Donald Trump may not have any power in the UK - but the impact of his “sustained attack” on women’s rights in the US has “repercussions” across the Atlantic and beyond, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) is warning.
Sophie Walker, a former journalist who now works full-time as the WEP’s inaugural leader, is expressing concern about how the attitudes promoted by Trump on issues such as reproductive rights have the potential for seeping into UK debate.
The Global Gag, an executive order which bans US-funded groups worldwide from providing information on abortion, received much publicity when Trump signed it, surrounded by other men, in January.
Under the billionaire businessman’s administration an “astonishingly cruel” raft of bills controlling women’s bodies have been proposed in the US, according to Walker.
“Certainly since he’s taken office we’ve seen state upon US state filing very alarming anti-abortion bills,” Walker tells The Huffington Post UK.
“One [bill] was to insist on a parental legal notice so that minors are not able to have an abortion with just court permission but must have legal notice served to their parents as well. That means that in cases such as incest and rape, young women would not be supported or protected.
“There’s a bill seeking to force women to get permission from their sexual partner before they’re allowed to have an abortion. There is a bill seeking to allow doctors to withhold information from pregnant women about foetal abnormalities that may prompt them to consider an abortion.”
British media echoing Trump
Walker claims these laws were part of “an astonishingly cruel raft of proposals from the US president.
“We should be in no doubt that women’s reproductive rights in the United States absolutely are under sustained attack and I think that has repercussions around the world because when that is happening in a country as significant as the US it has a knock-on effect for people with similar ideals in other parts of the world.”
These sentiments towards reproductive healthcare are being echoed in some of the UK media, Walker says.
She points to a story by the Daily Mail headlined: Abortions signed off after just a phonecall: How Marie Stopes doctors approve abortions for women they’ve never met.
The paper’s investigations unit sent a reporter undercover to pretend to be a woman seeking an abortion. The resulting story was slammed by the family planning charity as “seriously misleading” and the organisation said it was “exploring appropriate legal action” as a result.
But Walker says it is the “alarmist language” used by the media that is undermining women’s choices: “In the UK we still live with old-fashioned terminology defining abortion as a criminal act,” she says.
Women under attack from the far right
In Northern Ireland, abortion still is a criminal act unless the mother’s life is at risk, despite it being legal in the rest of the UK, something Walker says is “utterly wrong”.
She tells HuffPost UK that British and American politicians’ conservative views on women’s health are worrying: “Paul Nuttall, the new leader of Ukip, is looking to reduce the abortion limit to 12 weeks. There is very, very clearly a risk to women’s reproductive rights.”
In the UK we still live with old-fashioned terminology defining abortion as a criminal act.
It’s not just female reproductive health that is under threat from the rising far-right tide and being popularised by the likes of Trump, Walker warns.
She describes meeting in Brussels with feminist politicians from around Europe, saying there was a common narrative of women’s rights across the continent being put at risk.
Walker says: “You see a push to roll back women’s reproductive rights in a bid to redefine women’s roles, to curtail their participation in the workplace, to move them back into the home, to protect men’s jobs.
“What then happens then is you get a rolling back of LGBTQ+ rights, as the same movement seeks to redefine traditional family – one man, one woman, two children. We have to be very vigilant.”
Having a female PM is not enough
So while women suffer under Trump and are facing far right populism in Europe, is there more hope for women in the UK because we have a female prime minister?
Walker thinks that, while it’s powerful image to have a woman running the country, it’s not enough.
“If you are going to be a meaningful female prime minister, you have to make decisions with an understanding of what impact they will have on other women’s lives. We are consistently failing to see that,” Walker tells HuffPost UK.
“You should never underestimate the importance of having a woman in that job, simply as a role model, simply so that little girls can look and see that there is a woman prime minister. That is a hugely symbolically important.
“But ultimately it means very little if that woman that they are looking at isn’t looking back at them and saying: ‘I see you and I’m going to help you to have equal chances in your life too’.”
May’s visit to meet the new US president was an opportunity to demonstrate this, according to Walker, who spoke out ahead of the trip urging May to raise Trump’s “normalisation” of misogyny.
It’s not enough to just be a woman. You have to lead in a way that represents other women...
But it was an opportunity, Walker says, the PM totally missed: “Theresa May went to see Donald Trump and talked about nothing that concerns women. So in terms of her being a feminist and an important role model for women as a female leader, she missed a big opportunity.
“It’s not a surprise, we don’t see anything else in her manifesto as leader of the Conservative Party that really focuses on bringing forward an understanding of women’s needs as far as our policies and our legislation go. It is a huge disappointment.
“It’s not enough to just be a woman. You have to lead in a way that represents other women and she absolutely should have discussed with him the inappropriateness of his behaviour.”
And that hand-holding incident? “Very unfortunate,” says Walker.
What’s her biggest ask of the PM to help show women that she is working to represent them?
“Social care. Women are now also being expected to look after elderly relatives at their other end of their lives. Where women might have once looked after children and then had a chance to go to work, they’re now looking after children and finding they then have to start looking after elderly relatives or their husband’s elderly relatives.”
There needs to be sufficient and sustainable funding for women’s services and organisations
So is there anything to be cheerful about?
January’s Women’s March, which saw millions of people around the world take to the streets to hammer home the importance of women’s rights, prompted a huge spike in the WEP’s membership.
The party, which was co-founded by comedian Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer, received a thousand membership applications in just four days. There were also spikes after Brexit and the US election result.
Walker says it gives her “great joy” to watch the beginning of the “next massive wave” of the feminist movement.
“There are women and men mobilising for equality for women now, in numbers that we have not seen for a long time. When you do see the level of threat that is posed, it has a really galvanising effect.”
Ultimately, Walker, who is herself a mother of two, says she has great hopes for the next generation when it comes to the fight against all those trying to repress women, including Trump.
She finishes: “Everything I see right now encourages me enormously that the next generation are going to absolutely take the fight to the sexists and the misogynists of this world, including Donald Trump.
“I have sat in seminars and workshops and in meeting rooms in the last several months where some of the loudest, most thoughtful, most creative, most imaginative voices for change were young women from a whole range of different backgrounds, race, ethnicity, experiences, who are forming the next wave.”
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today.
Through blogs, features and video, we’ll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you’d like to blog on our platform around these topics, email ukblogteam@.