International Women’s Day – 8 March – has a sharp contemporary relevance in a culture where the rights of women still need fighting for. Sophie Walker’s new book offers a template for incorporating activism into the everyday, says Simon Horsford
Last year, Sophie Walker, the founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), was hailed as one of The New Suffragettes in Vogue magazine. Walker stepped down from the WEP role in 2019 to champion new campaigners, activists and leaders from different backgrounds – she’s now CEO of the Young Women’s Trust and director of the Activate Collection, a feminist group which aims to “fix politics through representation”. Much of her philosophy and belief in the urgent need for change is captured in her latest book, Five Rules For Rebellion.
As we order a couple of pots of tea, Walker laughs at the suggestion that she is a modern-day feminist. “I do not spend any time thinking about who I am. I am much more interested in what I am doing and what I can do to help.” And for the past 10 years or so, Walker has been helping women find a voice, via her time with the Women’s Equality Party and now with Five Rules For Rebellion, which lays out a set of ideas about how women can incorporate activism into their lives by channeling ‘hope’, ‘despair’ and ‘rage’ into something positive. It draws on the thoughts of several activists and campaigners as they discuss their work on everything from equality and access to education to abortion rights. Far from a strident polemic, it’s a well argued, thoughtful and heartfelt call for positive action. “What I wanted was to write the book that I would want to read,” she says. “As a journalist and writer, I tend to write things through to make sense of them and I had come through this sort of firestorm [10 years of activism], if you like, and wanted to construct something useful for other people who might be feeling the same way.”
What has driven Walker is her belief that “there is a need for activism and a fundamental need to find different ways to bring about peace and equality and that we are faced with some huge questions.” In this sense, she says, her aim in the book was to “write a philosophy of activism that would find nourishment in the most difficult bits of it. I also wanted to interview other activists, so that, maybe, by talking to each other we can help each other move forward.”
Among those interviewed by Walker are the Irish campaigner Ailibhe Smyth, activist and food writer Jack Monroe and Nigerian peace worker Joy Onyseh. “These amazing women have dealt with particular circumstances and learned lessons that seemed to plot along a journey that become the five rules. I also noticed common areas of experience that chimed with what I had felt. I started with three very clear ‘rules’ – despair, anger and hope – but my experiences of doing media work made me want to explore how we talk to each other in a more collaborative way, so that’s how the last bit of it came together [‘Collaborate with Compassion’ and ‘Practise Perseverance’].
Looking back to her time as the leader of the WEP, I wonder if she believes the party has been a success, or whether it failed to galvanise opinion? “The four or five years of the Women’s Equality Party was an absolute rollercoaster,” she recalls. “We all lived through about 100 years of politics in that time. It was challenging and exhilarating but as the leader of a brand new political party that was trying to directly challenge [the main parties] and offer answers to some of the big questions we were grappling with, it was like being hit by lightning. I learnt a lot but I also felt this is too big, it felt like throwing yourself at a brick wall.”
…We have seen the other parties contort themselves to look a bit more like ones that understand women’s equality, with Boris Johnson calling himself a feminist…
Walker believes the WEP, which now has a new leader, still has an important impact on how we incorporate women’s perspectives into politics, and create policies that speak to women’s experiences and needs. “I think they’ve done some really important work on how to do politics differently as a small party when up against a really restrictive voting system – first-past-the-post – that effectively forces you to vote for what you don’t want rather than what you do, and we did some really good stuff in terms of talking about collaborating with and working with other parties. And we looked at how to be a member of more than one party and finding common ground.
“I have good friends in all of the UK political parties – apart from UKIP,” she says with a laugh, “who sat down with us and tried to find ways of working.”
She thinks that the emergence of the WEP, who have done a lot of work on the importance of investing in care – believing it should be seen as an investment rather than an expense – did have an impact on the policies of the main parties. “We have seen the other parties contort themselves to look a bit more like ones that understand women’s equality, with Boris Johnson calling himself a feminist – that’s a whole other issue – but I do think the conversation has changed and in part that is due to the arrival of the WEP.”
Taking part in two elections (London Mayoral in 2016 and the General Election the following year) must have been fascinating, I suggest. “The mayoral election was an absolute blast,” she recalls. “We’d been open for about 10 months [the party was formed in 2015]. It was joyful and terrifying.” Walker got more than 50,000 first preference votes. The following year in Shipley, West Yorkshire, she stood against Conservative MP Philip Davies, chiefly because he’d tried to block a domestic violence bill with an ultimately unsuccessful filibuster. “It was a nasty campaign. He (Davies) was always perfectly nice to me, but a lot of his supporters were deeply unpleasant and the Labour Party was vitriolic. I was trolled and abused.”
