The WEP: Privileged or Progressive?

Is the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) compatible with “youth feminism” or do they have little hope of appealing to young women?

Sophie Walker (centre), the party’s leader and 2016 London mayoral candidate with other founding members. (Photo: Duncan Fisher).

Sophie Walker (centre), the party’s leader and 2016 London mayoral candidate with other founding members. (Photo: Duncan Fisher).

Last year presenter Sandi Toksvig (or “Sandi Toxic” in the words of Justice for Men and Boys leader, Mike Buchanan) announced that she was trading comedy for politics, leaving her post at BBC Radio 4 to found the Women’s Equality Party (WEP).

From its inaugural days, the party’s leadership has been criticised for its ideology, from claims of transphobia to criticism about the party’s effectiveness in elections, despite the WEP being the best performing of the smaller parties contending in the recent London mayoral election. Particularly, the party has been called out for advocating only a narrow form of feminism, catered to cisgender middle class white women; this claim is not helped by the party’s self-definition as “non-partisan”, where many have criticised their refusal to “take a side” in light of the Conservatives’ austerity policies, which are particularly detrimental to women.

Following the release of the party’s manifesto in October last year, political journalist Abi Wilkinson went as far as saying the WEP couldn’t define themselves as a feminist political party, when they operate like a “middle-class ladies’ campaign group”.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s failure to gain momentum from young female voters has shown that it takes more than claiming the identity “feminist” to garner support with young women. Issues such as violence against trans-women and women of colour, sex work, and the gendered aspects of everything from makeup to poverty to colonialism, are at the forefront of young women’s social media discussions of feminism, whereas those same issues are not always at the top of the list for female politicians.

Anna Hill, organiser of last summer’s feminist community event Girl Con, told me that “some potential key principles of digital feminists are solidarity, the importance of education/awareness, intersectionality, accessibility, shine theory”.

Young women feel that their feminism has layers, nuance, and know that things aren’t always as they seem in mainstream party politics.

Many young feminists are critical of mainstream feminist causes that do not seem to be inclusive. (Photo: Fine Art America)

Many young feminists are critical of mainstream feminist causes that do not seem to be inclusive. (Photo: Fine Art America)

Lilinaz Evans, another young feminist activist and organiser, said to me that “I think most younger feminists see feminism as fighting the ‘kyriarchy’ and freedom from all oppression.” The idea that only addressing the factor of gender when looking at how unequal societal structures came up a lot when I asked young people what they thought of the WEP; H. Beverley, who ran several successful campaigns with Royal Holloway’s feminist society said that the party doesn’t “appear to represent a viewpoint that serves the interests of any women who face other types of marginalisation beyond sexism.”

So according to young women, feminism is online, intersectional, and largely left-wing – not exactly “non-partisan” then. On the surface this doesn’t seem to match up with the WEP’s aims at all, who have the diplomatic principle of not associating with any particular “wing” of ideology, stating that they are merely interested in what works best for women.

An activist and source close to the party, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that she had concerns with the party ignoring the experiences of working class women, and letting women of colour “slip through the net,” but “despite them being pretty s**t they are also the only party that prioritises women’s experiences.” She went on to say, “The primary purpose they serve is facilitating, spotlighting and demanding conversations about women. Shame that no-one else does even that.”

It certainly can’t be said that all WEP members and groups aren’t aware of how other social factors, like class and race, impact women’s lives. President and founder of the WEP Oxford Students’ group, Emily Dillistone, told me their group has “representatives for queer, disabled, BME and trans-people, who each organise socials and events to ensure representation of their respective groups in society,” and stressed the importance their branch placed upon intersectionality.

While this is welcoming to see at local and grassroots levels, it seems that the same ideas are not fully formed at the top of the party. Student and Labour member Aisling Musson told me that Sophie Walker’s response to not being invited to the mayoral LGBT hustings had further deterred her from the party, saying that Walker’s statement “seemed to indicate that lesbians were the only kind of female LGBT people.” (For context, Walker said: “I think the women have been done a disservice. Lesbians are doubly disadvantaged because we’re gay and we’re female.”)

But is the party attracting young members? Michele Holmes, a member of the party’s Tunbridge Wells branch and soon to be the leader of their youth wing, spoke highly of youth engagement within the party: “At a local level, our WEP branch is a new, but thriving group. As WEP membership is open to girls and boys from 14 years and upwards we have had a lot of interest locally from young women and young men.”

Third wave feminist and writer Gloria Steinem in 1965. (Photo: Time Magazine)

Third wave feminist and writer Gloria Steinem in 1965. (Photo: Time Magazine)

When I contacted the Women’s Equality Party press team, they were unable to tell me youth membership figures, but Rachel Statham of the party said, “Online feminism is an engine for movements like ours – it gives a voice to communities that are often excluded or silenced from political debate, and it makes a space for conversations about gender and sexuality. It means we can run campaigns like #WEcount, that highlight the scale of sexual harassment and assault in our cities, and that we can spread the word that people can go out and vote for change – so we don’t have to wait till our grandchildren are old to close the gender pay gap (at current estimates it will take 118 years).”

Young women today are discovering and discussing feminism in radically different ways to their parents’ generation. Girl Con organiser Anna Hill, said to me, “I also think with online feminism, empathy and sisterhood and solidarity are easier to practice because we link with people who are different from us so much more easily and often!” To look at the disengagement of some young feminists with the WEP as solely a generational issue is to somewhat miss other elements such as the problem of more privileged women dominating feminist spaces. There hasn’t been a total paradigm shift within feminism yet; plenty of prominent politicians, even perhaps at the top of the WEP, haven’t fully acknowledged inclusive politics thus far, but efforts are certainly underway to change this.

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