The fight for gender equality in Liverpool

This interview was originally written as part of my entry for the Vogue Talent Contest 2017, for which I was a finalist.

Northern Soul

I settle down to chat to Tabitha Morton on one of those unseasonably warm March afternoons when the hope and promise of the summer to come seem within touching distance. Brimming with a chirpy positivity and self-effacing humour, Tabitha makes clear that she is not your usual politician. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) candidate for the inaugural Liverpool City Region mayoral election in May, Tabitha is playing a dedicated role in the 21st century women’s rights movement, battling to give gender equality a voice.

The first to describe herself as “working class”, Tabitha had a no-frills start to life in a Merseyside council estate, coming to politics later in life than most politicians. Her story is one of DIY triumph: having left school at 16 with no qualifications, she worked in various clerical and cleaning roles before achieving an NVQ diploma. She now works as Head of Integration at Yale – the company that makes the locks.

Politics, she tells me, “was always something that somebody else did.” In her twenties she started to realise, though, how it “affects every part of our lives,” and decided she wanted to get involved. Like many young women she didn’t identify with feminism in her twenties, but later, over time it became “something I cared more and more passionately about…[and] I saw less and less equality as I looked around.”

Then, after the 2015 general election, she became “very disillusioned with all parties. Nobody was talking about the issues I cared about. Nobody was talking about equality.” The processes and policies of traditional political parties ceased to attract her, and so in 2015 she decided to join the WEP. It was about “saying no, that form of politics is broken and we need to do things differently,” Tabitha explains.

This urge to do things differently reflects how women have fought throughout the centuries to reform the political system and gain gender equality. A hundred years on from the suffragettes, the WEP was founded in 2015 with the idea of keeping women’s rights at the heart of political debates.

How apt, then, that the WEP nominated Tabitha as their candidate for the first ever Liverpool City Region election. The North West has long been the cradle of the women’s suffrage movement and social activism, with Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Cristabel and Sylvia starting the Women’s Social and Political Union in neighbouring Manchester in 1903. Meanwhile, the renowned women’s rights campaigner, Eleanor Rathbone, was the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council in 1918. She also founded the 1918 Club, a Liverpool discussion forum for women founded in that year and continuing until this day.

These principles of egalitarian discussion and debate are what originally attracted Tabitha to the WEP, and her first branch meeting, which was spent debating what the party’s policies would be, had a profound effect on her.

Tabitha explains: “Every political party talks about engaging people and about listening, but this party was actually doing that. When the policies were released I could see some of the thoughts from the room [we were in] were actually there.”

The issues that Tabitha and the WEP are campaigning for in Liverpool would be familiar to Rathbone and others from the original women’s rights movements. Childcare, equal opportunities and education are the focus of Tabitha’s campaign, mirroring the issues fought for since the beginning of the 20th century. She also wants to give women a voice in the North West’s devolution deal, end violence against women and girls, and create an affordable transport system that is available to all.

“I want to see that everyone has access to equal opportunities to realise their potential,” Tabitha explains, also pointing out the need to tackle the pay gap in Liverpool. She thinks the pay gap is larger than the reported 18%: “When you start to add it up…We did a calculation for the North West, that if you actually look at the true pay gap and what the economy is missing, it works out at £23.7 billion pounds annually.”

Women’s rights activism is at the heart of the North West’s history, and in 2017 Tabitha, alongside the WEP, is determined to bring it back to life. Ultimately, Tabitha wants to make sure Liverpool is on the map for the right reasons, meaning a region where gender equality leads the way and discrimination is diminished. “The great part of the metro mayor’s role is that you can really start to pull the region together,” she says, as our interview finishes up. A task that the campaigners of old would surely have approved of.

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