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By Rohan Kon

Politics for Everybody?

 

Tea Break with Charlotte Mead, Women’s Equality Party Sheffield Branch Leader

 

In our postmillennial world of Twitter trends and trolls, issues of women’s equality are firmly back at the top of political agendas, making media headlines and sparking explosive campaigns.

 

Women’s equality is no longer shied away from as a retro issue from the ‘70s. The insistent cries that we live in a “post-feminist” world have lost their edge, as current stats show that approximately 85,000 women are raped in the UK every year and domestic abuse will affect at least 1 in 4 women in their lifetime. Instead we are seeing campaigners tackling these issues head on, fighting for LGBT+ inclusive healthy sex and relationships education in schools.

 

The topic of women’s equality is more mainstream and popular than ever before. From Beyoncé reclaiming “the F-Word” in her 2014 VMA performance, to outcry this summer over the Islamophobic and sexist burkini ban. From the rise of direct action group Sisters Uncut supporting domestic violence survivors, to US artistic gymnast Simone Biles declaring: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt, I’m the first Simone Biles”.

 

And the political landscape is no exception. We’ve seen rows over women’s equality on both sides of mainstream party politics, with the Conservatives electing a woman Prime Minister who “allowed state-sanctioned abuse of women” at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and media stereotyping of Diane Abbott as the “Angry Black Woman” over her in-fighting with fellow Labour MP Jess Phillips.

 

But perhaps there is another option for those of us seeking a political party that will put issues of women’s equality at the centre of all that they do. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) was launched last year after the General Election as a reaction against a politics that offered little hope to a growing group of people yearning for social change, inclusion and collective decision-making.

 

Charlotte Mead, Sheffield WEP Branch Leader, had never been a member of a political party before joining WEP last year. After being involved in student politics as Women’s Officer and then President of Sheffield Hallam University over 20 years ago, Charlotte felt disillusioned by party politics until what she saw as a viable alternative emerged. She said: “We’re trying to do things differently so that politics works better for everybody, not just a small group of people.”

 

Starting very small, the party grew by setting up branches around the country to devise and work towards six objectives: equal representation, equal pay and opportunity, equal parenting and caregiving, equal education, equal media treatment and an end to violence against women. They will discuss adding a seventh objective relating to health at their first party conference on the 25-27th November in Manchester, which will be attended by a good contingent from Sheffield. Charlotte said: “Everything I’d previously seen about political parties is that they told you what to say, how to vote, what to do and what you weren’t allowed to do – and actually they were quite restrictive. But WEP isn’t like that. Everybody involved gets their say and it’s more collective than hierarchical.”

 

During the formative stages of the party there was a lot of discussion about the name. Charlotte explained: “The philosophy of the party is that having gender equality is beneficial to all genders. But we’re specifically focused on the fact that women lose out most because of gender inequality. There have been a lot of negative connotations around the term ‘feminist’. If anyone asked me if I’m a feminist I’d say, ‘Yes of course I am’. But some people who you might think are feminists don’t like the term. People get distracted from the issue of equality and while we’re arguing about whether or not feminists shave their armpits, we’re not challenging the status quo. For some people the term ‘feminist’ doesn’t just mean, ‘I believe in gender equality’. While there will always be a group of people who would like it to be called the ‘Feminist Party’, there are an equal amount of people who would be put off by that and we want to appeal to everybody who has the same ideals as us.”

 

Paul Blomfield, the MP for Sheffield Central, held his annual Big Conversation for Women event a few weeks ago where Kate Green MP said “the party for women’s equality is the Labour Party”. But Charlotte responded: “The Labour Party have had a lot of time to sort out equality and they haven’t. The Labour Party does have a women problem and for them to deny that is only a continuation of the problem. That said, we’re completely up for working with any party with the same aims as us. We want to get things done through collaboration. We’re not all separate groups of people – the wider community and political parties can all work on things together, even when we disagree about some things. While political parties are bickering in Parliament, two women a week are still getting killed by their partners and ex-partners and there are women’s services shutting down everywhere. It’s not good enough.”

 

Charlotte talked about issues facing women in Sheffield, such as street harassment. She said: “We’re currently launching a campaign working with the police to get misogyny recognised as a hate crime in Sheffield. It happens so much that it’s been normalised, but it’s not okay for this to be part of women’s normal experience. People always talk about ‘angry young people’, but actually I find that I’m far angrier about things now, in my early 40s, because things still haven’t changed.”

 

WEP has come under criticism for focusing only on issues affecting white middle-class women. Charlotte emphasised WEP’s short history, saying: “We don’t have everything right at the moment, we’re just starting out.  But I would say that issues like violence against women, equal pay, and equal representation know no class, race or economic boundaries. Equality is about treating people fairly and respectfully, while valuing diversity. We’re learning as we go along. As a party we need to ensure we encompass the voices of all women and we have a strong plan for that. I can definitely see WEP running campaigns in the future targeted at supporting specific groups, for example BME and LGBT+ women. At Sheffield we have ‘How can we be more diverse and inclusive?’ on the agenda of every single meeting. That’s one of the reasons we alternate between meeting at Union St and different places around the city like the Broomhall Community Centre and Sharrow Old School, as these areas are diverse and we can engage more with other marginalised groups.”

 

Charlotte explained why the people of Sheffield should join WEP, saying: “We’ve been waiting a very long time for someone to give us equality and it’s not happened. We all have the power to change the system, but you have to take that power, a proactive step and a leap of faith – you have to be one of the people that creates change. The WEP is unlike any other party. You will not meet a more welcoming, warm, enthusiastic and supportive bunch of people. Everybody is very welcome.”

 

WEP Sheffield’s next meeting is on November 1st at Union St. Like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter for more information.

Rohan Kon
About Rohan Kon
Rohan is Campaigns Manager at Union St and online writer for The Huffington Post
Politics for Everybody?