If you want to get ahead, get a head-shot–on a professional profile or a company website, your photo is not an optional extra. But why should women be obliged to put their faces on public display? It’s a recipe for sexism, says Debbie Cameron
Remember Charlotte Proudman? She’s the barrister who made headlines this year after a male lawyer commented on the ‘stunning’ photo that adorned her profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Her response was to shame him on social media, telling him that she didn’t appreciate being objectified in this way. The emphasis put on looks, she said, ‘silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject’.
Predictably, she was pilloried by the likes of the Daily Mail, which called her both ‘prim’ and a ‘feminazi’, but what Proudman was saying struck a chord with many women. For anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, it was déjà vu all over again, with men telling us that they were only being friendly and that most women enjoyed the attention (i.e., you feminists are just jealous), or plaintively asking what the world was coming to if a man couldn’t pay a gal a compliment without someone outing him as a lech on Twitter.
But there was one question nobody seemed to be asking. If a person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to the judgment of their professional attributes, why do people put photos on their LinkedIn profiles at all?
When I ask this question, I’m not trying to blame Charlotte Proudman for her own objectification. I’m not saying, ‘if she didn’t want men to fixate on her looks, all she had to do was not display her photo on her profile’. My point is the opposite: this is not really a free choice. And that’s one thing that makes 2015 different from 1970. In the age of the internet and the digital camera, it has come to be more or less taken for granted that your professional profile—whether on LinkedIn, on your company’s website, or on the announcement of the talk you’re giving next month at a conference on Facilities Management—will be accompanied by a picture of your face. If you don’t put a photo on it, your profile will look ‘unprofessional’ (LinkedIn profiles with photos get seven times more clicks than those without), and if you don’t agree to provide a photo on request you will be judged as eccentric, uncooperative and rude.
I know this because it happens to me all the time.
I am an academic: I belong to a professional community where in theory your looks could hardly matter less. (Male academics’ inattention to professional standards of dress and grooming is legendary: there’s even a popular website called Professor or Hobo, where the game is to guess whether you’re looking at a photo of an expert on string theory or a homeless person.) When I started my career, in the early 1980s, there was no demand whatever for photos of people like me. Photos were only for models and celebrities, not least because in those pre-digital days it required skill and fancy equipment to take a professional-quality photo, and you also had to send the film away to be developed.
Then, one day in the mid-1990s, a man knocked on the door of my office and announced he’d come to take my photo for a display of staff head-shots that was going to be put up on the departmental noticeboard. When I asked him why, he said it was a ‘customer care’ initiative to make the staff more accessible to students and visitors. ‘If there’s a picture of what you look like on the noticeboard they’ll know who you are’.
I pointed out that students already knew who their lecturers were: we were the ones on the podium in lectures, or in front of the whiteboard in classes. He said, ‘and what if someone wants to see you who isn’t in your class?’ I replied that a student in that position would probably do exactly what he’d just done: come to my office, and then proceed on the assumption that the person inside was the person whose name appeared ON THE DOOR.
But this snark got me nowhere: it was the first of many arguments on this subject I was destined to lose. Within a few years, the parade of staff mugshots on the departmental noticeboard had become the norm in every university. It’s a symbol of institutional approachability, and if you didn’t have one it would be like putting up a notice saying ‘in this department we’re remote, unfriendly bastards’.
Within a few more years, as the internet became the main medium for all kinds of communication, and digital images became ever simpler to produce and then reproduce, it also became the norm for people to expect photos with everything. Today, if I’ve been invited to speak at a conference, or visit a university abroad, or give a talk at my local bookshop, whoever’s doing the publicity will ask me not only for the traditional things (name, academic affiliation, title and brief description of my talk), but also for a picture of myself.
I have sometimes asked, ‘but why does it matter what I look like?’ Invariably, the answer I get is that of course the actual details of my appearance aren’t important, but being able to see my face makes it easier for people to relate to me. Or as one put it recently, ‘a picture makes you more relatable’. Being ‘relatable’ is now an obligation, a professional imperative if you want to be successful. And part of that imperative is to show your face.
You’re probably wondering why this bothers me so much. Am I hideously ugly? Exceptionally shy? No: and even if I were both, that wouldn’t be the point. My objection to the routine use of photos in professional contexts isn’t about the way it makes individual women feel. (Which is, of course, variable.) It’s a political objection: although it is rarely discussed as such, I think this is very much a feminist issue. It affects men and women differently, in ways that work to the disadvantage of women as a group.
It wouldn’t be true to say it doesn’t affect men at all. Everyone today has to pay attention to their self-presentation and ‘public image’. From the moment a teenager constructs her or his first Facebook profile, s/he’s engaged in the process of deliberate self-commodification for an audience with certain expectations. But while both sexes expect to be judged, and are liable to develop the kind of self-consciousness that entails, the standards are not the same for males and females, and nor are the consequences of failing to meet them.
I’ve mentioned Facebook, but Facebook isn’t really what I’m complaining about. On Facebook you can choose not to put your photo on your profile: many of my own friends use an image of something else entirely. You can also control who sees what you post. But in professional life, you don’t always have a choice, and you certainly don’t have the same control. I sometimes used to dodge the request for a photo by saying I didn’t have a suitable one; but what usually happened was that whoever it was just went off and found some random old photo on the web. If you’ve ever had an image of it publicly displayed, your face becomes a kind of permanent public property. And for women that can cause all sorts of problems.
The most obvious problem is the one Charlotte Proudman had: unwanted sexual attention in what’s supposed to be a professional context. Lest we forget, that’s the basic definition of sexual harassment. But because it’s happening at a distance, most often in the form of online verbal communications like comments on a woman’s profile or email sent to them directly, it’s rarely put in the same category as the classic form of workplace harassment where the harasser and the target work in close physical proximity.
Proudman’s experience was relatively mild: the unwanted attention didn’t escalate to explicit sexual propositions, or threats, or stalking. Those things do happen, though, and arguably they are more likely to happen if your profile displays your face than if it merely displays your CV. The trouble is that for women, being ‘relatable’ is often a euphemism for being sexually available. The question isn’t whether men can relate to your views on best practice in accountancy, it’s whether they’d like to relate to you in a more intimate way. If they think you’re attractive you’ll get comments, and if they don’t you may get comments of a different kind.
Judging by appearances is not just something harassers do. Research suggests we all do it. People who are ‘good looking’ by the prevailing standards of their culture get hired more easily, promoted more quickly and earn more than their less attractive peers. As a broad generalization this applies to both sexes, but if you look at research on the way career prospects are affected by specific aspects of appearance—in particular, whether you’re fat, skinny or average—it becomes clear that the effects are both different and more severe for women. Putting photos on everything makes this kind of bias worse, if only because it kicks in sooner than it might otherwise: if a picture is the first thing someone sees, that will colour their judgment of the stuff that’s actually relevant. Actually, there’s research suggesting that ‘colour their judgment’ is an understatement. According to one study,
recruiters spend 19% of their time on your online profile looking at your picture. Not as much time is spent on your skills or past work experience. Therefore, your picture plays a big role in whether you’re able to interest a recruiter enough to reach out to you.
The use of profile pictures also facilitates other kinds of discrimination, since a photo reveals not only a person’s sex, but also their race and their approximate age.
