On December 10, the Dolle Mina lecture (Mad Mina lecture) took place with Mandu Reid as keynote speaker. Reid is the first woman of color leading a political party in Britain. The Dolle Mina lecture is an initiative of City of Amsterdam and is organized by Atria.
You can watch the entire lecture on YouTube. The full text of the lecture of Mandu Reid can be read below. You can read the Dutch translation of the text here.
Text Mandu Reid lecture
Hi everyone! Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today.
It is truly an honour to deliver the inaugural Dolle Mina lecture. I only wish that we could be together in the same room! To make up for it, I’m going to ask everyone to put in the chat one word that describes how you are feeling right now.
As feminists we understand how important, and also how contested, space is. The space to breathe, the space to heal, the space to be heard, the space to be ourselves. COVID is a time of far too little space – especially for women trapped at home with their abusers. But it is also a time of far too much of it: boarded-up shops, empty offices, echoing space on once busy streets. The yawning, aching space left by the more than 1.5 million COVID dead.
One of the great privileges of this job is going to different places, meeting women from all walks of life and discovering the thread that stitches colour through everything we do. I was reminded of that when I learned about the incredible Wilhelmina Drucker and the Dolle Mina movement. So much of our purpose is shared, and quite a few of our tactics too! Among my favourites was the disruption caused by Dolle Mina activists when they blocked public urinals with pink ribbons to protest against the lack of public toilets for women.
The Women’s Equality Party was actually created at an event just like this one. So I’m excited about what might happen tonight! People were discussing how to get past the many barriers to women’s political participation – an issue that has plagued the Netherlands too. Our co-founder, Catherine Mayer, put her hand up and asked a question: What if we were to create a political party with a laser-like focus on achieving equality between men and women? Could it help accelerate change and push women’s equality to the top of the political agenda? She invited anyone who was interested to meet her at the bar. Needless to say she had a huge bar tab that night!
When Catherine got home she posted the idea on Facebook and something extraordinary happened: hundreds and then thousands of people responded to say “I’m in”.
In our first five years, we have grown from just an idea into a movement of 30,000 members and supporters, with branches in every corner of the UK.
I’ve no doubt that for some of you our choice to become a political party will seem quite odd. Why work within a system and structures that contribute to women’s oppression? And why do any of this in a country where the voting system is hostile to new, small and insurgent parties? People often ask me: how can you hope to change anything without winning seats? I gently remind them that a small and insurgent political party called UKIP (now the Brexit Party) has – without ever having won a single seat in our Parliament – changed the course of history and changed the destiny of Britain. And, to be honest, strange as it may seem… that was part of the inspiration for our party. Not Brexit, of course! And certainly not UKIP’s damaging brand of right-wing populism. But watching their support and influence grow, we noticed something interesting. They were gaining power because the other parties were copying them. In an effort to hold onto votes, the old parties were contorting and bending themselves to look and sound more and more like UKIP – nowhere was this more obvious than in relation to immigration.
We wondered if the same thing could happen for equality? If we showed that feminism was a vote winner, our thinking was that the mainstream parties would have to steal our policies in order to neutralise us. That suited us perfectly because we never wanted power just for power’s sake. We want to achieve gender equality and put ourselves out of business. In one election we delivered a copy of our manifesto to every other political party wrapped in a note that read “steal me.” At our first major election we surprised everyone, including ourselves, by winning more than 350,000 votes. Which did the work of establishing the feminist threat! Round one to us!
There’s a wonderful story I have to tell you about the night that our main candidate for that election was announced. All the other candidates were about to go on stage for the first live debate when the host introduced her as a ‘surprise’ candidate joining the race. What happened was: a number of the candidates turned pale (most politicians absolutely hate any kind of disruption to the status quo) and one of the male candidates turned to his political aide and said: “But you didn’t put anything in my briefing about women.” Imagine that! Until we showed up, the lives and experiences and concerns of women didn’t even factor into his thinking, they were simply not a priority. That’s why representation matters and don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t.
