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A Word With... Women Equality Party's Jo Shaw

Barrister Jo Shaw is standing for the London Assembly and talks to us exclusively about the party, why she’s standing and how today’s inequalities affect us all

Image Credit: Jo Shaw

Have you heard there’s a new party dedicated to equality between women and men? Co-founded by author and journalist Catherine Mayer and broadcaster, author and future QI host Sandi Toksvig, the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) website says it’s “uniting people of all genders, diverse ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs and experiences in the shared determination to see women enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men so that all can flourish”.

 

The party is fielding candidates for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies on Thursday 5th May and financial journalist Sophie Walker is standing for the party in the election for Mayor of London.

 

Barrister Jo Shaw, who’s one of the WEP’s candidates for the London Assembly, tells us about the party, why she’s standing and how today’s inequalities affect us all.

 

IC:

Thank you for talking with us. Why are you standing for the WEP in the London Assembly election?

 

Jo: 

Well I’m doing it because I believe in equality, because it’s exciting and essential to be involved with the first explicitly feminist party and because I believe I’ve got something to contribute, both to the Party and to the debate. I’ve been around politics for a while and I’ve seen a lot of how it works and how it doesn’t work for many people.

 

There’s a Twitter hashtag at the moment called #WhenIWas. It’s really depressing because it’s women talking about their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment when they were children, things like: “When I was 12 my breasts were grabbed by a grown up when I was wearing my school uniform on the train.” I’m glad to be standing in this election for a party that takes these issues seriously and wants to end violence against women and girls and is calling for practical things that will achieve that. There’s this complacency that this is just how things are. The #WEcount hashtag campaign highlights how prevalent sexual abuse is on our streets, and reclaims the street for women.

 

IC:

Would you say it’s a massive failure on the part of all of the other mainstream parties that the WEP should even exist?

 

Jo:

Well, yes, I suppose in one way you could say that. All the parties say they take equality issues seriously, and the mainstream parties, particularly Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have achieved some things on different issues when they’ve been in government in the last 20 years, but the problem is that equality is seen as a “nice to have”, rather than as an essential component of a democratic society, which is what my party and I think it is.

 

We don’t have freedom and we don’t have proper democracy unless we have equality underpinning it. So on the one level the WEP shouldn’t be necessary, because all of the parties say they care about these issues and to an extent they do, but what they don’t do is prioritise it and that’s permitted a whole set of inequalities and injustices to persist that the WEP just won’t put up with any more. It’s completely illogical and it’s unjust.

 

Sophie Walker’s standing for Mayor of London and we’re campaigning for her to be elected as the first real feminist mayor. Both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have said they’ll be the first feminist Mayor of London but I’d rather have Sophie – the first female Mayor and a real, card-carrying feminist at that!

 

IC:

You’re 7th on the WEP list of candidates and, whilst we’re sure you’d love to have 7 WEP Assembly Members, in truth it’s highly unlikely you’ll personally be elected. Are you standing because it gives you a platform?

 

Jo:

Obviously we’re a party campaigning for election, for example my great friend Lee Chalmers is top of the list in Lothian for the WEP, and she’s an amazing, inspiring campaigner. To have Members of the Scottish Parliament would be fantastic. And clearly the same in London.

 

But the thing is we’ve been very clear as a party, we don’t care if people steal our policies, we don’t care what political background people come from, if they come to us because they care about equality, we’re delighted to speak to them and share our ideas with them and share our absolutely fervent belief that equality makes life better for everyone in all sorts of ways. That that’s a really worthwhile endeavour. So if that means that the WEP candidates get elected then fantastic, if it means that other parties steal our policies or describe themselves as feminists, or start talking about the issues that we care about, then that’s great too. Because what we’re about is influencing and causing change, and that’s happening just by the very fact of our existing, let alone us standing for election.

 

IC:

Are you getting lots of support from men?

 

Jo:

Yes!