Advice on what constitutes a ‘good’ profile picture makes clear that the expectations are not gender-neutral. Men are told to present themselves in a suitably professional way. This will probably involve tidying whatever hair they’ve got on their head, shaving (or trimming their facial hair) and wearing a collar and tie. For women it’s more complicated. You’re expected to be ‘well-groomed’, which means, in the words of one site, ‘appropriate make-up and jewellery’, and you must combine looking professional with not looking ‘unapproachable’ (severe, bossy, intimidating). These demands mean you have to pay attention not only to what you wear, but to every nuance of your posture and facial expression. Should you smile or look serious? What kind of pose, or gaze, will make you look approachable but not too girly? And of course, you worry that whatever you decide, you’ll be judged and found wanting. Because you’re a woman, and that means everyone feels entitled to judge the way you look.
Once I was interviewed for a Sunday newspaper, and they sent a professional photographer to take some pictures. His most ‘successful’ shot showed me in profile; he explained that in his expert opinion a standard full-face shot would not flatter me. At the time, I didn’t resent him telling me that: I figured it was his job to make those judgments. But later, I wondered: would he have said the same if I’d been a man? In that case I think he’d probably have taken the full-face picture, because he wouldn’t have cared so much about whether the shot was ‘flattering’. You can show a man the way he is: you can look for the individual personality in his face. With a woman, though, it’s assumed that what you should do is make her look more conventionally attractive, which may also mean less individual. It’s also assumed that she will want that.
I do resent it when I get random blokes on Twitter telling me how ugly I look in my profile photo. Or advising me, as one once did, that I should cut my fringe and use better hair products. I think: what’s it to them? They don’t know me personally; Twitter isn’t a dating site, and I haven’t made my appearance the subject of a poll. Yet they seem to take what they see as its shortcomings very personally. As if my lack of attention to what they consider proper standards of grooming were a calculated insult that they can’t allow to pass.
The photo I use on Twitter is a drastically cropped version of an ineptly-taken selfie, and I don’t use it for professional purposes: since it doesn’t show me looking ‘professional’, it isn’t suitable for putting on a poster or a university website. The photo that does appear on my department’s website is less casual, but so out of date, you could probably sue it for false advertising. And as I write that, I realise it’s not just a figure of speech: in professional and public contexts, these endless head-shots basically are a form of advertising, with you as the product.
In the final analysis, I think that’s what bothers me most—not just that I’m expected to sell myself, but that I’m expected to do it in the way women always have, by using my looks. And however women look, there’s a price to pay for that: a ‘stunning’ photo will get you objectified, while a not-so-stunning photo will get you sneered at. No photo at all will get you a rep for being snotty, or out of touch with the self-promotional demands of the 21st century world.
Meanwhile, men who look like the ones on ‘Hobo or Professor’ just upload their warts-and-all images and then forget it. They know they have more important things to advertise; we are constantly reminded that we don’t.
Maddy Coy reviews Alison Phipps’s book The Politics of the Body, and finds it partial in both senses of the word
By Alison Phipps’s own account, her book The Politics of the Body sets out to ask ‘questions about how contemporary discussions of issues to do with women’s bodies reflect how we conceptualise embodiment’. Each chapter picks out a particular issue, or set of issues, relating to this general theme: the topics examined are sexual violence, gender and Islam, the politics of the sex industry and the reproductive regimes of birth and breastfeeding.
On the plus side, it’s good to see a feminist book that’s critical of the way neoliberalism has normalised ‘the politics of personal responsibility’ and conferred feminist status on any choice a woman makes, regardless of the constraints of social structure. It’s good to see someone examining discourses and debates around women’s bodies, and drawing on academic research to support, or dispute, what have become normative frameworks at best and incontestable truths at their most divisive. But it’s disappointing and frustrating to see this much-needed analysis marred by blind spots, misunderstandings and a thorough, seemingly deliberate hatchet-job on radical feminism.
For me, the book’s best and most accessible chapter is the last one, on birth and breastfeeding – the ‘new reproductive regimes of truth’. How, Phipps asks, has the ‘natural’ become so idealised, often robbing women of medical, technological advances that have made modern motherhood less painful and frankly, more convenient? When practices of attachment parenting and ‘the breastfeeding mafia’ are both lauded and decried by the mainstream media, even to suggest that there might be a place for epidurals, caesareans and formula milk as means for women to reclaim and re-inhabit a maternal body is no small stake in the ground.
Not that this is necessarily Phipps’ aim: rather she presents a careful argument about how choosing a ‘normal’ birth and the ‘self-sacrifice’ of breastfeeding is inextricably linked to privilege. In ‘attempt[ing] to apply the principle of intersectionality’, she calls out the way campaigns, initiatives and organisations that promote less intervention and ‘normal’ birth have become yardsticks by which to judge, as ill-informed and selfish, the choices made by the working class and minority women who are more likely to opt for pain relief and formula feeding. She unpicks the gender essentialisms behind these maternalist ideals, and how they have pushed women’s bodily autonomy aside in favour of ‘prescribed practices’. Never mind that research shows most women experiencing some form of ‘birth trauma’ have had ‘normal’ deliveries, or the inconsistencies in the evidence base on the benefits of breastfeeding. She points out that ‘only women who know they are able to give birth safely are able to reject the trappings of technology’, thus making a structural link with the romanticisation of natural birth in many parts of the world where there is little or no access to medical care. This, as she astutely observes, illustrates the ‘shift from rights to choices’.
Nor does the merchandising industry that has sprung up around managing labour pains, aiding ‘natural’ birth, breastfeeding and kangaroo care-style attachment parenting, escape her forensic gaze. How neat that a movement supposedly empowering women to do what comes naturally requires relentless consumerism! Here Phipps identifies the way feminist goals have been co-opted by a neoliberal fetishization of personal responsibility. It’s the kind of incisive analysis many feminists will have been hoping for.
The chapter on sexual violence also starts promisingly, with a critical account of the controversies that swirl around Julian Assange, his refusal to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, and the similar defences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Roman Polanski. The lefties who vocally supported Assange are painstakingly exposed. That powerful men have been allowed to abuse women with impunity has perhaps never been so publicly evident than at present, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations and the arrests of various celebrities. Phipps shows that responses to Strauss-Kahn, Polanski and Assange were similarly revealing, and she distils these cases to explore ‘rape apologism’.
However, I am less than convinced by her argument that a central problem on the left is ‘an assumption that left-wing men are above misogyny’—not because I doubt that this assumption exists, but because it elides sexual violence with men’s hatred of women rather than their abuse of power. Some left-wing men might well be misogynists, but as feminists have long known, they can also be capable of abusing gendered power in ways that jar with their awareness of classed power. In this chapter on sexual violence (and the politics of victimhood), men’s entitlement to women’s bodies is discussed only once, with reference to Adrienne Rich, when surely it is central to any understanding of how all of these men were variously excused and idealised. Nor is there any reference here to the huge body of feminist work (much of it radical feminist) which relates to the debate on victimhood. It was after all Kathleen Barry who introduced the concept of ‘victimism’ in 1979 in her book Female Sexual Slavery.
Phipps does explore how the women abused by these men were interrogated by the media and found wanting, and links this insightfully to the way choice, agency and personal responsibility have come to dominate understandings of human behaviour. Yet her passing concern at how little attention is paid to the choices and agency of perpetrators is mirrored by the chapter itself. The argument here that only women’s choices have been ‘responsibilised’, especially with respect to sexual violence, leaves an echoing silence about men’s actions. The chapter ends with an ambivalent account of the controversy surrounding ‘Slutwalks’, celebrated as an initiative that rejects victim-blame and personal responsibility, but criticised at least in part because of concerns voiced by Black women about the racialisation of the term slut.
