Women's Equality Party: Harpy meets Dr Louise Jennings
The Women’s Equality Party wants to change British politics and undermine the current structure of political debate. The stereotype from which our current political disillusionment partially derives seems characterised by playground antics; pointing the finger and calling each other names. Also prevalent is the covert deflection of direct questions, the refusal to engage in open and meaningful debate, and the overriding focus on the preservation of ego. The WEP does genuinely offer something different: a non-partisan political party, they seek to work with other parties to implement policy change that can instigate equality in our society across all institutions.
I spoke to Dr Louise Jennings, WEP candidate for Headingley and Hyde Park in the May 2018 local elections. We discussed broadly her personal and political reflections on the role and importance of the Women’s Equality Party and feminism more generally.
Louise said that, like many other members of the party, she initially had very little interest in politics and has no political background. Motivated by her frustration at the lack of progress towards equality for women, her involvement was instigated by an inherent desire for change. She says, ‘I literally woke up one morning and looked at the world around me and thought: “what is going on?!”’; a sentiment I feel many of us can relate to, (even if our only response is to bury our sorrows in Netflix binges or, at the most daring, write something stroppy on social media). Only 15% of the undergraduate cohort studying Mechanical Engineering are women; the same amount, she claims, as when she was studying 25 years ago. This perplexing and troubling statistic is only one example of gender inequality that Louise states is, ‘everywhere’.
Becoming a mother reinforced her passionate and unequivocal belief that gender inequality is entrenched within our society, favouring men over women and encouraging our young people to conform to damaging gender constructs and internalise sexist attitudes. Her family, she says, is fairly gender-neutral and defies stereotypical male/female roles. Having these role models in the home, it seems evident that sexist attitudes would be more likely imparted to her son away from the domestic sphere, when he is interacting with his peers at school and elsewhere. By joining WEP, she has more opportunity to assist in the implementation of effective policies that work towards dismantling inequality at its core.
As Associate Professor of Medical Engineering at Leeds University, I probed Louise further about her views on the comparative lack of women in STEM subject areas. Although she says that Medical Engineering at Leeds has a large proportion of female students and academics, she admits other sciences still seem to struggle to ensure equal representation. Again, Louise points towards the wider social structure and socialisation of young people as the cause of this disparity. When a system that is biased towards one group decides the merits upon which we shall all be judged, inequality and injustice are inevitable. Equal representation is essential for enabling the consideration of all perspectives and acknowledging the diversity of experience that exists. Now at the centre of her understanding of societal bias, she admits that when younger, this understanding remained in her periphery, and was often absent in reflections on her own lived experience. Discussing her decision to study Mechanical Engineering, I asked whether she faced any discrimination at the time, or at any other throughout her career, as she entered a predominantly male sphere. Although she says that there was nothing overt, looking back, especially to her first job, there were some ‘suspect incidents’ that now she feels she would recognise and confront. However, she says, ‘At the time it was accepted as part of the culture’.
The reluctance or inability to confront sexism in our daily lives is easy to relate to, as is our continuing blindness when it comes to unearthing the unconscious sexist attitudes we all sustain without realising it. For me, part of this horrible and scary awakening occurred when I heard this popular analogy: A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital the surgeon looks at the boy and says "I can't operate on this boy, he is my son." How can this be? I was unable, as were some of my friends, to figure out that the surgeon must be the boy’s mother. So obvious, and yet the answer eluded me. Talking to Louise, we agreed that an example such as this proves that our cultural subconscious still assigns specific roles to specific genders.
So, how do we change this? What can challenge these submerged prejudices?
Louise believes that the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have been important in raising women’s issues and challenging sexist discourse, enabling public scrutiny and demanding redress. When asked if she felt these movements were going to have a long-term impact on perceptions of feminism and attitudes towards the WEP, she says, ‘I really hope so! I feel this is a turning-point. The more of us that are talking about it and influencing people, the greater the change’. She continues, ‘the important thing is that, now it is at the front of people’s minds, we need to keep it there’. This is, of course, easier said than done, especially when faced with recurring challenges.
Although thankfully absent from her own local election campaign, Louise admits that aggression towards the party and their women-focused policies is prevalent. Aside from the easily condemnable actions of sexists, I ask whether Louise feels the WEP struggle to engage with men as a potential voting demographic. She admits that trying to engage men with feminism can be difficult and is often the ‘biggest challenge’ the party faces. The party espouses that ‘Equality is better for everyone’, with most of their policies seeking to improve the lives of men and women alike, revealing how damaging many of our gendered stereotypes can be. However, we spoke together of men in our personal lives that just didn’t ‘get it’. Many men I know would never think of calling themselves ‘feminists’, not because they hate women, but because they believe the movement is not something they are allowed to be involved in. Louise also states that many men do not see inequality as a social issue because it does not infiltrate their private lives. It becomes trickier to combat these issues when we realise that, as Louise says, many derogatory stereotypes exist in our subconscious, dictating our actions and behaviour without our knowledge. Thorny ground indeed, but Louise claims that the solution is simple, if a little arduous: to keep talking, educating and listening.
Whilst talking to Louise it became evident that she is committed to the party and excited by the opportunity to represent Headingley and Hyde Park as a local councillor. It is refreshing to speak with someone who answers questions simply and honestly, is keen to discuss issues, and seems to genuinely think about their responses, as opposed to regurgitating a rehearsed script.
By her own admission, Louise Jennings has ‘not really done anything like this before’ but her final statement seems to perfectly encompass all that we need to know. When asked what she wanted to see in the future, she simply says: ‘I want equality’.
Visit the Women's Equality Party website for more information and to read their manifesto.
Most importantly, REGISTER TO VOTE in the upcoming elections.
Title image provided by WEP Leeds.