Lee Chalmers was the Lothian list candidate for the Womens Equality Party in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections. She founded the Parliament Project; a training, mentoring and support programme for women who are standing for election. Lee sits on the board of Engender and was formerly a board member of The Fawcett Society. She is currently undertaking research for a Phd which examines the impact of trolling on women’s participation in feminist activism.
The Breaking the Mould publication was inspiring. When I looked at it I thought ‘why are they putting me in something like this?’, because I don’t consider myself in that way – as significant or as a change maker. I wonder if any of the women participating think of themselves in that way?
I think women don’t necessarily shout about ourselves, because we’re encouraged to be the supporting cast and not the star. Female leaders will say ‘we did this amazing project, I led it but my male colleague, who knocked on my boss’s door to tell them how great he is, got the promotion’. Yet I probably undervalue myself in the same way – for example the Women’s Equality Party hasn’t got any candidates elected yet; I’m constantly measuring our success against what we could do instead of focusing on the amazing things we’ve already achieved in a short space of time.
One of the reasons I got involved with the Women’s Equality Party is that all through history, women have been told that gender equality will come later: once class issues are sorted out; once poverty is sorted out; once so many things are sorted out, then we’ll get round to gender equality. I don’t want to wait. The referendum was inspiring, but whether we liked the outcome or not, we need to get on with gender equality now, under these conditions.
For the past 13 years I’ve run a life and executive coaching company. Leadership is my work; I train leaders, I coach leaders. I started looking at politics and I thought politics is just the leadership of the country. I’ve been involved in Feminism, gender equality and women’s organisations for a long time and having seen how leadership works for organisations, I know that things don’t change unless leaders want it to change. You can have all these diversity initiatives but if those at the top are not really interested, nothing happens. The more I looked at that, the more I realised that if you want things to change for women, you have to have a woman in power.
I started The Parliament Project, a not-for-profit organisation which trains, mentors and supports women to run for political office. It is going to shed light on what it’s like to be an MP, MSP or a Councillor and run training sessions in the kind of skills that women say they don’t have. We want to equip them. I would just love it if we had 65% female MSPs, like we have 65% male MSPs, but we need loads more women to come forward.
One of the reasons why I had to run for election was a feeling that I can’t push for others to stand if I’m not willing to do it myself. Initially, I said to the Scotland branch that my skills could help support the candidates and the selection process. When the call for candidates went out I remember thinking I can’t do it because that would be insane. I’ve got my business, I’ve got my not-for-profit organisation, I’ve got my Phd – I’ve already got more than enough to do. But then, I wondered how would I feel watching someone else do it. It’s one of those times when you know it’s a historical moment and someone has to put themself forward – would I regret that I hadn’t done it?
Most people whose doors we knocked on had never heard of us and that’s the main challenge the party faces up here. There’s loads of good press down in London because of the Mayoral Elections and Sophie Walker standing down there, but it didn’t really filter up here. I remember someone asking ‘what’s your greatest fear?’ and I said it was that as soon as it’s announced the press are on our doorstep and don’t leave me alone. My second fear is that they don’t pay us any attention at all! The relationship with London is interesting because the Scottish context is so different and we found ourselves having to ask how messages for the UK coming from the party applied here, whether they applied at all and what might need to be adjusted. We did a whole Scottish Manifesto from scratch, with a bunch of volunteers – that was quite something.
If I look back on the days when I had a shaved head and dressed like a skateboarder, I think I thought if I didn’t look like a woman then somehow I’d be ok. And it was only when I was in my 30s I thought ‘actually the world is going to relate to me as a woman whether I like it or not. So, I think then my energy turned towards ‘you need to change structures rather than just yourself’. It’s a community issue, it’s a global issue. My job on the platform at hustings was to always, whatever question it was, talk about the gendered aspect of that. For example, if it’s housing, talk about how it affects women, if it’s tax, talk about the pay gap and impact on low earning women. That felt really important and I’ve seen people mentioning it afterwards – that where there wasn’t a Women’s Equality Party candidate on the hustings panel, women’s issues never got talked about at all.
Facebook and Twitter have been a supportive resource for me because so much of what I do is online; I kind of live online. I’ve got a public Facebook politician page but my personal page is locked-in and quite close knit. I’m honest on there and can talk about experiences. I’ve been on Twitter for 8 years, right since the beginning and it’s been really, really useful for all kinds of things. Connecting up, it’s how I got involved with the branch up here, it’s how I built connections that will support this project – social media’s been really useful. We went to 10 Downing Street to discuss the project, originally when it was in its previous incarnation, because of Twitter.
Being self-employed has really helped as it has allowed me to weave things together and act on the issue from multiple angles. I’ve become unemployable now, because I’ve been self-employed for so long it means that when I’m working in a context that I don’t like, I don’t have to stay there and I don’t get to the point where it’s frustrating. I know a lot of people in jobs that they hate.
My mum said she gave me the name Lee so that I would get job interviews because she thought ‘if I give you a gender neutral name you’ll get treated in a different way’. So, the idea of a struggle based on gender was kind of baked into me right from the beginning. And because I feel the injustice of it I just want to do multiple things because there’s also no one single thing to do. That’s the other thing, you have to approach it in loads and loads of different ways
Hillary Clinton comes to mind as a role model, as a woman in politics who is just out there, keeps going and did a great job as Secretary of State. She ran against Obama, she didn’t win but she didn’t take her toys away, he asked her to serve, she did. She’s just in there all the time. And all the abuse she gets is horrendous. America is a deeply sexist place; I don’t know whether they’re ultimately going to be able to vote for her or not. Hope so.