Bhavya Jhaveri’s intersectional analysis of the Women’s Equality Party and their construction of women.
To a politics student and a feminist, few things should seem more exciting than mainstream feminist parties in politics. The rise, and success, of feminist parties across Europe, is indicative of changing attitudes that allow women to be in positions of power and address issues of representation that have been commonplace in politics thus far. And yet, I am hesitant to celebrate and support the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) in the UK.
Even though WEP only has 7 candidates and no seats so far, it is increasingly relevant due to the issue it represents, namely gender equality. In 2017, we saw an incredibly high number of victims of sexual harassment come forward to speak of their experiences, and people abusing positions of power were finally called out for using their authority to harass and silence victims. This sparked the #MeToo movement, which drew attention to the fact that incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination are commonly faced by women worldwide. A list of more than 30 MPs accused of sexually harassing women in Westminster emerged, and we saw British politicians scramble to respond to the questions being raised by the media and public about the lack of sufficient oversight and policies to counter this culture. A record-breaking number of women and BAME MPs were elected into Parliament in the 2017 election, building on the hope that one day Parliament will not be overwhelmingly consisted of old, white men. This is not to suggest that equality will be achieved any time soon – there are still many types of discrimination that women face on a daily basis that need to be addressed. However, women’s issues are increasingly being brought into the spotlight and institutions are being forced to change in response.
WEP has the ability to pressure other ruling parties to prioritise gender equality. They are in a powerful position to create a meaningful discussion of women’s issues in the political sphere. Through social media and interviews, they have already managed to call out ruling parties on the lack of effective action taken to tackle the issue of gender equality, and can continue to do so. Furthermore, there is also a lot of media buzz around WEP due to high profile individuals such as Hugh Quarshie, Emma Thompson, and Lily Allen publicly supporting it.
As a mainstream political party, they are a legitimised representative of the British feminist movement in the political sphere. The kinds of people that the feminist movement wants to call out are hardly going to go out of their way to educate themselves on feminism, and so are most likely going to read headlines from online and print media sources. WEP is more often in the news section than the opinion section and is, therefore, more likely to be read about by people who don’t identify as feminists or agree with the ideals of the feminist movement. As such, WEP is probably the most widely read about ‘feminist’ group.
However, while recently reading their manifesto for an assignment, I was struck by how WEP constructs women – it appears to over-represent the interests of some women at the expense of others. The introduction to the manifesto recognises internally diverse groups such as genders, ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs and experiences, and claims to want to unite them in advancing the project of gender equality. However, this diversity quickly dwindles. We only hear of BAME women, LGBT+ individuals, and disabled women as examples of disadvantaged groups, never as groups who have agency and are critical actors in the feminist movement. We only hear of these groups as a whole, without recognition that these groups have vastly different experiences and thus vastly different needs from each other. We only hear that these groups are hardest hit by issues facing all women, never that there are issues unique to each of these groups as well. In contrast, white women are never explicitly characterised as a group. This effectively establishes able-bodied, heterosexual, white women as the ‘norm’ and groups such as BAME women, LGBT+ individuals, and disabled women as the ‘other’.
This construction is entirely contrary to the emphasis that the larger feminist movement has been trying to place on intersectional identities. The feminist movement is about equality, which WEP rightly identify. However, a failure to recognise other facets of diversity, such as race and sexual orientation ignores the experiences of many individuals who are an integral part of the British feminist movement. It is important for WEP to acknowledge the relative privilege some women have and be more aware of the different kinds of oppression individuals face.
WEP has set itself the ambitious task of tackling gender equality, but in order to succeed it must first be more sensitive to different kinds of oppression that various groups and individuals face. WEP must also recognise that it is, to some level, the public face of the British feminist movement, and so has a duty to represent interests of the wider movement as accurately as possible. A party that claims to act for all women, and for the benefit of all individuals, must recognise the diversity of its audience and cater to different experiences as much as it can. Until it does so, WEP cannot hope to gain the full support of the movement it is trying to be a part of.
Illustration by Rivka Cocker.