In the end, this chapter felt like a missed opportunity – a set of expectations raised and dashed, not least because of the sledge-hammer approach to radical feminism, which is repeatedly accused of an unholy alliance with neoconservative moralism, and used as the scapegoat for the deep suspicion with which left wing movements now regard victimhood.
Radical feminism: an enemy within?
In a book where every assertion is meticulously referenced, a strange and telling absence is the total lack of any reference to sources when repeating the assertion that radical feminism has embraced a ‘neoconservative gender essentialism’. So striking is this absence that it comes to define the author’s point of view. The refrain that there is a ‘convergence of radical feminism with neoconservative and neo-conservative law and order agendas’ is sprinkled throughout the entire text, sometimes on almost every page. In a couple of places ‘trafficking’ is invoked as an example of this alliance, but with no specific examples (of campaigns, support services or research) which might substantiate the point. In a book of this scope and potential, containing a thoughtful and sophisticated discussion of how neoliberalism and neoconservatism are defined and understood, it’s a pity Phipps fails to offer readers even the most basic definition of a strand of feminism that she repeatedly vilifies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this omission is deliberate, for fear of giving radical feminist politics any intellectual legitimacy. Instead she reinforces every stereotype and myth (I’m sure you can reel them off without too much thought) in ways which ultimately diminish the intellectual integrity of her own position.
Taken at its most basic, radical feminism identifies men’s privilege over women as the root of women’s inequality, exercised particularly through entitlement to women’s bodies, and thus many activists on violence against women and girls trace the way we understand violence back to radical feminism. Many of the issues she engages with in the book – sexual violence, prostitution, crimes in the name of honour – owe their public profile to these very activists and the framings they use.
This is not to question the legitimacy of critiquing any political position, or the need to challenge the ways in which intersections with race and class have been less prominent than they should have been in some aspects of radical feminist theory and practice. But there is a disconnection throughout this book from the grassroots feminists who work on violence against women and girls. At times this is more of a shadow cast by the now familiar refrain about radical feminists jumping into bed with neocons, but it is also explicitly articulated, nowhere more obviously than in the chapter on gender and Islam.
For instance, Phipps insists on using the term ‘female genital cutting’ (linking the word ‘mutilation’ to an ‘Orientalist framework’) and when she uses the full term ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM), she adds ‘[sic]’ to distance herself from it. There are interesting and legitimate debates about the meanings of the word mutilation, and particularly what it means for women who have undergone this form of violence to be labelled ‘mutilated’. Some use the term FGM/C to denote the complexities of finding language that does not alienate whilst also naming and defining. I would have welcomed discussion of this. But five seconds on the Internet would have told Phipps that many of the grassroots women’s organisations who specialise in campaigning against FGM (e.g. FORWARD, Daughters of Eve), led by women from practising communities who identify as survivors, use the term ‘mutilation’. This links the procedure to other forms of violence against women and girls. By insisting on using the term ‘cutting’ instead of ‘FGM’, Phipps manages at one stroke to decouple FGM from VAWG, placing herself at odds with international human rights approaches, and inadvertently slipping into both cultural relativism and colonial feminism.
It jars more than slightly for a privileged academic (Phipps refers to herself as ‘a white, western, able-bodied and cisgendered woman married to a man, living a fairly conventional middle-class lifestyle’) to reject the language that activists from the most respected and prominent NGOs use to frame the experiences of women in communities that practice FGM. I found myself wondering if Phipps deliberately rejects this framing because she views these organisations and survivors as under the umbrella of the radical feminists who are in turn in thrall to neocon law-and-order agendas. If so, then this example illustrates another way in which the intellectual positioning of this book, and Phipps’ wilful misrepresentation of radical feminism, leaves her arguments circulating within the rarefied sphere of the academy and totally detached from contemporary activism.
Not only is the term ‘female genital cutting’ used in this chapter, but the similarly problematic ‘wife-beating’ (with no ‘[sic]’ to suggest that it is someone else’s term with which she disagrees). There is a short section in this chapter on constructions of honour killing, which succinctly addresses the ways in which ‘culture’ (conflated with Islam?) is used as justification and explanation, whilst the motivations of ‘white’ men who kill women are not attributed to notions of honour. However, once again, to devote less than a page to violations of women’s bodies in a chapter of this potential scope, and instead spend most of its space on veiling, is wholly inadequate. What the key issues are for a political sociology of women’s bodies with respect to Islam depends on perspective; in the media it is indeed about veiling, and the contentions around ‘banning the burqa’. For those of us in the VAWG sector, there are deeper questions about the violations of women’s bodies, and representations of the Black woman’s body in relation to honour-based violence. There is, of course, a broad argument made here about the challenges facing feminism. But language matters, and ideas matter, and Phipps has chosen to position herself at one remove from specialists in the field and from many feminist activists.
The chapter on the sex industry reinforces this. Trafficking is only referenced in relation to that now rather tired old refrain about rad fems cheering on neocon rescue industries, a charge levelled at feminist organisations providing support to women who have been trafficked. Elsewhere, this slur is more insidiously used to suggest that such NGOs exaggerate the extent of trafficking. Again, my point here is not that the notions of rescue do not feature in the framings used by some of those that support victims of trafficking. I would have welcomed a discussion unpicking and evidencing this. Unfortunately, Phipps manages to problematise critical feminist perspectives on trafficking while providing no evidence for what is often a lazy pejoration.
The main thrust of this chapter, however, is a deconstruction of the ways in which arguments about women’s agency have been used to make the voices and experiences of the most privileged women in the sex industry the loudest. The wonderful term ‘sex work glitterati’ is deployed to great effect, exposing again how the appearance of cool liberalism privileges women who already enjoy social and economic capital, yet have become the ‘authentic’ voice of the sex industry. There is brief acknowledgement of how structural inequalities result in women choosing to commodify their bodies, which is then plated with a seemingly impenetrable veneer of voluntarism. The gendered asymmetry of prostitution is recognised, and ‘whorephobia’ – an accusation levelled noisily at most of us who critique the social institution of the sex industry – is identified as an example of the ‘politics of recognition’ which chooses to ignore structural inequalities.
So why might this otherwise trenchant critique be so disquieting? The first reason is relatively superficial – she insists on using the term ‘sex work’ throughout, language inextricably associated with the position that she critiques, rarely used by women in the sex industry (except by the ‘sex work glitterati’ that she discusses) and of course rejected by those of us with a more critical engagement. Secondly, in the binary of philosophically incompatible positions that Phipps discusses – sex radicals who celebrate the empowering potential of the sex industry and radical feminists for whose position she provides no explanation – she draws entirely on sex radical writing and research. Fair enough for a chapter aiming to interrogate this position. But it seems disingenuous to write a chapter on the politics of the sex industry which does not acknowledge any of the feminists who have for decades developed our thinking and empirical knowledge about it. It effaces our history, doubly so because it allows her to claim radical feminists’ arguments as her own.
Let us take a couple of her examples. (1) Evidence of trauma in ‘sex work’ – referenced to her own review of literature on this, not the radical feminist-inspired original research by Melissa Farley and her colleagues. (2) Failure of sex radicals to make the link between wider commodification of women’s bodies, especially in heterosexual exchanges? I can think of several pioneering – and radical – feminists who first put forward these very arguments. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Sheila Jeffreys all developed analyses which linked heterosexuality, the social institution of marriage, women’s economic dependence and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Yet they are invisible here.
