We are not meek and we are not weak. We are angry – on our own behalf, for our sisters and children who suffer, and for the entire planet – and we are determined to protect life on Earth.
Petra Kelly, German Green MP (1947–1992)
It was a potent image.
Just a woman in jeans, arms laden with sunflowers, a beaming smile.
But to me, it encapsulated a great deal. The woman’s name was Petra Kelly, a founder of the German Green Party. The image captured her entry into parliament on her first day as a Green MP.
It represented to me a new kind of politics, politics as something personal – as everything we do from the moment we awake, as all the choices we make, as people-centred.
Certainly Petra was the greatest inspiration of my political life, and a person you might say summed up the Green movement. She embodied feminism, peace, activism, and inspiration – an amazing politician. She had a formidable intellect, spoke passionately of the Green Party as the ‘anti-Party Party’ – a party that went beyond the usual party politics, embracing grassroots democracy and non-violent direct action.
And here she was, a woman, a Green – an elected MP.
It gave me tremendous hope. It made me feel bolder – and Westminster somehow closer.
I’ve taken great inspiration from the pioneers like Petra, who, when faced with fierce opposition, even ridicule, persevered and pushed for change regardless. When finally I found myself within Westminster’s halls – a Green MP in the heart of the British Parliament – their wisdom impressed itself upon me more than ever.
It’s often been said that it’s not easy being a woman in politics. I think perhaps it’s harder still when your work centres on a passion for people and planet. But I firmly believe that women do have a specific role in helping to achieve environmental sustainability. And I believe we can do so through politics.
But Parliament’s priorities are thoroughly back-to-front. We have £500 billion to bail out the banks in the financial crisis, £100 billion for a new nuclear deterrent system. But when it comes to protecting our most precious assets, to preventing catastrophic climate change – to talking sustainability, renewables, emissions reduction targets and eliminating fuel poverty – political will (and resourcing) swiftly diminishes. We only have one planet and, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a limited time frame to prevent the irreversible impacts of climate change upon it.
The mandate is clear and urgent, and successive governments have gone to great lengths to be seen as Green. But when it comes to driving through substantive change, the appetite evaporates.
Prime Minister David Cameron dubbed climate change ‘the biggest threat facing Britain and the world’ during the 2013 winter floods – yet it’s been unapologetically disregarded as the domain of anti-business types, madcap revolutionaries, idealists – and feminists.
I think of the wonderful marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose groundbreaking book Silent Spring was one of the most influential ever written on the environment and ecology. Which inevitably incited the wrath of the major chemical corps it challenged. Carson was publicly ridiculed, threatened with legal action and labelled ‘a spinster’ and ‘hysterical’.
But the undeniable quality of her peer-reviewed research withstood the predictably gendered smear campaigns and it’s hard to overstate the book’s legacy.
Part fairy story and part meticulous study, Silent Spring breathed life into science, making academia not only accessible but unputdownable. Its message went viral (or the 1960s equivalent of), tangibly shifting the public (and eventually political) perception of environmental concerns.
In the UK alone, it helped spark the creation of PEOPLE, which, in the 1970s, developed into the Ecology Party, which grew into the Green Party. It has informed much of my own work – as an activist, an MEP in Brussels and an MP in my Brighton constituency and Westminster.
In the male-dominated fields of politics and science, Petra Kelly and Rachel Carson influenced – even shifted – entrenched patterns of thought. They didn’t ‘step outside the box’: they re-formed it from within.
In her narrative Carson irrevocably altered our understanding of the fundamental yet fragile connection between person and planet. Kelly, with incredible passion, connected planet and person with politics. Their ideas and uncompromising courage of conviction challenged the status quo and, in time, altered minds and hearts globally.
They were creative, innovative, dynamic forces to be reckoned with. But they had to be – their gender compelled it – as women in their fields, they had to work harder, and their work had to be flawless. They were human, humble, passionate about people and planet – qualities which, I believe, helped capture public imagination, ensuring their theories took flight and their legacy endured: and environmental sustainability took a determined step forward.
Both were unique talents. But one might argue that gender played a role in their success – that their very experiences as women contributed to their worldview and thus their work. Were they simply brilliant women, or did their brilliance stem in part from being women?
And if it’s the case that the hand we’re dealt as women – our unique experiences – can be a tool to our advantage, can we do more to harness that, develop it, as politicians and activists for the environmental cause, to stand on equal footing in our so very patriarchal halls of power and further our cause?
Women and leadership
Kelly’s thoughts on women and power have deeply influenced the way I approach my work in Westminster. I love this quote from her, connecting feminism, activism and leadership:
Feminism seeks to redefine our very modes of existence and to transform non-violently the structures of male dominance. I am not saying that women are inherently better than men. Overturning patriarchy doesn’t mean replacing men’s dominance with women’s dominance. That would merely maintain the patriarchal pattern of dominance. We need to transform the patriarchal pattern itself.