…The promise of social media to connect people has been tainted by the same kind of limiting behaviour and bullying and silencing of women that we see offline…
The last point raises the question of social media and how women are frequently targeted. “The promise of social media to connect people has been tainted by the same kind of limiting behaviour and bullying and silencing of women that we see offline…
“Our future tech is being written by men according to their own experiences and so creating a future which is mimicking our past, one that doesn’t give space to different perspectives. Women’s journeys through social medias and what they are guided to look at are very different from men’s.”
And yet Walker, who is very active on Twitter, opining on everything from Brexit to parenthood, adds that she started using social media 10 years ago when “I was feeling lonely and isolated as the mother of a young child with autism and I discovered online communities that sustained and fortified me.” Tellingly, however, she doesn’t feel social media is the place to have effective conversations about activism. In the book, Walker highlights how it doesn’t allow for complexity or nuance and that it is far better to meet face-to-face. “Activism is in community,” she says, adding that social media should be used tactically as a first step to make fresh connections that can then be taken offline into fresh collaborative spaces.
Confident, strong-willed and with an infectious sense of humour, Walker fervently believes our existing political system simply doesn’t work for everyone. “You can choose to look at the fact women still only make up a third of political representation at national and local level, or at policy making, where 10 years of austerity have hit women disproportionately.” Her last point is based on a House of Commons library analysis in 2017, which suggested that 86 per cent of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women.
In the book, Walker highlights various barriers to a fair and peaceful world and I wonder if she remains hopeful of change. “There are huge global questions that people are grappling with around the world, from globalisation to technology to the future of work and jobs and the increasing fragility of the planet and, in the face of that, ‘yes’ people are coming up with some very binary choices. There are self-styled populists, who want to hang on to their own power and influence and they are doing it by dividing and conquering and telling us all that it will all be fine if you just stay in your place and that is very alluring to some people.
“On the other side, there are movements growing, who reject that approach. I am hugely heartened by that. At the Young Women’s Trust we had some research, which showed that 70 per cent of young women between 18 and 24 regarded themselves as feminists, the same proportion identify sexism as a major problem and one in 10 has taken part in some form of activism or protest in the last year.”
Walker believes there is an impatience for change. A recent survey by University of Cambridge researchers concluded that there was huge dissatisfaction with democracy within developed countries, which was at its highest level in almost 25 years. In 1995, it claimed, the proportion of those dissatisfied with democracy in the UK was 47 per cent. It’s now 61 per cent.
In the same vein, Walker cites figures that claim 70 per cent of young women say their confidence in politicians has plummeted because they don’t see any responses from politicians to their lives. With stories of young women struggling with increasing childcare costs and having to decide between paying bills or buying food, Walker suggests: “For those people, politicians are completely distant and have no bearing in their lives.”
Naturally we move on to the #MeToo movement and I ask whether it has become now more about victimhood. “I think there are those who would seek to portray #MeToo and feminism more generally as women trying to portray themselves as victims,” she says. “And that is part of a centuries-old trend of telling women it is their fault. Some men have no idea of the spectrum of abuse that women experience, from catcalling and domestic abuse to rape and violence. But also the extent to which that abuse forces women to edit themselves to change their behaviour or clothing or quieten their voice.
“There are lots of reasons it didn’t work, part of that is patriarchy doesn’t like being told what to do. There were also women of colour affected, but their stories weren’t told, so it was presented as white women telling ‘us’ what to do. And presenting experiences also has to be about presenting solutions.”
Walker, who lives in London with her family, says in her book that no single event made her an activist; rather, a combination of them. “We become activists because we reach breaking point,” says Walker. Influences include her parents. “My mum and dad were working-class northerners, who were p****d off with the levels of injustice that they had lived through.” Born in Blackpool, Walker grew up in Glasgow. In the Seventies, they marched about everything from the miners to CND, and her mother was also active in the Women’s Liberation Movement. ”They gave me a sense that you have to be fully in the world and speak up when you see something that’s not right or fair.”
Then there was the battle to get recognition for her eldest daughter’s autism and about whom she wrote so movingly in Grace Under Pressure: Going the Distance as an Asperger’s Mum. “A huge push was being a single parent trying pay the rent, trying to keep a job and trying to get support for my daughter that wasn’t there and understanding a society that holds in utter contempt those who are different and those who need care.”
And yet Walker remains positive about the future, although, she admits, to be so, she has to reset every day – “it’s a deliberate thing.” And going for a morning run (she used to run marathons) is “the most immediate way to meet the day.” On a lighter note, I mention the Frozen movies as a celebration of sisterhood. “I love them,” she says. “Little girls belting out songs about female empowerment.”
As we say goodbye, I wonder if Walker thinks we live in rebellious times – “I think people are mobilising in a way I find incredibly invigorating” – and if she has a message. (Yes.) “For us all to want a lot. Don’t settle for less because the less you settle for, the less you get. Want it all.” Those turn-of-the-century suffragettes would be impressed.