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Why a winter election is bad news for women

From party activists pounding the streets in the dark to voters being asked to open the doors to strangers, the practicalities of a winter election will collide with the habits women everywhere use to keep themselves safe

By Tara Jane O'Reilly  

Yes, canvassers work together—but you still have to get there. Photo: Pexel

Keys between your fingers, headphones in but music off, sharing your live location with the girls’ Whatsapp chat: these are just some of the things women do to keep safe when we’re out in the dark. These small acts of protection aren’t even conscious half of the time; being fearful and slightly on edge just becomes part of your demeanour as soon as the sun sets.

It may sound patronizing to some to suggest that women activists will fear going out at night. But the reality of life for many women means any activity—from jogging to a trip to the shops—becomes uncomfortable after the sun goes down. Almost two-thirds of women feel unsafe walking alone after dark—so how will a winter election impact women’s participation in politics?

Being a political party activist is a fulfilling and fun role—you often make lifelong friends via campaigning with people who share your beliefs, you get to promote the political policies you believe will make the country better, and you get to speak to all kinds of people in your community who you may not usually via door knocking.

But women often face sexism and misogyny in politics. There is a culture in politics where if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Working as a party activist, I’ve noted how men dominate conversations while women are pushed into invisible roles (men will write the campaign literature; women will fold the leaflets). Sexual harassment is not uncommon, whether in politics or out in the street while campaigning—64 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment in public. One Girlguiding study found the media’s obsession with women politicians’ appearance was discouraging girls from entering politics.

These pressures are irrespective of whether you campaign for a few hours a month locally or if you work Monday to Friday in Parliament, and are enough to put any women, and in particular young women, off politics. Having to knock on doors, deliver leaflets, and turn up to campaign meetings in the dark is only going to further this disengagement.

The upcoming short campaign will be held at a time of year when the sun sets before we’ve even finished work. For those of us who will only have the spare time to campaign in the evenings, this will mean committing to delivering leaflets and door-knocking in the dark.

Yes, we do this in teams often—but knowing this does not make me feel any better about having to walk around in the dark. It’s not just when you’re out knocking on doors, either—you’ll still have to walk alone to a campaign centre, and likely travel home by yourself after. Fewer women out on the doors, leaving only the diehard men campaigning during the evenings, risks perpetuating a culture in politics where men build professional relationships with one another and women are left out.

The impact of fewer hours of daylight may seem like a minor concern. But the news comes at a time when the political discourse towards women is already toxic. It’s not just the dark we’re worried about—the constant abuse is terrifying and is putting many of us off campaigning outside. You don’t even need to leave your house to see it: a quick search of Diane Abbott’s name on Twitter will do. Financial Times analysis found that, after a parliamentary debate during which prime minister Johnson called death threats against politicians as “humbug,” ‘toxic’ tweets aimed at MPs soared. Party leaders, and in particular our prime minister, need to pacify the language used if we want to make women and minorities feel included—especially if we expect those same activists to venture up a dark garden path to knock on a stranger’s door and potentially face such language in person.

It’s not just women activists who a winter election will affect, either. I rarely answer the door when I’m home alone anyway—but when it’s dark outside, even if it’s only 6pm? No chance. Even when my flatmate is home, we still don’t answer the door in the evening. A quick google search shows dozens of forum threads with women discussing the reasons they won’t open the door to a stranger after dark. My mum is in her late fifties and does the same.

Again, this might seem like a small problem—so what if we miss one canvasser?—but small things like this then affect our political knowledge and participation. If my mum, working seven days a week and too busy to research political party policies beyond headline news on the telly, isn’t having a conversation with a party activist at her door because she doesn’t feel safe opening the front door at night, how is she going to be persuaded to vote a certain way? More importantly, how are her thoughts on party policies going to be fed back to parties—other than at the ballot box, when it’s too late?

Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee has described how women end up having to protect themselves, “women feel the onus is put on them to avoid ‘risky’ situations—all of this keeps women and girls unequal.” Harassment is pervasive and an issue for many women in society, not just political activists. But political parties need to make sure if a winter general election is called, they make an effort to include women in campaign activities we may be put off doing and protect our safety. Women aren’t scared of the dark—we just don’t want to be harassed.

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