EXCLUSIVE: Speech by top feminist activist on the struggle of women today

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By Finn Mackay

Feminist Activist & Researcher. www.finnmackay.wordpress.com

At Tolpuddle Festival seminar: ‘Women Fighting Back’. July 2012.

 

There is indeed a resurgence of feminist activism in our country, and it is largely being led and directed by young women. This resurgence

can be seen to have started in the early 2000s, with the founding of groups such as the online feminist magazine The F Word in 2001, and indeed the London Feminist Network

in 2004. Early activism was much focussed around the mainstreaming of pornography and the sex industry, dissatisfaction with the beauty industry and with media representations of

women. This is perhaps unsurprising, as these are pressing issues for young women today and the former is certainly relatively new. The last time feminism was at its height

in this country, the period known as the second wave, which was from the late 1960s through to the 1980s – feminists could not have forseen in their worst nightmares the

expansion of the sex industry and the impact of modern technologies on that industry and consequently on the rest of society. The resurgence continued to gather pace. Last year the umbrella group UK Feminista reported that there are over eighty local feminist groups across the UK and that this number had doubled in only two years.

The London Feminist Network has over 1700 members, and sister Feminist Networks in towns and cities from Aberdeen to Devon.

Many of these groups organise their own Reclaim the Night marches against rape and all forms of male violence against women and I’ll say a bit more about that later.

In 2010 at least five books were published on contemporary British feminism; Natasha Walter’s ‘Living Dolls’, Redfern and Aune’s ‘Reclaiming The F Word’ and Kat

Banyard’s ‘The Equality Illusion’. Popular commentary in the broadsheets began to pick up on this new movement and reporting shifted quite dramatically from the common

refrain of feminism’s demise during the 1990s, to a new narrative of resurgence and rejuvenation.

In 2010 a national survey of over 1000 feminists found the majority in their twenties, with most saying they had identified as feminists since their teens. In 2007 the ‘Girl’s

Shout Out’ report surveying the largest girl’s group in the country, the Girl Guides, found that two-thirds would be happy to call themselves feminists.

As I mentioned, Reclaim the Night marches have started up again across the country, with places such as the Isle of Wight and Galashiels holding their first ever marches

last year.

Reclaim the Night is traditionally a women’s night time march against rape and sexual violence, in particular it raises the issue of street harassment and women’s

fears about using public space particularly after dark. The march has European roots, it began in Brussels in March 1976 when women took to the streets at the last day of a

conference called the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women.

In April 1977 women organised synchronised Reclaim the Night marches across West Germany to protest against male violence and to demand women’s right to walk at night without fear

of sexual harassment, or assault. This event was picked up by journalists at ‘Spare Rib’ magazine here in the UK – which ran from 1972 to 1993 – and they wrote a small article

about the march, which in turn was picked up by editors of the then national women’s liberation newsletter called WIRES – the Women’s Information Retrieval and Enquiry

Service.

WIRES was based in Leeds, and I’m sure many of you will know why women’s safety at night was a very prescient issue for women across the North of England at that

time.

A man called Peter Sutcliffe, whom the press dubbed the Yorkshire ripper, murdered 13

women across the North of England between 1975 and 1980, and cast a long shadow

over that area and in particular the Yorkshire region.

Women were angered by the police response to these murders, which was to warn women not to go out after dark,

and if they had to, to have a man to escort them. This was not practical advice for most women, and it was read by feminist activists as the imposition of a curfew on women.

So, in November 1977 the UK saw its first Reclaim the Night marches, instigated by the Chapeltown Women’s Liberation Group in Leeds and up to 400 women in over a dozen towns and cities, marched on their city centres at night, with flaming torches, banners and chants.

The marches carried on until the 1980s when they started to decline, as the popular story goes because feminism began to move into the town halls and universities and became more institutionalised and fragmented. In 2004 I re-started the march in London and since then it has gone on to become the largest RTN march, attended every year by over 2000 women from all over the country and indeed from Europe, who close down the centre of London for one night.

It could be argued that these marches are more relevant than ever.

When women first started the protest in 1977 they were appalled that only 1 in 3 reported rapes ended in

a conviction.

Today that figure is 1 in 20. It is because we do not believe that 19 out of every 20 women who report rape are liars; that we march today on Reclaim the Night like our sisters did before us.

There are many women from that time who thought this protest would no longer be needed and who definitely had not envisaged that some things may go backwards.

