Making history, UK's new feminist party leader aims to popularise 'f-word' politics

The new leader of Britain's Women's Equality Party agrees with her political opponents on one thing - she wishes her party did not exist.

It may be 100 years since women won the right to vote, but Mandu Reid says the battle for equality is far from won.

"I wish we didn't need (our party), but none of the other parties are nearly ambitious enough when it comes to gender equality. It has been a blind spot in British politics," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reid, the first black person to lead a political party in Britain, took over this month from inaugural leader Sophie Walker who quit saying she wanted to make room for more diverse voices.

The Women's Equality Party (WE) was founded by TV presenter Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer in 2015, promising "to do politics differently".

It campaigns on issues including the gender pay gap, shared parental leave, affordable childcare, equal representation in politics and business, and ending gender-based violence.

The party, whose supporters include Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson and singer Lily Allen, now has tens of thousands of members and 75 branches across the country.

It hopes to secure its first election victory next Thursday when Britain holds local council polls.

Reid, 38, said her job was now to broaden the party's reach "allowing voices that are woefully unsung in British politics to get more airtime".

Less than a third of British MPs are women, and only 4 percent are women from black or ethnic minority backgrounds.

With populism on the rise, Reid said it was more important than ever to "have people like me being visible ... putting our heads above the parapet".

But she admitted to being a little scared, pointing to the virulent abuse suffered by Britain's most prominent black female politician Diane Abbott.

F-WORD

Although a passionate feminist, Reid accepts many young people are put off by the term - a view she shared until her mid-20s.

"I was one of those who was really uncomfortable with the label, who saw it as a bit of a dirty word – you know, the f-word," she said.

Engaging people on issues they care about, such as equal pay or period poverty, is key to overcoming such reservations, Reid said.

"I don't apologise for calling myself a feminist, but it's really important to unpick what's meant by that and zoom in on the issues that matter to people," she added.

"For me, feminism is fundamentally about fairness, freedom and society fulfilling its potential."

Growing up partly in Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, "in the shadow of apartheid South Africa", she was acutely aware of social injustice from a young age.

Reid, whose mother is Malawian and father British, recalls how her eyes were opened on a holiday in South Africa when she was eight.

During a long drive the family stopped to use public toilets. The one her mother had to use was squalid, the mixed-race toilet Reid used was a bit better, but her dad got a shiny clean toilet.

"That just really infuriated me. I couldn't understand it. That is my earliest memory of feeling indignant about injustice," she said.

IT'S ABOUT MEN TOO

A graduate of the London School of Economics, Reid has worked for central government and three London mayors.

She has also founded a charity, The Cup Effect, which tackles period poverty and promotes the use of menstrual cups.

Reid is passionate about equal parenting and affordable childcare, which she said were fundamental to ensuring women can fulfill their potential and close the gender pay gap.

However, she said gender equality was about improving everyone's lives, with men also suffering under expectations and restrictions imposed by patriarchy.

Reid would love more men to join the party. "They have as much to gain from what we are fighting for," she said. "If what I say and do encourages men to fight alongside us that would really make my day."

BREXIT

Reid takes over the party's helm at a time when Britain is deeply divided over Brexit - the country's planned departure from the European Union.

With Brexit negotiations stymied by delays, the country is preparing for European Parliament elections on May 23.

WE, which is putting up eight candidates, is fiercely pro-Europe and says Brexit will have a disproportionate impact on women, potentially leaving them poorer and with fewer legal protections.

Reid is keen to forge close links with other women's parties in Europe to create a strong voice for addressing issues affecting women across the bloc.

In Britain, Reid said WE was already forcing mainstream parties to "raise their game" on issues like domestic violence for fear of losing support.

"Other parties are taking notice, and I'm proud of that," she said.

Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Photo credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.