People have written lengthy research papers on whether women and minorities better represent women and minorities – do they bring and support different kinds of perspectives and legislation? This is a valid question. But what often gets overlooked is the impact on other politicians of having women and minorities in the room. How it forces them to raise their game, to think differently, to broaden their frames of reference – to remember and consider citizens whose lives and experience are different from their own. And that’s a huge part of our job. We exist and are needed because none of the other parties are anything close to ambitious enough about equality.
I am the first person of colour to lead a national political party in the UK. And the first out bisexual woman. We had to create a feminist political party for that to happen! But I have a confession to make. I haven’t always been a feminist.
As you might be able to tell from my accent I didn’t grow up in the UK. I grew up in Southern Africa, in the shadow of Apartheid, in what was then Swaziland and is now Eswatini. I am the daughter of a Black mother from Malawi and a white father from the UK. As a mixed race family in Southern Africa in the mid-80s the very existence of our family was politically significant. In the UK too. We moved to England when I was in high school and spent some time in a small village in the South-west, where I was the only Black child at my school. I was treated as an outsider, an alien. People expected me to be stupid because I had come from Africa. They couldn’t hide their disbelief (and didn’t try to) when I came top of my class. Not only did I experience racism, including verbal abuse and violence, from the other children, but this was reinforced by some of the teachers in the school who saw me as a trouble maker. Luckily for me, none of this put me off actually making trouble or I wouldn’t be here today!
Recently I have been thinking more and more about that period in my life because one of the biggest lies that right-wing populists tell – and there’s quite a few – is that they are outsiders. President UNELECT Donald Trump prides himself on being a “man of the people” and managed to persuade enough of those people that Hilary Clinton, the first woman to come close to winning the presidency, was the insider in that race. This despite the fact that he is one of the richest, most privileged, and entitled men in the United States of America. That fact that he wanted that badge should tell us all something: there is huge power in being an outsider. In the 21st Century, it is something that insiders fear and so try to emulate.
Now those early experiences of racism were, unsurprisingly, formative for me and the reason why the fight for racial justice was the most visible to me and felt most urgent. But it was something that happened to me in my mid-30s that really brought gender injustice into sharp focus in a very personal way: I got pregnant. It wasn’t planned and the man and I were not in a proper relationship. As we discussed what to do, neither of us could imagine a scenario where I wasn’t the main or only caregiver to our potential child. I have always wanted to have children, but at that time I simply couldn’t see a way to be a single mother and stay afloat financially. I couldn’t see how I would cope with the pressure and responsibility whilst also honouring my career aspirations and commitment to activism, which actually included playing my part to help create the kind of world I would want my child to inherit. So I made the decision to have a termination.
I want to take a moment right now to honour the millions of single mothers who do make it work. I am in awe of them. But for me, at that time, I just didn’t believe I could do it.
I also want to add a note about the man in question. He was much younger than me, I don’t say this as some kind of boast – I say it to highlight the gendered factors at play here. Often with heterosexual couples, the major reason given for why women make significant career sacrifices when they become parents is because the men earn more. Well that was not so in my case – and still the default assumption was that caring responsibilities would fall primarily and exclusively to me.
Things could have been very different. If I lived in a country where abortions were not free, safe and legal, I wouldn’t have had a choice. And if I lived in a country where care was valued and more evenly distributed between men and women, I would have been able to make a completely different choice. Since the Women’s Equality Party was created, our influence has pushed all of the mainstream parties to expand their policies on parenting and childcare. Round two to us!