The work of feminist women and pro-feminist men is to liberate everyone from a system that is oppressive to women and restrictive to men, and to restore balance and harmony between women and men, and between masculine and feminine values in society and within each of us. Feminists working in the peace and ecology movements are sometimes viewed as kind, nurturing Earth mothers, but that is too comfortable a stereotype. We are not meek and we are not weak. We are angry – on our own behalf, for our sisters and children who suffer, and for the entire planet – and we are determined to protect life on Earth.
There is a saying: Where power is, women are not. Women must be willing to be powerful. Because we bear scars from the way men have used their power over us, women often want no part of power.
But playing an active part in society, on an equal footing with men, does not mean adopting the old thought patterns and strategies of the patriarchal world. It means putting our own ideas of an emancipatory society into practice. Rather than emulating Margaret Thatcher and others who loyally adapt themselves to male values of hierarchy we must find our own definitions of power that reflects women’s values and women’s experience […] This is not power over others, but power with others, the kind of shared power that has to replace patriarchal power.
I think that applies across the board – from Parliament to grassroots environmental campaigns.
It’s undeniable that women have to work harder to get heard. And we cannot hope to be heard, to change climate policy, if we are unable or willing to embrace power. And I don’t mean mimicking the old structures designed to oppress rather than liberate, much less empower, us – but embracing that which sets us apart, those uniquely female experiences which contribute to our view of the world and our place in it.
Our political power structures are patriarchal. Just watch Prime Minister’s Questions (it’s even worse in person); saturated with sexism, with audible comments about the way women look.
What it if were more gender balanced?
More female MPs wouldn’t necessarily make for a more compassionate, friendly Parliament. But it would diversify politics and (as any ecologist will tell you) diversity is the key to strength, and survival. And such a change is long overdue.
I don’t necessarily think women are better at selfless giving, but perhaps there really is something born of our unique experience which is advantageous in using power well and in furthering the environmental cause.
Perhaps the extent to which women have had less power – or, as Kelly says, because we ‘bear scars from the way men have used their power over us’ – we’re more aware of the sensitivities in using it over others, over nature. Furthermore, perhaps the female experience of fighting for the right to be heard in politics – national, local, grassroots – makes us naturally better equipped to fight for a cause that has also traditionally been neglected, ridiculed even, in politics. I don’t suggest that we are innately or inevitably (or always – think Margaret Thatcher) programmed this way, but that as a result of our experience in a patriarchal world, we can empathise with a neglected cause – and, one might argue, will more naturally be drawn to it in the first instance.
I’m reminded of a conference I attended, on the subject of climate change. It’d been organised by a woman and every speaker was female. She said to me at the time, ‘I got so fed up with going to meetings where the best person to speak on merit would have been a particular woman who, often, would be sat in the audience.’
Speaking at that conference was great. It felt less competitive, more honest – with people saying much more about what they felt about the subjects, not just what they thought – and as a result it felt more balanced. None of those things are intrinsically tied to the fact the event was dominated by women but, given our culture, it’s more likely that a high proportion of women will shift the nature of any dialogue or debate.
Women were not being favoured as speakers simply because of their gender – they were given a platform because they were the most capable, most compelling and probably the most overlooked too.
Perhaps a more gender-equal Parliament would make politics more like a public service, less self-serving and elitist. Perhaps one of the reasons more women don’t stand for election to Parliament is because politics has become something all too many people consider as a career – rather than a way to make a difference.
In the European Parliament, where a third of MEPs are women, I virtually forgot about gender. The work culture was far more conducive for a woman – far less grandstanding, more cooperation. Compromise wasn’t a dirty word but a noble pursuit of common ground. In Westminster, you’re in a noticeable minority in every committee, in every debate. We have some fantastic female voices there, but they’re woefully under-represented.
We won the right to sit in the House in 1918 but since that time just 369 women MPs have done so – yet in Parliament right now, there are over five hundred male MPs. Ours is supposed to be the mother of all parliaments: yet just 28 per cent of MPs are women. Afghanistan tops us in that poll.
Green politics sets store by gender balance and advocates a different ethos of leadership and power that, I think, sits far more comfortably with the European Parliament than our own patriarchal version – and I think Westminster can learn a great deal from it.
It stresses collaboration over competition. It’s about making a difference, not climbing ladders. It emphasises balance.
To be alone and in conflict with all would be hopelessly ineffective. I collaborate across parties very well, and perhaps that’s down to a number of things – my politics, my own ethos, my experience in the European Parliament, a sense of urgency in the face of climate change, my gender.
But the culture, vested interests and workaday rules of Westminster are rigged against women – against anyone, in fact, trying to do things a bit differently.
Politically independent community leaders are disadvantaged because we don’t have a proportional voting system.
And without state funding for political parties the ‘old boys’ networks continue to thrive along with every other bloated symbol of the status quo – a status quo that has been built by men and, I’d argue, depends upon the continued disenfranchisement of women.
Changes are creeping in – prior to 1987 women had never made up more than 5 per cent of MPs.
But Westminster has always dragged its feet. We need to keep fighting for reform, challenge the establishment and make the system fairer, more balanced.
And politics isn’t confined to Parliament. It’s everything we do, and something we are. Grassroots activism in the UK is blooming: creative, dynamic, resilient, resourceful, passionate – and highly influential.