We all build on the work of others, of course, and sometimes we may be unaware of some of these influences and omit to credit those who first say new things. However, combined with the constant belittling of radical feminism, the omission here seems less the self-absorption of which we can all be guilty and more a conscious attempt by Phipps to make the work of those with critical views of the sex industry invisible, and thus unimportant. I think of my students, who might take this chapter as a measured and balanced discussion of feminist politics on prostitution, and how they might finish it with no sense of the richness and complexity of radical feminist critiques; instead they will have a fist full of references for writers on the sex industry from a different position, and be left with a completely unbalanced view of the history and present shape of this debate. A deeper analysis would have considered the argument that there is nothing ‘sex radical’ about accepting that men need access to the bodies of the world’s poorest women and girls for sexual release. Phipps seems again unable to critique men’s actions and the choices they make to use women’s bodies.
As a treatise on how progressive movements, with progressive goals, have been co-opted by neoliberal agendas, this book will be a thought provoking and uncomfortable read for many. Phipps identifies some hugely important questions, not least the problem for feminism of figuring out how it got itself into a kind of ideological impasse: caught between a libertarian position, which holds to questionable notions of agency, and an experiential position which runs the risk of being cast as moralistic and authoritarian. The disappointing thing is that Phipps herself reinforces this dichotomy, uncritically reproducing the caricature version of a materialist feminism which is at the root of most activism around violence against women. For those of us that locate our politics of the body in radical feminism, however loosely, this book will cause discomfort because of the way it dismisses or misrepresents our thinking and political activism.
Alison Phipps, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Polity Press, 2014.
Earlier this year we reprinted an article by Jalna Hanmer, first published in 1996, about the state of feminist archives in the UK. The piece included an account of the successful feminist campaign to prevent the break-up of the Fawcett Library collection and the proposed cherry-picking of historically ‘important’ texts by the LSE in 1976. Despite this important achievement, now nearly 20 years ago, the Fawcett collection has finally been acquired by the LSE. In this update, Jalna reflects on this outcome, reviews the current state of feminist archives, celebrates the achievements of the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network, and rearticulates the need for feminists to be more proactive in preserving our own history.
Feminist and Women’s Libraries and Archives have some good news to report, but the story is not an entirely happy one, as this article will reveal.
Amongst the most positive developments is the setting up of the UK Feminist Libraries and Archives Network (FLA) in February 2014: The first task which FLA has embarked on is to locate all the feminist and women’s libraries and archives in the UK. This process is an ongoing project, and faces significant challenges as it relies on individual women, or those groups already involved in FLA, identifying relevant resources. A major reason for these difficulties is that in the move of the Women’s Library from London Metropolitan University to LSE, a valuable resource, Genesis, was deleted. Genesis was a free online resource for women’s history containing a catalogue of archive, library and museum collections across the British Isles and a guide for women’s history researchers.
There were a number of early participants in FLA, including Unfinished Histories, the Women’s Liberation Music Archive, the Nottingham Women’s Centre Library, Archif Menywod Cymru, Glasgow Women’s Library, the Feminist Archive North & South, and the Feminist Library in London. Here is a brief account of each of these archives, with links for further information:
Unfinished Histories, the history of alternative theatre in Britain, 1968-88, through interviews and the collecting of archive material from innovative individuals and companies involved: www.unfinishedhistories.com
Women’s Liberation Music Archive records and celebrates the wealth and diversity of feminist music making in the 1970-80s. It has a substantial web presence and keeps its archive of physical objects in the Feminist Archive South in Bristol: www.womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk
Nottingham Women’s Centre has a growing feminist and LGBT library from the 1970s onwards with archival material that is both specific to Nottingham and from around the country. The library catalogue can be viewed here: http://cloud.collectorz.com/nws/books
Archif Menywod Cymru / Women’s Archive Wales, founded in 1997 aims to raise the profile of women’s history in Wales. It promotes projects to seek out documents and to record people’s memories for present and future generations. The photographs and documents are deposited in the county archives throughout Wales and the National Library of Wales: www.womensarchivewales.org
Glasgow Women’s Library is a lending and reference library, an archive and accredited museum. It works across Scotland and houses Scottish and UK materials including the Lesbian archive. It is an award winning fully independent enterprising charity with 22 staff working with 100 volunteers each year: www.womenslibrary.org.uk
Feminist Archive North and South, located in Leeds and Bristol universities, houses national and international collections relating to the history of feminism from the late 1960s to the present day. They include documents relating to the many issues and activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement, including oral histories, film, banners and badges. www.feministarchivenorth.org.uk www.feministarchivesouth.org.uk
The Feminist Library in London, run entirely by volunteers, is a large collection of Women’s Liberation Movement material, mainly dating from the late 1960s onwards. It contains over 7,000 books, including 2,500 works of fiction, poetry and drama, 1500 periodical titles from around the world, archives of feminist individuals and organisations. Our collections of pamphlets and ephemera are now housed at the Bishopsgate Institute: www.feministlibrary.co.uk
In addition to this, there is a growing list of interested groups and individual women in FLA, including two new feminist collections in Liverpool and Sheffield, but a major missing participant is the Women’s Library, a funded national archive on women, which includes the 19th century Fawcett suffrage collection along with more recent collections, currently housed at LSE.
The Women’s Library
In my article, Taking Ourselves Seriously, first published in 1996, and recently republished on the T&S website, I wrote of a historic moment in 1976, when feminists achieved an important victory in preventing the break-up of the Fawcett collection with a view to ‘important’ books being culled for inclusion in the Library at the LSE.
It is with great regret, therefore, that following the recent move of the Women’s Library from London Metropolitan University to the LSE, they have not replied to the invitation to participate in FLA. This is a cause of major concern for the following reasons:
The move from the London Metropolitan University to the LSE was resisted by many women who feared its open access and other resources would be eliminated. LSE has a history of an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Fawcett suffrage collection dating from 1976 which is one part of the background to women’s concerns.
While at the London Metropolitan University, near Aldgate tube, access was easily available. All could walk in without prior notice, look at the extensive exhibitions, go to the café, read part of the collection on open access and request other items in the reading room. All of this changed with the move to LSE. Now one must register for access to the Women’s Library, limited to three months unless you have donated material when it is for one year. Women with children, the under 18s, and other groups who frequented the previous location cannot get in at all. The exhibition area is greatly reduced but accessible without registering, no café, limited material on open display, and other items must be requested in advance. However, once in the Women’s Library, the staff is friendly and helpful.
While this access to material is standard archival practice, the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University promoted open access and continued to add current material from women and groups. At this point the accession policy at LSE is unknown, but a question is whether it is as extensive as before. The Women’s Library, once having registered, is on the 4th floor of the library and there is still no meeting room for events. While LSE could have obtained the purpose-built facilities from London Metropolitan University, this was rejected.
An example of changing access was the official opening event at LSE in March 2014. 300 people were invited and many more were not allowed to attend. There was a demonstration and a leaflet produced which was handed out to invitees, including the keynote speaker, Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While she referred positively to the leaflet in the opening event, none of the points raised in this leaflet have received a reply.
