We’re facing another five years of Conservative government, and as women we should be afraid. It was repeatedly reported during the last term that women were hit the hardest by austerity, and as we find ourselves with a proposed £12bn more cuts to welfare in the near future, there’s little reason to expect things will improve.
It’s hard to watch organisations like the Fawcett Society celebrate the fact that there was an increase in women MPs and women party leaders (especially when one of those parties was, briefly, UKIP), when for the most vulnerable it is glaringly obvious that no matter how many women are represented in parliament, the coming years are going to be painful and it is very likely that more people are going to die. It matters not the gender of the person sanctioning benefits, removing funding to domestic violence shelters, falsely assessing disabled people as Fit to Work; the effects will hurt just the same.
Clearly, British politics needs more than just the presence of women in its mainstream parties. It needs something new, something to shake it up. That’s why the news that Sandi Toksvig is leaving BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz to help found the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) has got people excited. Its proposed mission is to ‘achieve equality for women to the benefit of all’; it’s narrow, but they’re not ashamed of that.
Focusing on bringing about gender equality is obviously important. The problem is, however, that whilst women might be oppressed as a gender, we are not all oppressed the same. The WEP wants to focus on equal representation in politics and business, equal opportunity in the educational system, equal pay, equal parenting rights, and ending violence against women. None of these things are objectionable, unless you’re a misogynist. However, with few exceptions, they lay a very specific groundwork that posits navigating the world of business as the most significant threat to women currently. Representation in boardrooms, the pay gap, and the disparity between maternity and paternity leave are being presented as key components of equality. While for some women they undoubtedly are, we must look at the bigger picture.
The WEP says that equality means ‘a more vibrant economy’ and ‘a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population’. What, then, for the many disabled and/or neuroatypical women, who cannot work and bear the brunt of cuts to benefits and cruel capability assessments, as well as discrimination and the impact of the ‘strivers vs shirkers’ dynamic created by the government itself? What about the women of colour and trans women who experience higher unemployment rates and face lower rates of pay than both white men and women?
Equality should not be about contributing to the economy, but surviving under capitalist patriarchy. For most women, that means far more than smashing the glass ceiling. It means taking into account those who are unemployed and in poverty, it means acknowledging the women who are not in heterosexual marriages, who are not working or even able to work, and it means examining the fact that 91% of single parents are women.
Even tackling violence against women, the most vital of the WEP’s goals, must come from a perspective that is willing to examine the ways women of colour, trans women, queer women, disabled women, poor women and sex workers are all at increased risk. As such, I find it worrying that when I asked the WEP if they could clarify their position on sex work, they simply did not acknowledge the question. Many feminists classify sex work as violence against women in itself, but it is, in my opinion, vital for the well-being of sex workers that it is considered a job first and foremost, with full rights, safe conditions, and fair pay and treatment. The WEP might consider this out of their purview, but I’d consider that an error.
This is the problem with being a party that is avowedly ‘non-partisan’ but seeking to represent a group as large and varied as women: women’s lives and experiences are never non-partisan. They are political, intersectional, and they have already been shown to suffer under a Tory government. Though campaigning for legal change regarding pay and parenting rights may positively impact the lives of some women, and it might be an easier sell to the general public, it will ultimately do very little for the majority. It is a superficial victory. We need a political party willing to shake societal structures to their very core.
Of course, such a party would never be popular in the mainstream. Unfortunately, that’s the point. If we want our feminism to change things, we don’t want it to be palatable. It’s never going to be easy to dismantle oppressive structures, but if we want real equality, we’re going to have to try.
The image used shows people inside the House of Commons and is used under the creative commons license.