Mandu Reid is the new leader of the Women’s Equality Party – and the first black leader of a political party in UK history. She tells Stylist how she plans to navigate the choppy waters of politics and feminism while staying true to herself.
Three months ago, Mandu Reid was at a conference in Kenya when she checked her email and saw that Sophie Walker had resigned as leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WE). The news, she says, prompted a “sharp intake of breath”: “It really did take me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Reid was in Kenya with The Cup Effect, the period poverty charity she founded in 2015. At the time, she was an official spokesperson for WE, but says she wasn’t briefed on Walker’s departure in advance. She messaged Walker over WhatsApp, thanking her for her hard work. Soon after, she began to receive emails and texts from other women in the party, asking if she’d consider putting herself forward for the position of interim leader.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Walker’s resignation statement was unusual, in that she explicitly framed her departure within the context of wanting to give other women a chance to rise to the top. Walker, who is white, middle class and non-disabled, said that she 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”. As she put it: “I think that sometimes in order to lead, you have to get out of the way.”
The message was clearly intended to emphasise the importance of diverse leadership. But Reid, who was born in Malawi and spent her childhood between southern Africa and the UK before moving to London when she was 18, says it made her think twice about whether she really wanted to lead WE. If she was appointed leader, she worried it might look as though she had only been successful because of her “demographic characteristics” – not because she truly had something to offer.
“I did have a bit of a dilemma about whether I would even consider putting myself in the mix,” she says. “I had to have conversations with myself, and with people I’m really close to, to explore the slight unease I felt, given how [Walker] presented her reasons for stepping down.”
But in the end, she shook off that unease relatively quickly. “I realised that actually, if I’ve got the right ideas, if I’ve got the right attitude, if I’m the perfect person that the national executive thinks ought to take this on for the time being, then it is their call,” she says. “And if I feel personally that I’ve got a contribution to make, then I should put my reservations aside.” She was appointed interim leader by WE’s national executive at the end of March, making her the first black person ever to lead a political party in the UK.
The perception of WE as a largely white, middle class movement is one that has plagued the party since its formation in 2015. Reid understands why it’s viewed this way: as she points out, it was founded by two white middle class women, Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer, with Walker later appointed as leader.
But, she says, this image doesn’t reflect the make-up of the party’s 45,000-strong membership, which includes 60 active branches across England, Scotland and Wales. At the last WE conference in September 2018, a BAME caucus was established “in response to some of the accusations the party gets about being #WEPSoWhite, or whatever,” she says. “It was like, actually, no, hang on a minute – we’re here!” The caucus, she adds, is now “one of the most vibrant internal groups within the party”.
Reid sees it as “a question of optics”. Because Toksvig, Mayer and Walker were “the ones holding the microphone” at the start of WE’s journey, that “led to people oversimplifying what’s really going on behind the scenes in the party”.
But, she says, it’s important to remember that WE has only existed for four years, and all political movements go through evolutions. Ensuring that the party feels relevant to young women, women of colour and women from working class backgrounds is now top of her list of priorities.
Reid and I are talking in a café on the River Thames, near the bulbous dome of City Hall. But this isn’t the first time we’ve been in the same room. Last October, I saw her speak at an event hosted by the anti-maternity discrimination campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. The theme of the evening was motherhood and politics, and Reid appeared on a panel alongside women including Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, Liberal Democrats president Baroness Sal Brinton and Kemi Badenoch, vice-chair of the Conservative party.
All of the women were impressive, but the energy in the room shifted palpably when Reid spoke. She told a story about becoming pregnant unexpectedly in her early 30s, and deciding to have an abortion after realising that she couldn’t afford to be the primary or sole caregiver of a child while also working full-time.
“I did the maths, and forgive me if this sounds terrible, but I felt that I could not make it work,” she said. “I felt I could not balance the career that I wanted with being a single mother, staying financially afloat, [and] coping with the pressure and responsibility.”
This experience was fundamental to why Reid joined WE, which has costed policies designed to make it easier for women to balance work and motherhood, including free part-time nursery for children aged nine months and over.
“In my view, none of the other parties are ambitious enough when it comes to this topic of women’s roles and the unpaid work that we are expected to do,” she said. Several women in the room wiped away tears as she spoke. When she finished, someone murmured, “Mandu for prime minister.”
When I tell Reid this at the café near the river, she pulls a face. “Oh god. Cringe.” Not only was that the first time she had appeared in public as a spokesperson for WE, it was the first time she’d publicly told the story of her abortion. She says she grappled with whether or not to talk about the experience, but ultimately decided that honesty was the best policy.
“Wearing a fancy-dress costume of what somebody in public life is supposed to look like – for me, that would feel like too expensive a price to pay,” she says. “I don’t want to package my experiences up into something that’s perhaps [more] palatable to people.”
She is encouraged by the rise of other female politicians who are distinguished by their authenticity, frankness and empathy, from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to US Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Their presence on the world stage could be “transformational for people who are debating and umm-ing and aah-ing” about whether to enter politics, she says.
