When Sandi Toksvig and co. announced they were starting the Women’s Equality Party, I didn’t have especially high hopes: the three white, middle-class women at its helm rang some bells about who might be excluded and, besides, I’ve never been convinced that radical feminist action is best achieved inside the fundamentally oppressive framework of party politics. But I – perhaps naively – did think that with the right people involved from the start in shaping policy and direction, perhaps the WEP could be a force for good. Their policy launch this week, though, sadly did very little to exceed my already low expectations. Here are some of the reasons why.
- Their commitment to being ‘apolitical’ (whatever that means)
Toksvig had already made a point of emphasising the party’s non-partisan position and their refusal to align to the left or right wing or to take party lines on issues outside of their remit, but this was reiterated at the policy launch and sadly says a lot about who the ‘women’ in their title are. The fact is that the ability to be apolitical is a privilege only afforded to those who have the option of disengaging with how right-wing ideology ruins lives, including those of millions of women everywhere. I don’t think useful feminism can ever be apolitical, because existing in a patriarchal society is a political identity and the structures which continue to subordinate women are explicitly political. Besides, there’s really no such thing as being apolitical, only being reasonably comfortable with the status quo. I plan to write something more coherent and longer about this issue but here’s my two cents for now, as it’s definitely a key reason I’m convinced the WEP is destined to fail.
2. Not taking on the feminist implications of austerity
Leading on from the above, it’s really disappointing to see that austerity and a commitment to standing against it isn’t really touched on in the WEP’s priorities. Their promise to only take a party line on directly relevant issues misses the point that austerity and policies like the bedroom tax, cuts to tax credits, and changes to minimum wage legislation all disproportionately affect women. It feels like this omission shows the colours of the women at the core of the party again – they have the privilege not to see austerity as a feminist issue because they’re rich enough not to have to.
3. Their definition of ‘Violence Against Women’ and their tactics for ending it
Violence against women and girls is an epidemic and absolutely should be a priority for any organisation claiming to want to advance feminism and gender equality. But the WEP have followed in the footsteps of many a liberal feminist organisation by lumping in sex work as a form of violence against women, and calling for the criminalisation of buyers in order to ‘end demand’, otherwise known as the Nordic Model. Not only does this stance erase the voices, choices and consent of sex workers themselves, as well as ignoring the economics of women’s labour, it’s also wilfully ignorant; regardless of how you feel about sex work as a profession, and regardless of whether you think it should exist or not, the priority of any purported feminist should unequivocally be the safety of those taking part in it. This is the rhetoric that the WEP’s stance is couched in too, except it fails to acknowledge that the Nordic model doesn’t keep women safe. Sex workers have said so, academics have said so, Amnesty International has said so. There’s no doubt that this policy was well researched and discussed at length, and that its proponents have therefore come up against this wealth of evidence in opposition to it. This stance, then, seems to speak more to a deeper bigotry against women who sell sex than it does to any desire to keep women safe, physically or economically.
4. What about abortion rights and the safety of trans women?
Rather than taking issue with the WEP’s stance on these issues, I’m more confused by the fact that they just aren’t there. Abortion rights and bodily autonomy are fundamental to women’s liberation, and they don’t get one mention in the WEP’s policy document, even in the context of constant threats to current abortion law – which is fairly restrictive even as it currently exists. Trans women are also excluded from any meaningful statements in the policy document, conspicuous in their absence as transphobia in feminist spaces has become a very real and live topic over the past few years and here was a real opportunity to welcome trans women into a safe organising space.
5. A focus on women with power rather than feminists with influence
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s abysmal that women are under-represented in politics and I think there absolutely should be campaigns happening to target that. But for me the WEP’s policies around this fall into the trap of trying to get women into power instead of feminist women into positions of influence. I’ve written before on this blog about the dangers of celebrating an increase in women MPs when we still have a Tory majority, and the point stands for boards and CEOs too. It’s crucial that we get women into power who will use that power to advance things for women behind them. Too often a focus on women on boards means a focus on rich white women getting to where they were probably going to get anyway, and feminism chalking it up as a win. We have to move beyond that, and I’m not sure the WEP’s strategy provides an opportunity for us to do so.
In conclusion, then, I suppose the WEP’s policies fall into the trap of being a party concerned with what’s come to be known as ‘white feminism’, a shorthand for feminism which lacks intersectional analysis and almost entirely fails to acknowledge the influence of class. It’s disappointing that the priorities of a group whose name literally refers to equality for all women will likely mean the advancement of some women at the expense of less privileged others. It’s a trap that too many feminist organisations fall into, and it’s why activism and action outside of party political structures remains vital. I’ll see you there.