The achievements of the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network
The FLA network has agreed ambitious aims to work together on a series of goals. These are both internal to the network and directed at a wider audience. The goals include:
- Improving communications between feminist and women’s libraries and archives as a means to develop and strengthen connections within the network
- An outcome of improved communication to promote mutual support and the sharing of knowledge and expertise
- Working together to provide a platform to reach a wider audience and to highlight the importance of feminist and women’s libraries and archives
- Collective action through establishing a network to ensure continuity
FLA also plans to create and maintain links with other women-friendly archiving projects which chronicle progressive social movements and the wider feminist activist community
The initial activities of FLA included the creation of a directory of feminist and women’s libraries and archives as a resource for FLA and external audiences. A first issue of the Directory with 48 entries was published in October 2014, but awaits funding to be updated and reprinted. We also held regular events for networking and knowledge sharing. FLA meetings are held every four months, mainly at Nottingham Women’s Centre. FLA also held a session on feminist libraries and archives at the 2014 Feminism in London Conference. We intend to grow the planning group with more women and feminists who will share in developing this network. FLA has a website: www.feministlibraryandarchives.wordpress.com and a twitter account: @networkFLA
A matrix to establish the current state of the libraries and archives participating in FLA is being processed. With the exception of Glasgow Women’s Library, participant organisations in FLA are volunteer-led and unfunded with some universities offering support through premises and other aspects. Questions are being asked about financial sustainability, volunteers, staffing, digitisation, the environment for collections and resourcing, the building security, income generating activities, equipment, training programmes and governance. Major questions are how secure now and over time are feminist libraries and archives? What problems do they face? What are their needs? Where are the gaps? How serious are these issues?
There are growing links with other networks in Europe and internationally. From the very beginning interest in FLA was expressed by countries outside Europe, including Japan and Turkey. Atria, formerly IIAV, the oldest women’s library and archive in Europe, is holding an 80th anniversary conference in December 2015 which FLA participants plan to attend and contact is being made with WINE, the Women’s International Network Europe.
While these achievements, including links with international libraries and archives, are heartening, the non-involvement of the Women’s Library in FLA is a major obstacle affecting the coherence and comprehensiveness of women’s archives in the UK.
The Future – How will Women’s History be Maintained?
Who cares about women’s past? Those who have studied any history know that there is little about women. It is his story. Why should we think it will be any different in the future? The past offers no examples of serious collecting other than through women’s efforts. If we want women’s history of activities on behalf of women, through groups, organisations and campaigns to improve the position of women individually and in society, it is up to us.
Taking ourselves seriously involves collecting, donating, volunteering, financially supporting and keeping up to date on women’s libraries and archives. They have websites and welcome those who express interest. Nothing is forever and marginal groups, women’s libraries and archives in the voluntary sector, are especially vulnerable. Your interest and help are needed.
FLA is concentrating on setting up the organisational structure and continuing to implement the manifesto. If any reader knows of a library or archive collection that could be approached by FLA or would like more information or would like to be involved in any way, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party has sparked heated discussion amongst feminists about whether or not the new Labour politics is good news for women. Here we publish two pieces which take opposing views of this question.
Cartoons by the amazing Angela Martin.
The rise of the dick-swingers?
Rahila Gupta argues that knee-jerk feminist anti-Corbyn reactions are unwarranted and misplaced.
Feminists of all persuasions seem to be divided about whether or not the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a blessing or a curse for women, and much of the negative reaction seems to come from a historical suspicion of the male left. However, I have been particularly dismayed by the kneejerk reaction of some radical feminists to the rapid ascent of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to the Labour leadership and shadow chancellorship, who have portrayed this phenomenon as ‘the rise of the dick-swingers’. As far as I am concerned, the recent outcome of the labour leadership election, and the debate that has accompanied it, is one of the most exciting developments in the last 40 years and has enthused me about British parliamentary politics in a way that I didn’t think possible. But this enthusiasm hurts, accompanied as it is by the fear that this challenge to the consensus may be strangled at birth. We have seen how the powers that be in Europe have attempted to stunt the growth of Syriza and Tsipras. The knives are out for Corbyn from every possible direction – the media, the Tories and apparently most of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The last thing we need is for feminists to jump on this bandwagon. Some of the anti-Corbyn positioning, from radical and socialist feminists alike, is predictably about the jobs (or lack of) for women in the shadow cabinet. Whilst I agree that there should be visibility, equal opportunities and representation for women, surely we should go beyond identity politics and also be asking questions about the policies espoused by the women we choose. I voted for Corbyn and Watson as his deputy on the basis of their record and their politics. Watson was like a hound dog in his determination to expose child sexual abuse in the Westminster elite and holding the Murdoch empire to account. None of the women inspired a similar confidence although I would have dearly loved to give one of them my vote. When the first four shadow cabinet jobs were announced, they had all gone to men, so the clamour grew about this being the same old left politics. When the entire cabinet appointments were announced and slightly more than half were given to women, this was still not enough to please the naysayers.
Radical feminists have been particularly vocal in their anti-Corbyn commentary, arguing that that his decision not to appoint a woman to any of the four top positions is indicative of how he intends to engage (or rather, not to engage) with feminist concerns. I actually buy Corbyn and Mcdonnell’s view that foreign affairs being perceived as more important than health or education (both these portfolios went to women) is a colonial hangover when Britain is playing a much smaller role in the world. This is the NEW politics. Given the mountain that Corbyn has to climb to build party unity, two of the jobs were kept by Blairites (Hilary Benn and Lord Falconer) who were already in post. John McDonnell, who became shadow chancellor, is absolutely the best person for the job. As MP for Hayes and Hillingdon where Heathrow airport is located, he is indefatigable in his support for refugees and immigrants both at an individual and at a policy level. He is in tune with Corbyn, perhaps even more left-wing than him and if he were to ever become chancellor, I can think of no other person in Parliament who would make the funds available to implement some of the most ambitious pledges to end austerity and deal with violence against women.
Much of what I have seen from feminists appears to be based on ignorance of his policies for women as laid out in his Working for Women document. Here are just a few of Corbyn’s pledges:
- Work towards providing universal free childcare
- Recognise women’s caring roles through tax and pension rights
- Reverse the cuts in local authority adult social care and invest in a national carers strategy, under a combined National Health & Care Service
- Properly fund Violence Against Women and Girls Services and make it easier for women to be believed and get justice.
They want to restore cuts in legal aid which have massively damaged women’s access to justice and ensure that women asylum seekers get proper access to health services. Dawn Foster has written about the potential for positive impact of Corbyn’s policies on women on the Open Democracy site at length so I won’t rehearse all the arguments here. We know how austerity has disproportionately affected women and none of the other Tory-lite candidates had much to say about it until they were pushed to a more progressive position by Corbynmania. By pushing the knife into Corbyn, feminists are damaging their own best interests.
That is not to say that there is nothing to worry about in Corbyn’s pro-feminist politics. I have written about the gaps in his manifesto, namely around religious fundamentalism and the sex industry. I attended a hustings at Ealing Town Hall in August in order to challenge him about these issues. As I was there as a journalist, I didn’t get to ask any questions in the hall. Fortunately, a colleague, Sukhwant Dhaliwal from Southall Black Sisters (SBS) urged him to make a statement against religious fundamentalism because it was antithetical to human rights, rocked the foundations of democracy and had a devastating impact on women. He gave an untypically woolly answer saying, ‘we’ve all got views on this’ and invited SBS to contribute to the document.