But we have a long way to go. The UK has the most expensive childcare in Europe and second most expensive childcare in the world. Let me quantify that: childcare costs around 30% of the income for families with two earners, and half of single parents have to borrow to pay their childcare costs. More than half of our local authorities don’t have enough childcare places to meet demand – and that was before a global pandemic that forced many daycare centres to close their doors. The UK has recently introduced shared parental leave to give families more choice about how they balance work and care. Parents can share up to thirty-seven weeks of paid leave and they will receive one-hundred and fifty-one pounds each week. The problem is that hardly anyone can afford to live on that, so a two-parent family will be forced into a situation where the lowest earner takes the leave alone – and that, as I’ve already mentioned, is nearly always the woman.
In the Netherlands, parents get twenty-six weeks of unpaid leave and only a third of parents use it.
Why does this matter?
Because from the very beginning we tell young girls that caring for others is their destiny. And then we make it impossible for them to fulfill it. We expect women to take on ever increasing amounts of unpaid care without support – knowing that it limits our employment opportunities, our earning potential, our contributions in other areas, our savings and our health. It fundamentally limits our choices. And the poverty or dependency that stems from that makes us vulnerable to coercion, abuse, and violence.
And I am not talking only about women who have children. The expectation or the assumption that you may one day care for somebody, is a huge factor in workplace discrimination. Women are the majority of people living in poverty, not because we care but because our economy chooses not to.
Never mind GDP! We need to have a conversation about GUDP – our grossly undervalued domestic product.
Because when it comes to paid work, the story is the same. Women – especially Black and minority ethnic women, migrant women – dominate the childcare, social care, and healthcare sectors, and in return they are paid poverty wages. These sectors are seen not as an investment by Governments, but as an expense to be cut – especially at times of crisis.
You know, we recently held an event with feminist academic, Cynthia Enloe. If you are not familiar with her work, check it out. We were talking about how COVID held a mirror up to our society and showed us the real value of care, and Cynthia said “They’re going to regret the day they ever called us essential workers!” As countries grappled with how to control the spread of the virus, they had to decide what was essential. In the UK, our government opted for a complete lockdown and the only things that remained open were our hospitals, care homes, schools, daycare centres, supermarkets and pharmacies. Sectors made up of low paid women in high risk jobs.
At the same time, when people were forced into isolation they started to think about what really matters. How important our health, wellbeing, and relationships are. And how poorly the relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of women and our planet serves any of those things. This awakening, this new consciousness around care, is a gift for feminism – for those of us who believe that there are other ways to organise our society and economy, that don’t rely on the subjugation of women and ever growing inequality along race and class lines, between developing and developed countries. This is our chance not just to build back the same, but to Build Back Equal.
We each have to leave here tonight with the belief that we can do things differently. With an understanding that we have the power to do things differently, as outsiders. Dolle Mina understood that. Just like the Women’s Equality Party, they began as a handful of people who believed another way was possible and they mobilised more and more people behind their vision for a more equal society.
When I think of the things that the Women’s Equality Party has achieved in its first five years, I almost can’t believe it. But one of the examples that makes me most proud is our campaign at the last national election. As you can imagine, this election was all about Brexit. And though Brexit has huge implications for women, it was framed only in terms of issues that concern the men who forced it. There was no room for vital discussions about escalating rates of violence against women and girls or the de facto legalisation of rape in the UK. There was no room for outsiders.
So we stood five women, all survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault, against five politicians who had been accused of harassment or violence. We offered to stand aside if the other parties removed these candidates and added our policy demands on ending violence against women and childcare to their manifestos. None of the MPs we stood against kept their seats and one has recently been given a prison sentence. Effectively, we performed a laundry service on Parliament. We made space.
And even though we cannot be together tonight, we too are making space and holding space for each other. Community is a radical act in this age of isolation.
At the beginning of this lecture, I asked each of you to share how you were feeling. My hope was that by the end of this lecture we all would feel part of something bigger than ourselves.
De Dolle Mina lezing (the mad mina lecture) is an initiative of the City of Amsterdam and is organized in collaboration with Atria, knowledge institute on gender equality and women’s history.
Image: © Jaap Beyleveld / Atria