Learning from fellow Divas: a view from Bristol

One thing that strikes me about much of the great feminist and women’s activism I have been involved with is a strength in listening to the experiences of others, and understanding what has gone before. In that vein I thought it might be helpful to share some knowledge from work in Bristol on women’s representation in political and public life over the last decade or so, in case any of it resonates and provides ideas for action in Greater Manchester. I was living in Bristol until earlier this year and was an active member of the Bristol Fawcett Local Group, amongst other campaigns.


Women’s power, participation and leadership in public life sat at the heart of the work of Bristol Fawcett (BF) from the group’s formation in 2001. Activism in this area was initially evidenced via engagement with a number of committees of Bristol Council and other public bodies to bring voice and a gender perspective, networking with other women’s organisations/ individuals and informal influencing of local politicians, parties and prospective candidates (local and national representatives).

In 2010/11, amidst debates on the election of local mayors and following some preliminary influencing in the 2010 election, BF agreed to undertake a more focused campaign effort. Focusing predominantly on the first Bristol Mayoral and PCC election in 2012, activity continued through the General Election 2015 and the local/ Mayoral/ PCC elections in 2016. The campaign was influenced by the work of the then national Counting Women In Coalition.

BF is a local voluntary feminist activism group of The Fawcett Society actively campaigning for gender equality and a non-party politically aligned campaign group. BF has built a reputation with local politicians and key stakeholders for being well informed on areas of gender equality. The immediate precursor to the Counting Women In campaign was the 2011 Cutting Women Out report, and subsequent conference, looking at the impact of austerity on women in Bristol. This was repeated in 2014 and was part of a model of holding local politicians to account for impact of cuts replicated elsewhere in the country, such as Coventry Women’s Voices.

In all campaigns BF aims to develop a strategy blending:

· Working ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ established structures to create influence

· Well evidenced research and information - in a concise and understandable manner

· Influencing the debate through meeting with, building trust and supporting key stakeholders to make progress for gender equality

· Publicly holding to account, including public campaigning and protests

Counting Women In: key campaign elements

The publically available resources from the campaign are available on the BF website here. BF identified 3 questions to answer in the electoral campaign, initially for Bristol’s first Mayor in 2012:

1. More women at the top in Bristol’s public life & politics

2. More woman-friendly policies

3. More money earmarked for issues that affect women adversely

Activities comprised:

  • Asking questions of local parties on candidate selection and issues related to women in the 2010 election

  • Being engaged in the debate on the local referendum for a Mayor, BF promoted alternative models of governance

  • In 2012 the research and publication of The Right Man for Bristol: a study of gender and representation in Bristol

  • Using results of a Bristol Women’s Voice survey to inform a questionnaire sent to local women’s organisations canvassing views on the key issues in relation to women for the 2012 election

  • Established a blog and twitter account @wearstheshoes – to comment on the campaign

  • Formulation of short (2 to 4 sides max) information briefings on the key issues of importance to women:

Childcare & caring; Economy; Representation, Transport, VAWG (Violence Against Women & Girls

  • Press release on BF expectations from candidates for women in the campaign

  • Meetings with 8 of 15 Mayoral and all 4 PCC candidates; briefings sent in advance, meetings provided the opportunity for questions and for BF to ask for specific responses within their manifestos

  • All candidates had opportunity also to answer key questions on-line, via the Bristol Women’s Voice website

  • Working closely with other local women’s organisations, particularly Bristol Women’s Voice, to deliver a Women's Hustings event

  • 'Scored' and fed-back on the responses of candidates at Women’s Hustings, manifestos and other public statements against the key issues – released as a report

Following the election of George Ferguson (Independent) as the Mayor, Bristol Fawcett was part of a group of women’s organisations with Bristol Women’s Voice that successfully lobbied the Mayor to make Bristol a signatory to the European Charter for Equality between women and men in public life (CEMR). As the only city in the UK to have signed this charter this established the Bristol Women’s Commission, a body designed to influence and respond to public policy and campaign for women’s representation in public life in Bristol.

Campaign impact

  • In the 2012 Mayoral and PCC election all (willing) candidates were briefed 1 to 1

  • Significantly raised awareness of the gap in women’s representation, and on a number of other issues important to women – evidenced in candidate manifestos and statements

  • Women’s hustings in place for 2012 Mayoral election, and have continued in 2016

  • Bristol as signatory to the EU Charter for Equality between women and men in public life, and establishment of the Bristol Women’s Commission (signed on IWD 2013)

  • 177 downloads of The Right Man for Bristol and 627 downloads of our report on the Bristol Mayoral candidates

Current challenges - and opportunities for some joint working?

I am hoping to speak further with contacts in Bristol and Coventry, as well as Edinburgh, about current ambitions for next steps to progress women’s equality and representation in public and political life, and will post again when I have done. Some of the challenges I am aware of being faced that will no doubt resonate include:

  • To be effective as a public body such as the Women’s Commission it requires funding, for administration and for women and women’s organisations to take part

  • Commitment to women’s representation is required across all decision-making bodies and committees of public life, this is made more difficult by,

  • Evolving local decision-making structures increasing the complexity of accountability for public decision-making. These need to be clearly understood, women represented across these and the relationships between them made transparent (e.g. LEPs, Health and Well-Being Boards, PCC Panels etc)

I am more than happy to speak to anyone further who is interested in pursuing any of these ideas or learning more about other areas. I’d also be really interested in experiences from elsewhere being shared. Contact me via #DivaManc or on twitter at @nicwaterworth

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