However, we spotted him outside the hall and detained him for further questioning much to the unhappiness of his son and campaign manager. Apparently an ear infection had temporarily affected Jeremy’s hearing and he had not quite heard the question on religion. He made it clear that he was a secularist and saw no place for religion in politics or in the public sphere such as the provision of violence against women services. I have written about this trend elsewhere when the Home Office contract to POPPY for running a refuge for trafficked women was handed over to the Salvation Army.
I asked whether he would pull the plug on funding faith schools which gave him pause for thought. He felt the system was too entrenched, that perhaps the answer was to deal with it through a change in admissions policy although he accepted that admissions could not tackle the inherently discriminatory nature of faith schools, their lack of commitment to gender equality and the absence of sex education and PHSE classes. He suggested that strengthening local education authorities and their role in defining and providing education in local areas could be another way of tackling this issue.
On the question of prostitution, Corbyn seemed open to persuasion. Niki Adams, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, delightedly claimed that Corbyn opposes the Nordic model which calls for the criminalisation of those who buy sex, the decriminalisation of prostituted women and the development of exit strategies for them. I have not seen any statements by Corbyn himself on it. The fear that Corbyn is typical of many men on the left who see it as ‘sex work’, a trade union issue and an industry which can be cleaned up with the right laws and proper implementation is justified. This is John McDonnell’s Achilles’ heel too. However, Corbyn agreed that without tackling demand, trafficking of women would increase, seemed concerned that the majority of women enter prostitution as children (average age of 15) and offered to meet with survivors of prostitution to talk further about the issues involved. We shall certainly take him up on that offer.
We need to engage with this new force in the Labour party not stand on the side-lines and throw brickbats at it.
After the revolution?
Delilah Campbell ponders the rise of Jeremy Corbyn: is it a triumph for feminism or the triumph of hope over experience?
Last week, I watched the fourth and final episode of the historian Amanda Foreman’s TV series The Ascent of Woman. The episode’s title was ‘Revolution’, and it traced a recurring pattern in the history of modern revolutions, from Paris in 1789 to Cairo in 2011. Women stand beside men (or sometimes in front of them) in the fight for freedom, only to be comprehensively sold out by the leaders of the new regime, who have no interest in the liberation of the female half of the human race: more often they are determined to prevent it. In France, the feminist Olympe de Gouges was executed during the Terror, and French women soon found their position redefined by the Napoleonic code, which was even more restrictive than the pre-revolutionary law. In Russia, Alexandra Kollontai was given the power to make a difference for a while, but ultimately she was removed from her position and forced into exile. Variations on this pattern have been repeated time and time again.
The ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party is hardly to be counted among the great revolutions of world history, but as I watched Amanda Foreman lay out her depressing thesis, I couldn’t help thinking that British feminists are enacting a miniature version of the same old story, enthusiastically supporting a male-led leftist coup without making that support conditional on any kind of commitment to meeting our political demands. Not that such a commitment would necessarily be honoured, of course, but in this case I’m embarrassed by how little feminists seem to expect, and how eager many have been to defend Corbyn whatever he does or doesn’t do.
I would not say I am anti-Corbyn, and I’m certainly not criticizing the feminists who voted for him in the Labour leadership election. Most of the feminists I know who voted did vote for him: though a couple preferred to support what they considered the best, or least worst, of the women candidates, Yvette Cooper, most felt that women’s interests would ultimately be better served by the anti-austerity politics which only Corbyn represented. What I’m ‘anti’ is the idea that feminists have a duty to act as cheerleaders for the new regime, and that we are not entitled to hold it to account when it acts in ways that do not serve our interests as we define them. For instance, all the feminists I know who voted for Corbyn also voted for Stella Creasy as deputy leader. It isn’t Corbyn’s fault that she wasn’t elected, but if he cared what feminists thought he should have offered her a decent job.
Also, while we’re on the subject of jobs, I’m afraid I don’t buy that line about health and education (portfolios he did give to women) being more important than those pompously named ‘Great Offices of State’ (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary). To me that sounds like a classic piece of spin, invented to do the same job as the hasty elevation of Angela Eagle when the media started shouting about the absence of women at the top. When that happened, feminists joined in with the chorus of ‘stop carping and give him credit for appointing a Shadow Cabinet that’s half women’. Sorry, but I don’t think feminists should give anyone points for that. Surely in 2015 we ought to be able to assume that any group of people appointed purely on merit will be approximately 50% female. We should cry sexism when that isn’t the case, not say ‘wow, congratulations’ when it is.
Before he was elected, Corbyn put out a policy document on women’s issues which has been positively received by many feminists, and which does tick some important boxes. But it doesn’t cover all the issues that matter to radical feminists, and those of us old enough to remember when the Left Corbyn grew up with had power—in local councils, in trades unions, in the Labour Party—have reasons for thinking we can’t just trust him to do what we consider the right thing. The sexual liberationism of Corbyn’s generation of leftist men has frequently brought them into conflict with radical feminists in the past, and there’s potential for that to happen again in future. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest ally and now his Shadow Chancellor, is a vocal advocate for legalizing the sex industry: how long before he tries to make that Labour policy? Corbyn himself was MP for Islington during the time when children in council care were being sexually exploited and abused. It’s not illegitimate for feminists to wonder what he knew, what he did, and what he thinks should be done about it now. But we’re told to keep quiet, because raising these concerns would be a gift to the Tory press; we’d just be helping to keep the heartless greedy bastards in government forever. And of course, no one wants to do that.
But does it really follow that our support for the Corbynistas has to be unconditional, our loyalty absolute? The Labour movement has been in the habit of depending on women’s (and other oppressed groups’) loyalty, reasoning that we have nowhere else to go. But that’s what’s so frustrating: women are not a minority, so why haven’t we created somewhere else to go? It’s noticeable, for instance, that more young women seem to have been galvanized by Corbyn’s campaign than have been inspired by the founding of a new Women’s Equality Party. So far, the WEP has looked pretty moderate and middle-of-the-road, but just as the Corbynistas have shaken up the Labour Party, so women joining the WEP en masse could redefine what it is about. It’s true that without proportional representation the WEP is doomed to remain electorally on the margins, but it could be to feminism what the Greens are to environmentalism (or what UKIP, unfortunately, is to racism)—a force that the mainstream parties must respond to in their own thinking and policymaking.
But I’m not really expecting that to happen. There has never been a feminist revolution: a revolution planned and led by women that put women’s interests front and centre. And there probably never will be, because not enough women would support it. Most women think it’s selfish and unfair to put their own interests ahead of men’s, and most still seem to believe that men are better equipped to lead. So we go on putting our faith in men, and we go on being surprised and disappointed when they do what we refuse to—put themselves first.
In the last two weeks, groups of ordinary people across Europe have declared ‘refugees welcome here’, and called on their governments to do more. But the particular problems faced by women are still going unacknowledged, and where policies do exist, there is a crisis of implementation. Women deserve better, says Jackie Turner.
Over recent months there has been increased media attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people attempting the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy or overcrowded boats. Many have no doubt paid a premium to unscrupulous smugglers; others will have fallen victim to people traffickers ready and willing to exploit their desperate need to flee war zones and other hostile and violent conditions at home. The media attention is welcome. It has exposed a serious humanitarian crisis although, regrettably, it has also exposed an EU leadership in disarray. Search and rescue missions are scaled down, and then scaled back up. Governments bicker about who is bearing the brunt of the financial burden and where these thousands of displaced people should go. There is ready conflation of refugees and migrants, people smugglers and human traffickers.
