Meet Natalie Bennett. If her name isn’t yet well known to you it will be as Natalie has just been elected to lead the Green Party. Natalie was elected by the party’s 13,000 members to succeed Caroline Lucas, the party’s first MP in the UK. Prior to that she was a very successful journalist and edited The Guardian Weekly for several years. Plus, she’s an ardent feminist and we actually ‘met’ through the excellent campaign to end Page Three (see No More Page Three)
Jane: First, many congratulations on your election as leader, Natalie. You are of course, the only female leader any political party currently (an accurate reflection on the gender bias in U.K. politics). I, like many others, have written before about how Politics (big P) is such a macho arena which is not always immediately appealing to women. Have you experienced much overt sexism?
Natalie Bennett: Thanks. Most of my working life has been in daily newspapers, which are a pretty robust environment. It can be hard to distinguish straight bullying from sexist bullying, but certainly as a woman you have to expect to be tried out and pushed a little harder to see how you will react.
In politics I often find in television, on panels and in debates that I am the only woman – such is the nature of British politics unfortunately. In that environment I have encountered about equal measures of being patronised and attempts at exclusion by being shouted down – luckily I have a loud voice.
But if you have a good chair or interviewer – as recently I had at an RSA debate on Heathrow broadcast on LBC, you can rely on them to allow fair airtime. But the first time you encounter a new chair you have to try to judge whether they will sort it out or you will have to elbow your way in.
Jane: You’re the leader of a relatively small political party which has an influence that belies its size. The Greens have struggled for some years with the idea of one single leader and have tried different approaches; do you think this consensual style of politics is more appealing to women? Does the Green party have a higher proportion of women members than other political parties?
Natalie: I doubt that we have a higher percentage of women members, or at least not much higher. We operate in a society in which you will find political magazines in the ‘men’s’ section of the magazines in shops. But I do think that, while we don’t always succeed in achieving our aims, there is a much higher awareness in our party than in others of the need to be inclusive, to provide a space in which everyone is given an opportunity to contribute and influence. And at conference, the key decision making body of the party, chairs are directed to try to achieve gender balance in contributions. We even have some men who do the washing up after meetings!
Jane: Would the Greens legislate to ban Page Three and its ilk?
Natalie: No. While I entirely understand the desire to do that, I think that legislation would be a very blunt instrument with lots of unintended consequences. How would a court distinguish between page 3 and a news picture of the Ukrainian group Femen, or an explicit but entirely appropriate piece of sex education? Censorship has tended to operate in favour of the repressive, regressive forces in society.
I think we need to look at the problem much more broadly – to understand how the pressure on women around body image relates to the competitiveness and levels of inequality in society, about the extreme pervasiveness of in-your-face advertising everywhere you turn, and look at ways to create a healthier society overall. Then Page Three would more clearly look like the anachronism it is and would disappear naturally.
Jane: With reluctance I have come to believe that quotas to increase the number of women onto boards are the only way we will ever see serious change (Quotas for women on boards? Yes, Yes and Yes!). What are your personal views on quotas? Does the party have a position on it?
Natalie : The Green Party I am pleased to say believes in quotas on boards – our policy is to legislate for 40% women on major company boards along the Norwegian model. I moved that motion at conference a couple of years ago and I am pleased that it has received lots of positive attention. We also have quotas in many selections, such as the London Assembly list candidates – where I am again pleased to say we selected seven women and four men for this year’s poll. And at our just-finished conference we directed our elected officers to aim for at least 50% women in winnable European and Westminster selections – not a quota, but a strong statement of intent.
The European Green Party has a minimum 50% women rule for delegates at conference and official events – you can’t have more men than women in a delegation, which I think is very positive.
Jane: Who is your role model? Who has had the most influence on your career to date?
Natalie: I wouldn’t necessarily pick out an individual. I’d group together the Levellers, the Diggers and the Suffragettes as representing the strong, active, subversive, think-the-impossible strand that runs through British politics.
Jane: What was the young Natalie like, what did you want to ‘be’ when you grew up? Were you always a ‘leader’?
Natalie: I guess I was always a leader. I was captain of the school cricket team, although I made a bit of a stir when I declined to be a prefect because I didn’t agree with all of the school rules and didn’t want to enforce them (I may have been a little sanctimonious as a teenager, though I think my instincts were good.) And I have tended to end up leading things because I saw a job that needed doing and just started doing it. I ended up on the Green Party national executive nine months after joining the party because I was told there was a job that needed doing – I had no idea really what I was taking on!
As a child I first wanted to be a geologist, then I was convinced there was no jobs, then a farm manager (romanticising the countryside) but I settled on journalism because it was a generalist job, not one that required specialising – and as in politics it is useful to know lots about lots of things and to be able to link them together.
Jane: Do you remember what your first paid job was? Did you learn anything from that job which has stood you in good stead since? (With me it was discovering the Saturday boys were paid more than us girls, deciding to challenge it and getting more money!)
Natalie: My first paid job was in a jelly factory as a Christmas holiday job. I was 15 and the older women who worked on the line very much looked after me. Lots of the job was grabbing boxes of jelly off the belt and shoving them into boxes which were a tight fit. If you messed up just one box you were in trouble as the conveyor belt filled up behind you. They’d come and rescue me. It taught me a lot about female solidarity.
Jane: My Dad always used to say ‘everyone has to make their own mistakes – the trick is not to make the same one twice’. What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?
Natalie: It didn’t feel it at the time, but I was running the Cootamundra Herald when the editor was away, when a staff member who was a great journalist but not good with figures and numbers said “clocks go back on Sunday” don’t they? I said “yes” without thinking while doing something else. So the front page of the paper, in very large type, was wrong, and I had to endure the town’s joshing for the next week. I learnt to always sweat the big stuff… Prioritise and make sure you get the important issues right, even if there are lots of details tugging at your sleeve.
Jane: What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
Natalie: A counsellor once told me that you can’t be responsible for the behaviour of other adults. You can help them, be supportive and advise, but if people make bad choices, you shouldn’t blame yourself. Women are often socialised into caring roles in ways that makes them feel responsible for the action of others.
Jane: What advice would you give to a woman today thinking of entering the political world?
Natalie: If there are things in the world that you want to change, if you want to follow that passion and aren’t just looking for a cosy career – then do it! We need lots more people, women and men, involved in politics who aren’t from the ‘political class’. It doesn’t matter what your educational and work background is – whether you’ve been a dinner lady or a cleaner or a teacher or worked in the home – you have knowledge and skills that politics needs. Get a good support network around you, to back you and help deal with the child care or the elder care or just the washing, recognise that it isn’t going to be easy and you are going to take some knocks and blows – such is the nature of politics, but try not to take them personally.
Jane: And finally, what’s your favourite way of unwinding and relaxing? What really replenishes and renews you?
Natalie: Disappearing into a book. I love to read, non-fiction usually – ideally for unwinding reading about a subject I know little about, and which has no practical use whatsoever. My current such read is about the mindset of Bronze and Iron Age Europe, which explains how these people – biologically identical to us – would have seen the world in very different ways. For example they would in an average day have seen only a tiny fraction of the man-made objects that we do, so the shape and symbolism of these would have been of far greater significancea than any single object we see.
Jane: Natalie, thank you so much for taking time out to talk with us. It s been a really interesting interview; I’m particularly impressed by your stance about women on boards; I have to confess I hadn’t realised that was policy before. Thank you.
If you’d like to find out more about Natalie and the Green party you can do so here http://www.nataliebennett.greenparty.org.uk/
Photo Credit: : Ruth Davey/Look Again www.look-again.org
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Posted on October 9th, 2012 by Jane