There are over 80,000 rapes every year and over 400,000 sexual assaults.

Yet there are more licensed lap dancing clubs in our country than there are Rape Crisis Centres.

One in four women are living with domestic violence, which takes the lives of two women every week in our country. Yet over 200 women and children are turned away

from women’s refuges every day, often simply due to lack of space.

Tonight, on our streets, as every night, up to five thousand young people will be exploited in prostitution to fulfil a demand that we are told to accept as inevitable. Lad’s mags and internet porn are defended as a good source of sex education for boys.

Some surveys find that over 60% of girls would rather be glamour models than doctors or teachers [thelab 2005 1000 girls 15-19].

Rates of cosmetic surgery for teenage women recently doubled and women in the UK spend over a billion pounds a year on such procedures. None of this is natural, it’s called sexism, and because that hasn’t gone away, neither has our

liberation movement. And in this movement a new generation of women have become inspired, are making use of new technologies to organise and campaign and are tackling old issues in

new forms.

The misrepresentations of young women in our media and culture do not represent the young activists I see, who know that their liberation is not to be found

in reality TV, fashion mags or diets. From the demonstrations outside the Miss World pageant at Earl’s Court, to Million Women Rise, to the Occupy Patriarchy groups and the Women Against the Cuts networks, to Object’s campaigns on the changing of the law on lap dancing clubs and prostitution, young women have been there every step of the way.

However, this is not the whole story of course. Feminism has always been a niche activity, even when it was last at its height in the UK in the 1970s; and it is still a niche activity now. There are too many women who don’t identify with their own liberation movement because of the lies and stereotypes that are promoted about feminism.

Because we are told that we have it all, that our movement is finished, because our

issues are still seen as lesser and marginal – though we are over half of the population – and because a movement of women, for women, is seen as threatening, when women are still judged on their relationships to and with men, domestically, socially, culturally, politically. Thus, it is partly because of the force of homophobia and misogyny in our society that so many women are alienated from one of the oldest social movements in the world and one they have profoundly benefitted from; their own.

And I’d like to take this opportunity here, to raise a question, and ask you, Comrades, where are the Left on some of our issues? Where are your principles against consumerism and commodification when it comes to the objectification of women in lap dancing and strip clubs? Where are your principles against capitalism and corporations when it comes to the multi-billion dollar prostitution industry? Trade Unions are being infiltrated by sex industry lobby groups and unfortunately, it seems some people are easily persuaded that it is acceptable and normal for a whole class of people to be fo sale to the other half of the population.

This is not normal. If we accept and condone the presentation of women as nothing more than objects in media, in advertising, in the sex industry on our high streets; then we cannot throw our hands up in surprise when women are treated as just that, as objects, in their workplaces, on the streets and in their homes.

Feminism has always been a revolutionary movement at heart. It has never sought equality with unequal men. It has always aspired towards a different version of social governance, one far away from the current patriarchal status quo; one where power is something shared amongst, rather than held over others. To me feminism is an intrinsically socialist movement, it is anti-racist, it is anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, it defends the environment and non-human animals, it is internationalist, self-critical and reflexive.

The Left in this country should be a natural ally for feminist campaigns and struggles, but if that is to happen then old stereotypes have to be broken. Stereotypes such as, that women’s issues should be put on the back burner while we fight the class struggle – as if women are not workers too – stereotypes such as, because patriarchy looks different in other countries we should be grateful we live here, where feminism is allegedly a bourgeois indulgence for women who presumably have it easy.

Unfortunately our collective enemies are always better at working together than we are and will join together to regress hard won rights and the most basic welfare standards that took far longer to build than they will to break. And in these times of ideological Tory cuts, we are witnessing a familiar push of women back into the home; as women are expected to do for nothing in their own homes, caring work they previously did for low pay outside the home.

Support services that exist today for women, children and men affected by violence and abuse were put in place by feminists in the 1970s and are now under threat.

Women’s refuges are closing their doors after thirty years of service, Rape Crisis centres are running on three month contracts, helplines and children’s services are being decommissioned. Because as usual, in recession the rights of those most oppressed are so often the first to go. Everything that our sisters fought and won is on the brink, and we cannot let it fall on our watch, because we have too much to lose; not just for women, never just for women, but for all of us; for the liberation of women and society – that is what my movement stands for; and it is your revolution too.

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