Even so, something is missing from all the coverage. What remains largely unreported and is absent from most policy responses is the particular plight of women and girls.
There is nothing new in this. Women are regularly written out of history or relegated to the footnotes; this despite decades of international, regional and national laws intended to promote the human rights of women. Violence against women, in particular, is acknowledged to be a consequence of inequalities between women and men. Yet amidst the extensive media reports of hardships at sea and the appalling loss of life, representations of women are few and far between, their voices rarely heard and their stories even more rarely told. Nor are they attracting much government attention.
Yet the women fleeing violence at home do not leave that violence behind them. It travels with them right up to and into countries of destination. And very often this is gender-based violence: violence against women because they are women. Such violence is all too prevalent in times of peace: domestic violence, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lives lived in the shadow of ‘honour’. In times of war violence against women, including rape and other sexualised violence, increases exponentially. It is an ever-present reality, in their homes, in refugee camps, during travel, at staging posts and in countries of destination.
Migration is a particularly hazardous undertaking for women, yet even here they are often hidden populations, viewed as a residual category of those ‘left behind’, or those crossing borders as dependent family members. Such notions do little to capture the complexities of women’s lives, the push factors which drive them from their homes, and the extent of the dangers and the dangerous masculinities they face every step of the way.
In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that almost four of every five people who have fled Syria in the last three years are women and children. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (2014) many end up in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, but many more live outside of formal camps. Here, social norms place restrictions on women’s mobility, leaving them less able to access humanitarian aid or engage in economically fruitful activity. If and when they do find paid work, they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by employers, just as they are vulnerable to sexual predation by landlords who demand more than rent if women are to keep a roof over their heads and the heads of their children. Sexual harassment means that mothers are afraid to send their daughters to school, resulting in girls being deprived of education. Yet women and girls in formal camps scarcely fare better. Sexual harassment and exploitation is again commonplace where women and girls are forced to exchange sex for aid, or where collecting water or visiting latrines is fraught with the dangers of sexual assault and rape.
Conflicts elsewhere in the region or in North and sub-Saharan Africa have forced countless more women from their homes, compelling them to embark on hazardous dessert and sea crossings. Here, the boat trip from Libya to Europe is just one more of the numerous dangers they face as they flee the armed conflicts in which they are held hostage to power struggles among men. Yet during flight they are confronted with other dangerous men and with the dangerous masculinities which dominate the trade in women. However much or little money they have is extorted, they may be sold en route, or forced to sell sex to pay for the next stage of the journey, while also facing gang- and multiple rape by fellow travellers and the men they have paid to secure their passage. There is invariably little food and water and certainly no safe and equal system for distributing what few resources are available. Pregnancy offers no protection against this violence and many women give birth to babies which result from rape.
These atrocities have been well documented by international NGOs and by UN bodies in current and previous wars. The international community is well aware of the disproportionate burdens women bear in armed conflicts and of the escalation of physical and sexual violence against them. It expressly gave voice to this in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000. Since then there have been a number of further related UN Security Council Resolutions and international events such as the 2006 International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond in which participating states vowed to ‘strengthen our shared commitment and action to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations’. In 2012, the former UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ (PSVI) with the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. The campaign aims to address the culture of impunity, prosecute more perpetrators and ensure better support services for survivors through greater international cooperation, and by increasing political will and the capacity of states to do more. It was followed in 2013 with the adoption by G8 Foreign Ministers of the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, subsequently endorsed by 155 countries. The Declaration recognises that violence against women is inextricably linked to inequality between women and men. It commits to offering no safe haven to perpetrators of sexual violence against women in war zones.
But what of safe havens for women? For those who do make it to the shores of Italy, some end up hidden away in detention centres. There, as Lauren Wolfe of the Women’s Media Centre, documents in her blog of 24 July 2015, these ‘missing women’ are illegally detained, often for weeks or even months with access to only the most basic levels of care and medical help. There is no sign of ‘better support services’ for these survivors, who have been traumatised by their experiences of violence and by the violence and deaths they have been forced to witness. Other women, living beyond the walls of detention centres, are often left with little choice but to engage in what the UN calls ‘survival sex’, while others again are forced into prostitution by their traffickers. Family members may be held hostage while women are required to sell sex to pay off debts accumulated during journeys to Europe but which, in fact, are never paid off. Women who had no choice but to face dangerous men and masculinities in countries of origin and in transit, are still having to contend with dangerous men and masculinities in countries of destination.
Women who come to the UK fare no better. Here, they face a tough and complex asylum regime which systematically discriminates against them, as Caroline Criado-Perez details in her new book ‘Do It Like A Woman – And Change the World’. Their stories of trauma, risk and threats are met with a ‘culture of disbelief’ among Home Office decision-makers. Even those who are eventually given asylum face an uncertain future. Leave to remain is frequently granted only for short, fixed terms and can be reviewed at any time. An early morning knock on the door, the sudden removal to a detention centre and brutal deportation are constant threats and realities for many women and their children.
For several decades now we have had international treaties, conventions, platforms for action, resolutions, directives, initiatives and campaigns to combat and prevent violence against women. But still it continues unabated, with no sign of any abatement in the culture of impunity which affords men their safe havens. The international community has long faced a crisis of implementation when it comes to taking effective and decisive action to end violence against women. The three pillars of Security Council Resolution 1325 – protection, participation and prevention – have a particularly hollow ring. But dangerous men and dangerous masculinities are not products of armed conflicts. Violence against women in times of war cannot be addressed without addressing violence against women in times of peace.
The time for rhetoric and lip service has long passed. Women facing and fleeing violence across the world deserve better. They cannot continue to be relegated to the ranks of ‘the missing’ or absent from media and policy debates. Their voices and their stories must be heard and the international community, as well as individual governments, must confront this crisis of implementation. It is time to stop passing paper laws and resolutions and, instead, to act with resolve. The crisis in the Mediterranian is a humanitarian crisis but it is also a gendered crisis. It is time to move from ‘aims’ to concrete actions. It is time to demand greater international cooperation and increased political will and it is time to demand safe havens for women.
Feminists who campaign on the issue of sexual violence against women and children, and those who work with survivors, are well aware that we live in a culture of disbelief, where accounts of rape, assault and child sexual abuse are routinely met with scepticism if not dismissed outright as lies, fantasies, exaggerations or misunderstandings. Believing survivors is an important feminist principle; combatting the culture of disbelief is an important political task. But there are some accounts of violence and abuse that even feminists may struggle to come to terms with.
In the early 1990s, Trouble & Strife was one of the few feminist publications that addressed the issue of ritual abuse. The discussions we had in the editorial collective were instructive, with those not involved in support work finding the issues raised difficult to contemplate. Our conversations were informed by the feminist principle of believing survivors, but much of what was being said seemed unbelievable: even some rape crisis groups struggled with the accounts that were emerging, despite their extensive knowledge about sexual violence. This is still an area of work that stretches our humanity – why would one want to believe that adults can abuse and torture children in such vile ways?
In the last few years, other kinds of accounts have emerged that seem to many people scarcely credible. It is alleged that senior politicians and other members of the British establishment attended sex parties where children were not only abused but in some cases actually killed. Following the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as, in the words of the police, a ‘serial sexual predator’, and the conviction of several other media figures on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, there has been a steady stream of fresh reports of so-called ‘historical abuse’ (a term which is contested by survivors, for whom the effects are ongoing, and also because some perpetrators of ‘historical’ abuse may still be abusing in the present). Believing these accounts means accepting that a seemingly extraordinary number of prominent men have committed serious sexual offences. It is one thing to believe that one man, Savile, was able to do this unchallenged for many years, and another to suggest that he was not an isolated case.