 

IC:

Any hostility or even lunacy? Do some men seem threatened by the existence of the WEP?

 

Jo:

I have to say that I’ve been really thrilled by the response we’ve had from men – and women. It’s been brilliant actually. There might be a stereotypical image of a man as one who doesn’t understand equality but all men have a mother, most men have a partner who is a woman, lots of men don’t but they also have sisters or friends or other family members who are female. It’s not like men are hermetically sealed from women and women’s lives; that’s just a ridiculous notion. Men understand what’s going on in equality between men and women but also inequality hits men in countless ways, for example in things like paternity leave or wanting to play a more full role in family life, or caring responsibilities more broadly. Indeed even in men being typified in this really restrictive way as being the breadwinner and the strong one...

 

IC:

Not allowed to cry...

 

Jo:

Not allowed to cry, all that stuff, which is completely rubbish. It’s as painful and inaccurate for men as it’s painful and inaccurate to describe women as the ones who always do the caring and who are brilliant at housework and the ones who want to stay at home and the ones who are constantly emotionally labile. Neither of these generalisations are accurate and they’re equally restrictive.

 

IC:

Men who don’t have female partners are often suffering from inequality issues of their own aren’t they?

 

Jo:

Exactly, quite. Inequality doesn’t just mean gender inequality. That’s the most obvious in our society, I would argue, but there’s race inequality, there’s sexual preference inequality, there’s disability inequality and age inequality and we’re campaigning on all those things and we take all of them very seriously. It’s not just the white, middle class woman’s diversion, at all. Inequality has to be intersectional; our party is intersectional by nature – it has to be, otherwise you end up cutting out sections of the population from being empowered, from being able to contribute in the way that everyone wants to and from society benefitting from the contribution that we all can offer.

 

IC:

So why, if there’s so much support for women’s equality, are we in the situation we’re in?

 

Jo:

Well I think to a certain extent people think that we’ve achieved equality. People point to things like the Equal Pay Act [1970] and the equalities legislation and so on and say: “Look you’ve got it, women have got the vote...” Which is true – there is formal equality: In law, we are equal. The trouble is formal equality doesn’t cut it, for the obvious reason that we’ve had an Equal Pay Act for 46 years and we don’t have equal pay.

 

IC:

Only 70 years to go if the gap keeps closing at the current rate...

 

Jo:

Yes quite. You know, we have an intake in the legal profession which is 50/50, or in fact more women than men at entry level and, yet by the time you get to 15 or 20 years in, it’s something like 20% women and 80% men. This imbalance is then reflected in appointments to the judiciary, including the most senior ones. As you know, we don’t have equality in Parliament, we don’t have equality in business and so on. Also, in terms of the legislative measures that are in force, they aren’t enforced. So we don’t have equal pay and we do have discrimination all the time against women who are pregnant, or returning from maternity leave, or who have caring responsibilities – our society just doesn’t address it. We’ve got the legislation but structural inequality is the issue.

 

IC:

Well put. Has the WEP had a party conference yet?

 

Jo:

No. There have been meetings but the party was only launched in March 2015, so it’s early days yet.

 

IC:

And how does the party decide policy?

 

Jo:

Our first policy document, which was released in October last year, came about as a result of consultations with members and supporters over the summer.

 

IC:

For those who want to find out more, are your manifestos on your website?

 

Jo:

Yes, we have manifestos for the Scottish, Welsh and London elections.

 

IC:

How can people vote for you?

 

Jo:

When you vote for a London-wide Assembly Member (using the orange ballot paper) put a cross in the box next to ‘Women’s Equality Party’. And of course give your first preference vote in the Mayoral election to Sophie Walker – she’s amazing!

 

IC:

Any final words?

 

Jo:

The party is open to anyone, and we know equality makes life better for everyone, so please get involved and support us on 5th May!

 

IC:

Thank you very much Jo.

 

Jo:

Thank you.

 

 

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