When Boris Johnson became prime minister earlier this year, the Women’s Equality Party saw a surge in new members. By then, it was a familiar occurrence: the same swell happened when Donald Trump was elected US president at the end of 2016.
"The day after [Trump] was elected, we had literally thousands of new members joining," Catherine Mayer (pictured above, centre), co-founder and president of the WEP, says. "People understood that this totally gave the lie to the idea of gender equality being just around the corner."
The WEP is approaching its fifth anniversary next year, but it is still fighting many lies, chief among them that the battle for gender equality has been won. The rise of Trump and Johnson are just two examples that point to a continued need for the party, although a common misperception is that its role is moot, Mayer says. Now, amid the noise of Brexit and the impending general election on 12 December, the WEP must employ non-traditional communication tactics to get its message heard.
The WEP was founded in 2015 by Mayer, an author and journalist, and comedian and presenter Sandi Toksvig. The pair hatched the idea at the 2015 Women of the World Festival, where Toksvig noted in a speech that not enough women were engaged in politics, despite a persisting lack of equality in many sectors.
"We definitely hadn’t reached gender equality, but the danger was that it had become invisible to a lot of people," Mayer recalls. "A lot of people felt comfortable enough to believe equality had been achieved, and to not understand the damage that was going on every day and in every single organisation of unconscious bias, conscious bias, missing out on talent and gender stereotyping that is incredibly damaging to men as well as women."
Mayer and Toksvig both saw a need to disrupt politics as usual. "I saw that old-style politics was failing," Mayer states. "A lot of old-school parties would say they cared about women, but often at the same time and within their own structures were sidelining women."
Then a series of seismic political events, including the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and Trump’s election, threw the WEP’s purpose into even starker relief. The failure of traditional political parties to answer many of the public’s concerns "created a lot of dangerous and maligned forms of populism", Mayer says.
The WEP is a direct response to that alarming trend, she explains, because a rise in populism has meant that progress in gender equality is not only being slowed but reversed in many places. She points to the example of abortion laws being overturned in some US states. But if the WEP is to go against the political tide, it must find different ways of communicating its mission.
Earlier this year, it appointed Quiet Storm to help shape its image and narrative. The agency is "taking the same approach to the party as we would to build a brand", chief executive Rania Robinson (pictured above, left, along with planning director Anna Coscia, right) says. One of Quiet Storm's major tasks so far has been challenging the misconceptions that exist about the WEP.
Not 'a bunch of angry feminists'
Besides the misguided idea that gender equality has been solved, the other major misconception is that "it’s a party just about women, which it isn’t – equality is good for everyone", Robinson says. And another: "They’re a bunch of angry feminists, which they’re not," she adds.
"There has been some confusion about the role of the party and what it stands for, and whether as a man you have a reason to engage with it," Robinson continues. "That’s why it’s important for us to give a clear sense of what the party stands for and why [people] might consider engaging with it."
Another issue, familiar to some politicians who were caught off guard by support for Brexit outside London, is that the WEP "has a disproportionate following in London", Robinson says: "We need to drive national support. It’s the wider voting population we should be affecting, to show that equality benefits everybody, from the poorest of society to the most affluent."
The WEP's mission could not have come at a more crucial time, with a general election and Brexit on the horizon. A study by the Women’s Budget Group found that the negative impacts of Brexit would disproportionately affect women. Yet, as much as Brexit has galvanised the women’s movement and the WEP – "There’s a recognition that old-style politics don’t work," Mayer says – it also threatens to overshadow the party’s agenda.
"The political establishment says that Brexit is the only game in town, the only thing that matters; women and anyone with any kind of minority interest, wait your turn," Mayer says. "Many people see Brexit as something on its own, as opposed to understanding that the impacts of Brexit are gendered. The fact we got there at all is a result of this broken system that we are offering solutions to fixing, and partly because of the exclusion and marginalisation of really important voices."
With Quiet Storm, the WEP is trying to break through the dominant political discourse and highlight that issues such as gender inequality, racism, poverty and education "are not things that can wait", Mayer says. So far, the agency has created tactical campaigns reacting to current events, while in the background it is fine-tuning the WEP’s brand and developing a strategy so that in years to come "it won’t need to exist", Robinson notes.
In May, ahead of the European Parliament elections, the WEP took a swipe at Ukip’s notorious "Breaking point" poster from 2016 that showed a long queue of migrants with the caption "The EU has failed us all" and was criticised for inciting racial hatred. The WEP’s version reversed the anti-EU sentiment by showing a crowd of doctors, nurses and care workers leaving the UK as a result of Brexit uncertainty. "Our NHS is in crisis. It’s losing the migrant women who keep it going," it said.
Three months later, the WEP played on another familiar image, the three protest billboards from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, to call out Tory MP Mark Field, who was filmed manhandling an environmental activist this summer. The red signs read "Mark Field grabbed a woman by the neck / still your MP / how come?" and called for the MP to be stripped of his position.
Most recently, the WEP’s ads ahead of the general election asked why Westminster MPs facing unresolved allegations of harassment and abuse have been allowed to keep their jobs. Sarcastic messages include: "Are you an abuser but don’t like how you’re treated at work? You’ll love being an MP!" The party is fielding five survivors of sexual violence and harassment to stand against five MPs facing unresolved allegations to highlight the mainstream parties’ failure to tackle abuse within their ranks.
"We want to get across the message that violence is not inevitable, that there can be a world that is free from the violence of women, and that is to the benefit of everyone, not just women. We also believe we can’t begin to tackle that while violent men remain in positions of power," Mayer explains. "Because public discourse is being so badly mismanaged by the media and old-school political elite, we need to find ways around it. These are ways of starting conversations that go beyond the mainstream media channels."
Robinson says they have also been careful in their campaigns to strike a tone that is engaging without being too negative.
"There is a lot of frustration at the status quo and at the lies and confusion that’s being thrown out there. Coming across as angry feminists is something we’re very conscious not to do. We don’t want the message to get lost in the rest of the negativity," she says. "We don't want to make light of serious things, but we do want to highlight the ridiculousness of inequality and the shocking status quo. It’s really important to engage people emotionally in a way that’s surprising and thought-provoking without being too heavy, because we know people switch off to that."
This, perhaps, is the WEP’s biggest challenge: "reaching people who feel switched off", as Mayer says. In the current political climate, when it may be difficult to grasp on to hope, she wants the party to "campaign around a positive vision of what the world could be" – for she has already seen the dangerous consequences of tuning out of politics and becoming complacent.
"You can’t change things unless people are aware of them. You have to make the invisible visible," Mayer continues. "But just making the invisible visible isn’t enough – you then have to do the work."