Walker, who has been the Women’s Equality Party leader since 2015, says she wants to make space for new female voices.
Back in July 2015, Sophie Walker was announced as the first leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP). At the time, the political party was in its infancy, having been founded just four months earlier by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and author and journalist Catherine Mayer.
An experienced Reuters journalist and autism campaigner who wrote about issues including feminism, careers and mental health, Walker, then 44, was new to politics. “I didn’t study politics at university. I didn’t do an internship with a politician. I haven’t written policy papers,” she said frankly. But she was elected unanimously by the WEP’s steering committee – and under her leadership, the party’s membership grew to over 45,000 people, with 70 active branches across the UK.
Now, however, Walker has announced that she is to step down as WEP leader. And in a world where most political leaders resign due to public pressure or scandal, Walker’s motive is unusual: she wants to create space for other women to rise to the top.
In a statement, Walker said she believes that “making space for new voices” – especially those from marginalised or minority backgrounds – is “a key part of the job” of being a political leader.
“I am frustrated by complacency in the feminist movement and in political parties about making sense for black, Asian and minority ethnic women, working class women and disabled women in particular,” she said.
Walker observed that as a white, middle class, non-disabled woman, she also recognised the limits of her own ability “to ensure that women of colour, working class women and disabled women see themselves reflected in this party and know they can lead this movement.”
“I think that sometimes in order to lead, you have to get out of the way,” she said, adding: “White men, are you listening?”
Walker was re-elected leader of the WEP in January 2018, and could have stayed on as head of the party until 2023 if she desired. Explaining why she decided to stand for re-election one year before stepping down, she said she wanted to spend 2018 encouraging “new talent” into the party. She also hoped to secure the WEP’s support for a second referendum on Brexit, and to solidify the party’s position on foreign policy.
Once she achieved these goals, she felt ready to resign. “Stepping aside now is part of the same aim to reach and raise up more women, to encourage new approaches and to build our movement for equality with a leader, or groups of leaders, who are not white middle class non-disabled women.”
Like many people in the UK right now, Walker said she was frustrated with the current state of politics. Feminist issues are still “violently dismissed as frivolous by patriarchal systems that haven’t changed for centuries,” she said, and the “‘hero’ model” of political leadership – whereby one party leader represents many people on many complex issues – “isn’t working”.
She also criticised what she sees as a culture of encouraging women to enter politics without considering “what we are asking”.
“Without also supplying maintenance and nourishment – be it mentoring, mental health support or money – we perpetuate a ‘Lean In’ culture that ignores the uncomfortable reality of the structural inequalities barring women’s access,” she said.
The Women’s Equality Party has endured many challenges over the last three and a half years, and faced scepticism from both inside and outside the feminist movement. A WEP candidate has not yet won a seat in a general election, and eyebrows were raised in December when the party suggested on social media that gender had played a part in Theresa May’s inability to coordinate Brexit. The WEP has also been criticised “for being comprised mainly of white, middle-class affluent women”.
But in a world where men still dominate the political arena and issues affecting women are often pushed to the side lines, the WEP’s explicitly feminist goal – to work towards a country where women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men – is laudable.
And while criticisms of the party’s core demographic are valid, Walker’s resignation is clearly a sign that the party is actively making space for diverse leadership. It’s hard to imagine any other white, middle class political leaders stepping down from their posts as part of their commitment to equality of all kinds – and for that, Walker deserves respect.
Concluding her resignation statement, Walker said: “I offer my hand and my help to women who may never have considered that they could change the world.
“Because we need new leaders, and the leaders who will change the world will be the women we haven’t met yet.”
Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here.
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