Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal (Swindon Festival of Literature 2017)

Crossing the stage, Catherine Mayer strikes a formidable figure as she throws down her bag and proclaims, “will there be rock?!”

Such an entrance is bold, confident and, above all, powerful, but then what else would you expect from a former TIME editor, turned pro-equality figurehead? An awkward chuckle fills the room from the collection of predominantly white, middle aged, women who sit before her.

Before starting her pre-prepared speech, Mayer casually brushes a few strands of hair from her face and dives into why Prime Minister Teresa May doesn’t represent female empowerment. The speaker’s assertive tone and head strong approach creates a stronger reaction in the auditorium. This is no ordinary run-of-the-mill feminist. After a couple of minutes, the speaker looks down at her stop watch and realises she’s been Minister bashing for too long. “Sorry, I tend to ramble” she apologises, before beginning the focus of her allotted slot; a seminar of her new book Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: How Gender Equality Can Save The World!

Mayer’s presentation style is intense to say the least. You can almost taste the venom being spat from the author’s lips as she laments over those who suggest women are empowered. “It’s the same with red heads,” she explains, “people assume they form the majority in Scotland when they don’t. The simple truth is that red heads and women stand out, so we imagine their numbers to be higher. If you include Scotland, only sixteen of the world’s leaders are women.”

Alongside the publication of a book, in 2015 Mayer founded the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) with the help of media personality Sandi Toksvig. The empowered speaker was keen to put across the struggles facing modern day politics and her aims for the WEP. “If we get into power, we win! If the other parties steal our ideas, we win!” Nods of approval circulate around the room. In an age of politicians scrambling over each other to reach the top, it’s refreshing to have a party which doesn’t seek to necessarily become ‘top dog’.

Given her background as a political reporter and the nature of the viewing audience before her, it is no surprise that Mayer devotes a portion of her time explaining the electoral candidates and policies representing her party. “In the Tunbridge Wells local elections we got 10% of the vote and beat UKIP” she comments smugly. It was therefore just as unsurprising that the audience challenges Mayer on ideology, notably the use of the word ‘women’ in WEP. Conceding that the use of gender in the party’s name did make broaching the opposite sex a harder task, Mayer firmly argues that to call themselves “the Equality Party” would detract from what her party was trying to achieve. “We might as well rebrand ourselves the Labour Party” was the sly remark.

Disgruntlement from Mayer’s groupies emerges when the female lead comments on other political organisations stealing WEP policies. Mayer, unperturbed, shrugs it off. “Can you keep a secret?” She giggles, “we’re going to send out copies of our manifesto to the main parties with a note that says ‘steal me.’” The audience laughs with the speaker and peace is restored once again among the frustrated women in the reaches of rows F to I. Already on a pro-feminist high, Mayer ends her segment by boldly proclaiming her plans to organise a one day strike for all women. The reaction couldn’t have been more overwhelmingly positive from the crowds below.

Even though this humble writer didn’t quite see eye to eye on all her beliefs, there is no denying Catherine Mayer knew how to work a crowd of disgruntled activists. Move over Wembley, Swindon Arts Centre may just be more rock and roll than you think.

 

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