From direct action in the streets to behind-the-scenes economics, meet the modern-day suffragettes, fighting for equality…
Pushing for a fully gender-balanced Westminster, 50:50 Parliament’s campaign #AskHerToStand encourages women to run as MPs. “The evidence in the US suggests that women need to be asked three times before they will stand for office,” says Frances Scott, the campaign’s founder. “We launched #AskHerToStand in 2016 with the aim of persuading more women to become MPs.”
Women make up 51% of the UK population but are only represented by 208 female MPs out of 650. 50:50 believes that women’s issues will only be addressed properly when women write the laws. It began as an online petition in 2013 (“about 10 years after I started feeling angry,” says Scott) and is now staffed by volunteers who design the website, make films, run social media and blog.
“Women’s issues and concerns are not prioritised by our politicians,” says Sonia Adesara, 27, an NHS doctor. “Women are under-represented in every political sphere. I joined 50:50 as they were taking positive action to address this.”
50:50 Parliament scored its first big win in the 2017 general election when Rosie Duffield became the Labour MP for Canterbury. Duffield and Scott met in November 2015, when Duffield was a single mother working as a part-time teaching assistant and relying on tax credits. Duffield was passionate about politics, and active in her local Labour Party, but “didn’t feel ready to stand as an MP”. When the snap election was announced in 2017, Duffield thought it might be good practice. So, with 50:50 Parliament’s encouragement, she ran – and won.
Since then, Duffield has used her platform to campaign about maternity services and to oppose cuts to tax credits. “Someone like me who was on tax credits is now talking across the chamber to someone who has a £17m property portfolio, who has never met someone on tax credits. Luckily, I was elected alongside some other single mums, and we talk about how close we came to going to food banks – and all of us had jobs. We know what we’re talking about and we need to be here.”
As for 50:50 Parliament, it hopes Duffield’s victory will inspire others to run. The campaign’s website asks users to fill in a form about inspiring women they know, so 50:50 can contact them and ask them to run. “It was Sarah Champion [Labour MP for Rotherham] who got a bill through about pay transparency,” points out Scott. Without political representation, she believes, there can be no hope of gender equality.
Women’s Budget Group
The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) is a collection of feminist economists, women’s voluntary organisations and trade unionists, which scrutinises the impact of economic policy on women. Highly respected, the WBG’s research is often cited by MPs and academics. They have grown to be a network of more than 400 individuals, organised by a central committee.
“I’m involved in lots of different feminist activities,” says director Mary-Ann Stephenson, an equality and human-rights campaigner for more than 20 years. “But I’ve always thought the way the economy is organised is fundamental to feminism. The WBG is working with a high level of expertise and I wanted to bring this to the people who could do something about it. It’s useful to have the numbers. It’s essential to changing things.”
Since 2010, when the coalition government began sweeping cuts to public spending, the group’s work has gained real prominence. It has produced material on how austerity disproportionately affects black and minority ethnic (BAME) women and responses to the manifestos of seven different political parties.
The WBG was first established in 1989 to figure out the impact on women of the Chancellor’s annual budget – because nobody else was doing it. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the WBG wrote to her Chancellor, John Major, to draw attention to the impact of the government’s economic decisions.
One of the WBG’s biggest successes came when the New Labour government replaced Family Income Supplements with Tax Credits. They planned to pay tax credits to the main breadwinner (usually the man), rather than the main carer (usually the woman) – reversing the convention for Family Income Supplements. The WBG accused the government of taking money from women and giving it to men. Ultimately they were victorious and the policy was changed.
Sisters Uncut is a direct-action group of women and non-binary people who campaign for better domestic violence services. Their work has helped push domestic violence up the agenda and, in June 2017, a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill was announced as part of the Queen’s Speech. But Sisters Uncut won’t stop until the government protects women through a functioning welfare benefits system and by providing housing. “There is so much more that needs to be done for women to be protected from violence,” says Janelle Brown, one of the movement’s co-founders.
The group was formed in 2014, when activists and domestic violence workers got together to talk about setting up a direct-action network to protest against cuts to domestic violence services. They got together on a winter evening in someone’s living room, and by Valentine’s Day they had shut down Oxford Circus in London, bringing the heart of the capital to a standstill for three hours.
Sisters Uncut’s most famous action came in October 2015, when they lay down on the red carpet of the Suffragette premiere in London. The protest was described as “marvellous” and “inspiring” by the film’s stars Helena Bonham-Carter and Anne-Marie Duff, and it was broadcast all around the world. After that, Sisters Uncut was contacted by women across the country, many who worked in domestic violence services that faced closure (The Independent reported in 2016 that two-thirds of domestic violence shelters could close due to cuts). Now there are Sisters Uncut groups in Birmingham, Doncaster, Bristol, Portsmouth, Glasgow and other cities and towns.
“Direct action is something people do when they’re absolutely desperate, and the state of domestic violence services is absolutely desperate,” says Brown. “But no-one has really batted an eyelid, so we take direct action to be disruptive. Movements like Black Lives Matter and the suffragettes prove it makes a difference. It’s not something you do on a whim, because there’s a risk of arrest, so the fact that so many women and non-binary people are willing to do that is really telling.”
Sisters Uncut’s members wear suffragette-inspired black sashes emblazoned with green and purple logos. The colours represent the fact that the group is intersectional – it knows that sexism must be defeated alongside racism, homophobia, transphobia and economic injustice to achieve true equality.
“The suffragettes are amazing but they only got us halfway,” says Brown. “A lot of their movement was focused on the concerns of white, middle-class women. But women in refuges can’t vote, dead women can’t vote, women in prisons can’t vote. At the time the suffragettes were called violent, because they blew up houses. We’ve been called militant for taking direct action, and some people get angry with us but it’s the same parallel. In 100 years’ time, I think Sisters Uncut will be in the history books.”
Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.
Words: Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Photography: Mark Harrison and Sarah Brimley