...being presented to us as though the conversation had already been had, and we had to choose from very limited options. The existing political parties weren't engaging with people, really, or asking what should be done or what they wanted to see. I really felt, at that point, that I was just so tired of seeing the issues that matter to me being relegated to the back of a manifesto under the heading of 'women's issues,' as though I was a member of a special interest group, not a representative of half of the population." Does the increase in female MPs give you a glimmer of hope, or do you feel equality is still not a priority within Parliament?
"I think we're still in a situation where the political parties are talking about equality for women as a side issue, something that needs to get fixed along with a whole load of other things, rather than seeing equality as core to a functioning society. In terms of the number of women represented in politics, yes, voters did return more women to Parliament than ever before in the last election, and some people feel that that is grounds for a cheer. We say that we're still in a position where twice as many men as women have a say over what's important for our country. That means that there's still a very long way to go. Women's experience with policing, health care, and education is very different to men's, so it's absolutely vital that that experience is incorporated and accounted for when we write legislation that is the best for everyone." The Women's Equality Party website touches on several feminist issues, but the word "feminism" isn't to be found. Do you find people wary to take on that label?
"First of all, to me, feminism is about fairness, pure and simple. Equality for women is not a zero-sum game. It's not as if we're taking away someone else's equality. Equality just gets bigger and bigger; there's plenty to go around. The more you spread it around, the better off everybody is. I think it's unfortunate that over the last how-many years, people have gotten hung up about what feminism means, and there's whole debate about whether you should call yourself a feminist, or why people might feel uncomfortable calling themselves feminist. I am very proud to call myself a feminist, but I don't really care that much what other people want to call themselves... Equality for women means equality for everyone. Society flourishes when it hears all of its voices, and when it takes into account all of the population. It's richer when literally everybody can properly contribute."

Political parties are still talking about equality for women as a side issue.

Are you getting any support from male voters?
"We absolutely are." What's your take on the U.S. election, with Hillary Clinton being a front-runner for the Democratic nomination?
"Women's Equality Party is a non-partisan party, so we're working with people from across the spectrum to get real change. We believe very strongly that equality doesn't belong to any one party and that the debate is immediately limited as soon as you talk to only one range of the political spectrum. In terms of the U.S. elections, my answer would be that we are approaching our negotiations and campaigning in Britain by speaking to people across the spectrum, and we would urge equality to become an issue for everybody, no matter what their political leaning, because it works better for everyone, and we can only achieve the change we want to see when everyone participates." Will immigration and the recruitment of young women to ISIS play a part in your platform?
"We are campaigning for six key goals. We are going to be focusing with a laser-like focus on those six goals. We are not going to be adopting other policies, because we want to focus on the goals we've set up and really get those done. However, because we are such a brilliant party [laughs], what we are going to be doing alongside that is allowing our candidates to speak as individuals on all these other matters. We think that's going to bring a new diversity and richness to the conversation, which is what's needed."

More from Politics

R29 Original Series