“If we all try and conform to a template in the way we dress and in the way we speak, in the things we do say or don’t say, I think we’re doing a disservice to the women we’re there to serve.
“Women are not a monolith: there are all sorts of people, all sorts of backgrounds and backstories and personal histories. And I think the more we can present that richness, the better service we’re doing.”
It’s not the only time during our conversation that Reid references the fact that women are not a homogenous group with identical concerns, needs and aspirations. She’s keenly aware that the feminist movement has always been riven with ideological divisions and debate – and that as an explicitly feminist political party, WE’s policies on certain issues will come under intense scrutiny from all sides.
Significantly, the party has been criticised by some feminists for its position on sex work. Walker came under fire last year for describing sex work as “neither sex nor work”, and the party was recently forced to release a statement denying allegations that members of one of its branches had covertly filmed dancers inside a strip club in a bid to get the venue’s license revoked.
WE supports the Nordic model (whereby people who buy sex are criminalised, but those who sell it are not), and wants local authorities to adopt a policy that would limit the number of sexual entertainment venues such as strip clubs to zero.
Reid knows that some feminists disagree with WE’s stance on sex work, but says that the policy was ratified at the last party conference. “So that’s where we stand on that, unapologetically”. But she suggests that if a different position was ratified at the next conference in 2020, she could support that too: “We’re democratic… We’re not static. We want to evolve with the times.”
She is more cautious when discussing WE’s stance on trans rights and gender self-identification, a subject currently causing bitter divisions between some feminists in the UK. Official WE policy recognises that “the binary words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ do not reflect the gender experience of everyone in our country”, and supports “the right of all to define their sex or gender or to reject gendered divisions as they choose”.
But the party has been criticised by both supporters of trans rights and those who frame the expansion of trans rights as a threat to the safety and empowerment of cisgender women for failing to truly nail its colours to the mast.
It’s impossible to settle on a position that makes every woman happy, and Reid knows this. But she says she won’t be rushed or forced into a position – and unlike some political leaders, she isn’t interested in reshaping WE policies to reflect her personal views. “Yes, there is pressure on both sides of the debate to be definitive, but I think that actually is problematic when you have a movement that has diverse membership.”
Instead, she says she is interested in “examples of where really thorny issues have been explored and discussed in a deliberative way that allows people who are on opposing sides of an argument to listen to each other.”
She cites the citizens’ assembly that was held in Ireland ahead of last year’s abortion referendum, which brought together ordinary people who held views ranging from anti-abortion to pro-choice to undecided. WE is currently developing a similar process within its party membership to “explore the issues in a way that hopefully results in greater understanding on both sides, and doesn’t widen the gulf but actually helps narrow it down”.
“I’m not saying you get to a total, absolute, happy consensus at the end of a process like that,” she says. “But I think that’s a much healthier way of trying to solve this issue.
“You’re not going to get ‘this is a definitive solid position’ from me, because I want to be part of that process. I want to listen to what people have to say on both sides and bring people together who maybe aren’t inclined to listen to each other.”
Ultimately, Reid believes that people who believe in gender equality are more united than they are divided. She wants to galvanize people around areas of common purpose, while simultaneously “taking the time in a steady way to resolve or work towards resolving the issues that people don’t necessarily have such an easy agreement on”.
Over the coming year, for example, WE will push for a thorough review of how the criminal justice system deals with rape and other cases of sexual violence. Reid is “livid” that, under new rules, rape suspects could potentially avoid charges if victims refuse to give police access to their mobile phones.
“There’s this huge disgusting imbalance, which to me points to institutional sexism within the criminal justice landscape,” she says. “And we’re going to make the politicos who wield power – the government and the opposition – listen to us.”
She sees period poverty as an example of how grassroots feminist campaigning can help shape official government policy, even if it takes years for WE to win seats in elections. When she founded her charity The Cup Effect in 2015, period poverty wasn’t even a mainstream talking point within feminism discourse. Now, corporations and politicians are “falling over each other” to claim that they have the solution to the problem.
“Bottom-up campaigning resulted in a situation where it became politically expedient for those who hold power to champion the issue,” she says. “Hooray.”
But that doesn’t mean that WE isn’t interested in winning seats. The party will be putting forward several candidates in the Greater London Assembly elections in 2020, including computer science professor Dr Sue Black as the WE mayoral candidate. The party won 5.2% of the vote at the same elections in 2016, and missed out on getting a member elected onto the assembly by just a couple of percentage points.
“We were only six months old in 2016,” Reid says. “We were still finding our feet; we were still figuring things out; we had zero name recognition; #MeToo hadn’t happened. And we got within a whisker of a seat.
“You know, UKIP currently have two seats on the London Assembly,” she says with a grin. “So we’re going after those – of course we are. This could not be a more exciting time for us.”
Images: Siorna Ashby / Getty Images / Brighton WEP