Posted on April 27 2016
This Week’s Wednesday Woman is the celebrated journalist, author and Co-Founder of Women’s Equality Party (WE) in the UK, Catherine Mayer. Read her journey into politics here:
Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about your background and your career prior to setting up WE?
Catherine Mayer: I spent 30 years as a journalist, most recently at TIME magazine, and I’ve also written two books, “Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly” and a biography of Prince Charles, “Charles: The Heart of King”.
You may remember the Charles book created something of a media storm when The Times ran excerpts ahead of its hardback publication in February 2015. I remember thinking I’d take a break and relax after the fuss died down. Then on March 2 2015 I proposed the idea of the Women’s Equality Party and I haven’t yet got round to taking any time off.
Bardega: What inspired you to set up WE and how did you make it a reality?
Mayer: I suggested the party spontaneously at the Women of the World Festival, after listening to female MPs from the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems talking about what their parties would do for women if elected to power in the May 2015 elections.
These women were impressive but none of them had risen in their parties as they should. And many women in the audience said they felt so let down by politics and politicians that they probably wouldn’t bother to vote. So I stood up and said maybe a party was needed that would put the delivery of gender equality front and centre. I wasn’t actually meaning that I would found the party but that’s how things turned out.
So I rang my friend Sandi Toksvig the next day and discovered she was planning to close the festival by showcasing a fantasy women’s party. We’d already had discussions about our own disenchantment with the political choices on offer and the next time we met up, after a few beers, we decided to found WE.
Turning that idea into a reality has been both easier than anticipated and far harder. The easy part is that we tapped into a demand that was already there. Thousands of people started volunteering to help and signed up the moment I put a notice on Facebook and before Sandi’s involvement was known. We now have 45,000 members and supporters and 73 branches across the UK.
The hard part is a political system stacked against newcomers. It’s incredibly expensive to do politics. The voting system for many elections including for the House of Commons creates huge distortions in favour of existing parties. And now we’re running candidates for the May 5 elections, for London Mayor, for the London Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, we find ourselves excluded from key hustings and TV appearances according to conventions that exclude parties that haven’t yet got elected representatives. You need to be elected to qualify for the publicity to get you elected. It’s a Catch-22.
Bardega: You have worked in journalism and focused on the political arena for many years, which are both heavily male dominated, what did you learn from that and how has that experience helped you with WE?
Mayer: I thought I understood politics when I wrote about it but I have learned so much more since doing it for real, for example about the reasons why there are so many affluent white men in power. People who are short of time and money—and women are more likely than men to be short of both, juggling caregiving with other commitments and paid less than men when employed—aren’t as easily able to stand for election. But what I did learn as a journalist is that most politicians go into politics for the right reasons and that it is the political structures and culture that defeat some of their best intentions.
I realised that there were good women and men in all parties who agreed on a great deal about the need for gender equality but too rarely collaborated to make it a reality. That inspired WE’s unique model. We have six core objectives and have developed costed and cost-free policies to deliver these objectives.
From the beginning we have invited the other parties to work with us or to steal our policies, provided they implement them. It has been very interesting watching the electoral races to see many of our policies popping up in the speeches and pledges of competing parties. I recently sat through a hustings where Sadiq Khan appeared to be quoting verbatim from our London manifesto. That’s all very well but of course we need to keep challenging the other parties by standing against them and winning so those other parties don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk.
Bardega: What are some of the obstacles you have had to overcome since starting WE and how did you deal with them?
Mayer: Some of them I’ve mentioned already, but I’ll go back to the point about how expensive it is to do politics. Do you know it costs £20,000 just to register to run for London Mayor?
We are lucky because we have amazing support from e.g. The Chapman brothers and Damien Hirst who have shown their support by creating artworks for us. Damien's was auctioned this month for £20,000, providing much-needed funds for our election campaign, while Jake and Dinos (Chapman) are reviving the Suffragette project of inscribing messages onto coins - theirs reads 'Women's Equality Party' - and releasing them into circulation to highlight the exchange of power through money.
We have a fraction of the resources of the old parties but thanks to the amazing enthusiasm for the party, we’re still managing to do on the ground campaigning and some pretty wonderful advertising too. Our first party broadcast aired on TV two weeks ago; it was entirely made by volunteers. There is some really brilliant stuff to come. I would like to share it with you but…
Bardega: The London Mayor elections are approaching –what’s are your main party manifesto and how confident are you that people will vote for WE?
Mayer: You can look at our website for our more detailed London, Wales and Scotland manifestos. At our core, we want equality for both women and men. As you’ll see, these are intensely practical policies and there’s no reason all parties shouldn’t sign up to them. But we’re the only party that is focused on delivering equality for all genders and that’s why I am confident that we’re going to do very well for a party that only officially came into existence last July.
Canvassing has been energising and exciting. I have yet to meet anyone hostile to the Women’s Equality Party and I have met many, many people who tell me they're really happy that we exist and are planning to vote for us.
We’re asking for just half of people’s votes—in London we want one of your votes, ideally your first preference, for the fabulous Sophie Walker as Mayor and we want you to vote for our London-wide list of candidates who are all brilliant; in Wales and Scotland we want one of your two votes for our brilliant challengers).
So that means people can vote for another party as well as us. When I explain that on the doorstep, many people tell me they just want to vote for us.
Bardega: What / who inspires you?
Mayer: Everyone I’ve been lucky enough to work with at the Women’s Equality Party and especially our candidates. They’ve turned their lives upside down in order to make a difference. And I’m currently inspired by Lily Allen for taking the decision to go public on her stalking ordeal despite the unwanted and distorted publicity she knew that would bring, in order to help victims without her resources. She is campaigning with the Women’s Equality Party and with Paladin to make sure stalking cases are handled far better.
Bardega: What advice would you give a younger Catherine, starting her career?
Mayer: There’s one piece of advice I’ve always followed: Always accept a dare. These days I would also warn young women against the temptation to tell themselves that they need to play along with the prevailing culture in order to get ahead. That isn’t working. We all need to challenge sexism and discrimination and unconscious bias in order to bring about change—and that change will be better for everyone.
* This week WE launched launched a national campaign, #WEcount, to highlight the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, linking up with the work they are doing with Lily Allen on stalking ~ the only party to make this a political priority. *