Like Petra, my own involvement in party politics was sparked by activism, particularly around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1980s, and I was involved in the CND protests at Molesworth and at Greenham Common. I supported other causes too, but it was reading Seeing Green by Jonathan Porritt in 1986 that suddenly made clear to me how all these issues were underpinned by the political process. The Green Party offered a political solution which recognised the connections and stood for real and necessary change.
But one of the things I love most about the Green Party is that it has never broken from its activist origins. It embraces grassroots and established political systems as complementary – their collaboration as necessary to achieving real change.
Parliament can learn much from that; from the best examples of grassroots democracy and non-violent direct action, historic and contemporary.
Deeds not words
Were the suffragettes a group of unusually brilliant, creative women – or did their experiences as women influence the movement and make them brilliant?
They knew all about being ignored and excluded – and all about fighting back. True experts of direct action, on one occasion two women posted themselves as human letters to Downing Street; on another, they boarded a boat and unfurled banners opposite the terrace of Parliament. They boycotted the census, on the grounds that ‘if women don’t count, neither shall they be counted’.
They taught us how to find our voice, and use it. To constantly speak up and speak out.
To be courageous.
But perhaps, more than anything, we can take from them a passionate commitment to never give up.
The fantastic Tamsin Omond, a founding member of activist group Climate Rush, has been heavily inspired in her work by the suffragette movement. What a great example of an exciting and influential political independent trying to do things a bit differently. And she’s not alone – just skimming the landscape of grassroots campaigning shows the influence women have – from Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, to the Everyday Sexism Project and No More Page 3 campaigns.
The suffragettes won us the vote. We can sit in the House. The Commons belongs to us – but still it’s controlled by a privileged male elite and their vested whims. We need to change that. To make it easier for voices like Tamsin’s – and others – to be counted, and make Parliament truly representative and accountable to the people.
A hundred years ago, Emmeline Pankhurst said, ‘to be able to be militant is a privilege’. She was right, and now is the time to use our voices, collectively, to speak out to prevent our government from sleepwalking into climate catastrophe.
Too often our efforts are disjointed, and we’re the weaker for it. We must collaborate much more.
Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein – a bona fide rabble-rouser for change – consistently and convincingly connects the dots: between politics and people, financial chaos and climate chaos – and advocates a joined-up strategy for change. Campaigners should unite, she says, because the root of our problem is the same: unrestrained corporate greed. There’s an urgency to this fight and it’s a battle we must win. To do so, we must recognise and respond as one, ‘weaving’ our fights into ‘a common narrative’.
Her fuss-free, commonsense take on people, planet and politics captures imaginations and wins debates hands down.
Feeling as a catalyst
And – simple though it may sound – I believe a great deal of what we’re seeking boils down to something so simple, it’s almost counter-intuitive: feeling.
Why is it that we’re so squeamish about discussing how we feel about the climate crisis?
Perhaps it’s that such a traditionally female attribute is equated with weakness; and emotion as an absence of reason – another legacy of a patriarchal power structure.
But only by talking through how we feel will we manage to dig deep enough to find the creativity and innovation that are needed to respond effectively to what many now recognise is the biggest threat facing humankind.
We need to find the courage to look the crisis in the face and genuinely connect with it on an emotional basis, without flinching.
I remember how, when I first heard that there had been a record loss of summer sea ice, and that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere were at their highest point for possibly 800,000 years, it felt like a physical kick in the stomach. I felt literally winded, short of breath – and very tearful.
There is such a thing as too late, and the idea haunts me.
But if facing the true horror of what we are doing to our climate is a prerequisite to generating the political will to act – to move from the elegiac to the practical – how do we equip ourselves to do so?
Not without hope.
Hope is a potent catalyst, far more so, I’d argue, than fear. And while our failure to adequately appreciate and guard against ecological destruction fills me with frustration – and sometimes despair – my hope, as Petra Kelly might say, is not meek or weak. It is urgent and raging, and I think that’s helped, rather than hindered, me in getting heard as an MP and campaigner.
It’s a hope that believes a better world – away from cyclical war, the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal – is possible.
And in my book, that’s a worth a fight.
We need to actively choose a better future – and make it happen. Martin Luther King had a dream, not a nightmare, and we need that same vision today. We need to harness the transformative power of hope, so it can be turned into creative and innovative solutions.
Nature is full of inspirations, and not for nothing did sunflowers fill Petra Kelly’s arms as she entered the German parliament. The most powerful ideas grow in strength with the right energy, motivation. Heads turned to the sun, these flowers reach sturdily up, improbably high, towards a promise of something better.
It’s a simple idea, but remains a deeply radical one: that if we decide we want a different kind of future, we can reach it. That just making the commitment can be the catalyst we need.
But every voice counts. We must reclaim politics as everything we do. And – lobbyist, activist, international NGO or MP – cooperation between us is crucial. Being powerful with one another – living out the wonderful words of Robert F. Kennedy:
Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Or, to quote the wisdom of Dr Seuss, in his excellent book The Lorax:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.