‘We’re a long way from Carwyn’s feminist utopia,’ remarks Clare Critchley, opening the IWA’s contribution to the Hay Festival 2018, a timely debate about the situation of women in public life. A hundred years after some women were granted the vote, ‘it’s just not good enough,’ says IWA Director Auriol Miller. ‘We’re bumping along the bottom,’ she says in relation to female representation, with just 26% of local councillors being women.
There are any number of measures and shocking individual facts that bear this out. Laura McAllister remarks that there has never been a female Conservative MP from Wales, and uses this fact as a pointed reminder that gender quotas work. ‘Where we have had positive action, it gives good results in terms of quality AMs and MPs.’ While Labour are praised for the introduction of all-women shortlists and the ‘seat twinning’ that led, briefly, to absolute gender balance in the National Assembly, the Tories come in for further criticism.
Shazia Awan-Scully, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate who is now a member of the Labour party, felt that as an Asian woman and a Muslim, she was being paraded as the Tories’ ‘exotic exhibit’. ‘I refused to go on the A-list,’ she says, ‘I’m not your tick-box exercise.’
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood also praises positive intervention. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the fact that my party had a place reserved for a woman,’ she says, speaking of succeeding Pauline Jarman as a Plaid list candidate for South Wales Central in 2003. But Wood is also keen to make the point that ‘if we’re serious about fighting gender inequality’, we need to not only talk about ‘women in public life’, but also about zero hours contracts and women in low paid care work.
Laura McAllister admits that she is worried that we are ‘risking a big backlash’ when it comes to the strides forward made by women in recent years. ‘To get to critical mass, it means people losing power, and that’s men. Not that many women identify as feminists,’ she reminds the predominantly female audience. ‘There’s a class dimension. We need to recalibrate feminism and start talking about issues such as the ways girls are socialised into roles, and the sexualisation of young girls.’
Wood shares McAllister’s concerns and cites the recent success of Plaid Cymru councillor Elyn Stephens in securing free sanitary products in schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf as an example of an issue that concerns working class women. By contrast, Shazia Awan-Scully relays her experiences with the Women’s Equality Party, which for her seemed only to represent a ‘certain type of middle and upper class London woman’. In bringing the battle with period poverty to the attention of the Assembly, Leanne Wood realised that ‘that was the first time we’d discussed menstruation in the Assembly chamber, and, for example, I don’t think we’ve ever discussed the menopause.’
However, the headlines after the event were dominated by revelations made by both Wood and Shazia Awan-Scully about the extent to which online abuse has accompanied their interventions in public debate on social media. Some criticism is ‘par for the course’ as a leader, admits Wood, ‘but there is a line’. The Plaid Cymru leader has faced threats of rape and ‘a bullet between the eyes’, for which prison sentences have been given. Awan-Scully admits that ‘it gets exhausting,’ having lost count of the number of people she has reported to the police. She tells the story of when a power cut in her home set off the panic button she had been provided with and the police arrived to find her sleepily bemused.
It is notable that the five women on stage do not focus on their own travails, but emphasise solidarity with other women. All express admiration for anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who has decided to reply personally to every single piece of online abuse, calling out those who would attempt to make her life a misery. Wood garners a round of applause when she highlights that Diane Abbott received over half of all online abuse of politicians during the last Westminster election, a result of being a woman, a black woman, and an outspoken black woman. Awan-Scully later points out that legislation cannot solve everything, citing the fact that Civil Rights in America have by no means put an end to ingrained racism.
Returning to Clare Critchley’s opening gambit about the First Minister’s ambition to make Wales home to ‘a feminist government’, Laura McAllister says that in Wales, ‘we have a great ability to will the end without doing the means… We’re far too soft on each other. It’s classic land of the pulled punch stuff.’ Drilling into the detail, she exposes the ‘thirty hours childcare’ for three-year olds as ‘not practical’. ‘If you’re serious about women going back to work, you’re going to need that kind of intervention from six months.’
Critchley takes that as her cue to ask each panellist to forward one idea toward a ‘deeds not words’ approach to a feminist government. Auriol Miller advocates political and civic education for secondary school students; Shazia Awan-Scully ‘strict conditions on public funding’ in terms of recognising equality on company boards; Laura McAllister also focuses on education, and the need for what she calls ‘a radical awareness of equality, at least in the school environment’.
There’s a lot to do.
Photo credit: Marsha Arnold, Hay Festival
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