We do believe the accounts given by survivors. But we also think it is important to talk about the particular difficulty posed by accounts which are ‘extreme’, either because they report very extreme practices (such as ritual abuse and murder) or because they point to a problem whose sheer scale makes it difficult to take in (as with the current reports of ‘historical’ abuse). That difficulty is easily exploited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the culture of disbelief. But if we look back to the way this was done in the past, there may be lessons we can learn for the present and the future.
The denial of ritual abuse
What is it that makes stories more or less believable? Partly it is the context in which we hear them. When the first accounts of organised abuse, and in particular ritual abuse, emerged, the context in which they were heard was one in which public perceptions were coloured by an earlier controversy about (non-ritual) child abuse in Cleveland, where the professionals who had taken children out of their family homes to protect them from abuse were demonized, portrayed in the media as zealots who saw signs of abuse everywhere. What emerged in this context was a ‘formula story’ about ritual abuse that has been repeated in the media ever since, and appears impervious to any challenge. (Just this year, the BBC gave the journalist David Aaronovitch a slot on Radio 4 to repeat it yet again.) The story is that gullible professionals believed the unbelievable, and created a moral panic about children being abused by groups of adults who believed in some version of Satanism.
Bea Campbell has published several pieces which challenge this account, including a two-part refutation of Aaronovitch’s most recent intervention. She points out that in one case in Nottingham, which is frequently cited as proving the formula story, the adults involved were imprisoned for a total of 150 years; the accounts children gave of ritualised elements were corroborated by three other adults who were not charged. In another case in Orkney, the father of the family involved had already been convicted for what the judge called ‘sadistic and horrific’ abuse.
Purveyors of the formula story are fond of pointing out that no one has ever been convicted of ritual abuse—which is factually accurate since in law there is no such offence—but the adults in the Nottingham and Orkney cases, and others since, have certainly been convicted of child sexual abuse offences in court proceedings where ritual elements were explicitly discussed. Survivors have continued to approach agencies for support, with pretty much every rape crisis centre supporting women whose experiences echo those that began to be discussed in the 1990s. Over two decades, centres have built up an understanding of how best to offer support by working with women who have experienced ritual abuse.
But public disbelief, shored up by the repetition of the formula story, had consequences. By the end of the 1990s it had resulted in the withdrawal of the definition of ritual abuse in child protection guidelines. More recently a different framing has been accepted, but this relates specifically to the abuse of children in minority and migrant communities, where the media have reported cases of ritual abuse and even murder without displaying the incredulity they showed in cases where the perpetrators belonged to the majority ethnic group. The issue was taken up by the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith and Belief, which reported in 2012. Many safeguarding policies now reference this work, without being accused of stirring up moral panic.
Disbelief has also been suspended in the case of reports on the brutal forms of violence practised against women by men in groups like IS and Boko Haram. It seems behaviours deemed ‘incredible’ in the civilized West become credible when those accused belong to a group defined as Other and ‘uncivilised’.
This point is also relevant to another ‘extreme’ case in which initial disbelief and denial has now given way to a measure of acceptance: the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are recruited into a form of organized abuse using emotional manipulation (so-called ‘grooming’), and then controlled using violence, threats, alcohol and drugs. After a series of cases in towns including Rochdale and Oxford, the main story that has emerged about this phenomenon tends to emphasize the ethnicity of those involved, with much of the discussion focusing on the problem of Muslim men exploiting white, non-Muslim girls. Not only is this inaccurate (there have been many child sexual exploitation cases where the perpetrators were not Muslims), it obscures the links between this form of abuse and others which are talked about using a different set of terms.
The accounts which have been circulating for some years now, about prominent men abusing children at sex parties, are in fact stories about what we now call sexual exploitation. Clearly it is not a new phenomenon, nor one confined to certain minority communities. What recently went on in cheap hotels in Oxford was essentially the same thing that is alleged to have gone on decades ago in the upmarket surroundings of the Dolphin Square flat where establishment figures are said to have held their parties. The children who were brought to the parties appear to have been recruited from the same vulnerable population as the Oxford victims (e.g. children in local authority care), and the prominent men involved, like the ‘ordinary’ punters in the Oxford case, were paying other men for access to them.
But these similarities are obscured by the way the stories most often get told. In stories about contemporary sexual exploitation the focus is on the ‘grooming’ process and the ethnicity of the procurers; the media do not typically ask who their paying clients were, and who else facilitated their organized abuse (though in Oxford those arrested included the (white) owner of a bed and breakfast where some of this abuse had taken place). In stories about historical abuse by prominent men, by contrast, what is emphasized is primarily the men’s ‘establishment’ status, and secondarily the possibility that the establishment protected its own by covering up their activities. Questions about who procured their victims and what tactics they used to do it barely feature in the discussion. These appear to be stories about two different things, when really they are stories about the same thing, but located in different times and places and seen from different angles.
The angle from which cases were presented had a similar distorting effect on perceptions of ritual abuse in the 1990s. The stories that circulated were sometimes sensationalised (a tendency amplified in some cases by the involvement of fundamentalist Christians), and there was a preoccupation with questions about the adults’ beliefs and the nature of their rituals (were they really Satanists? Did their networks function as cults?) This made it easier than it might otherwise have been to deny that ritual abuse existed, since it stopped people from noticing the basic resemblance between the ritual abuse which survivors were reporting and other forms of organized abuse whose existence was not in doubt.
The principle of believing survivors means that feminists cannot just set aside those parts of their stories which seem bizarre and ‘incredible’, but our analysis also needs to make clear that these elements, which can easily become the main or only focus of attention, are not the whole story, or even necessarily the most important part of it. ‘Extreme’ cases have basic features in common with accounts of more ‘ordinary’ and familiar forms of abuse. To put it another way, they represent different points on the same continuum.
‘Historical’ abuse: the backlash
The concept of a continuum of sexual violence, first developed by Liz Kelly, was meant to give feminists a way of connecting the most everyday forms of abuse to the most extreme. In a book she wrote about ritual abuse in 2001, Sara Scott argued that feminists should have used this approach more systematically, connecting this new and seemingly alien set of practices to what was already known about other kinds of sexual abuse. The same applies to the current discussion of ‘historical’ abuse by prominent men.
In this case the question is not whether any prominent men have ever engaged in abuse, but whether their involvement is being overstated, or whether the issue has become entangled in dubious conspiracy theories. Clearly the abuse perpetrated by some prominent men cannot be denied. When investigation revealed the full extent of Jimmy Savile’s crimes, committed in numerous different locations over a period spanning decades, it became impossible to maintain that allegations against celebrities and public figures were simply not credible, and to dismiss anyone who made them automatically as a mischief-maker or a fantasist. At the time this seemed like a momentous and irrevocable shift in public attitudes. But a revisionist backlash has already begun.
This backlash trades on the idea that Savile’s case was unique—a case that is not difficult to make, since in some ways his career as an abuser really was exceptional. Not only was he a particularly dedicated and prolific offender who seems rarely to have passed up any opportunity to abuse, he also had—through the combination of his TV stardom and his charity work—an exceptional level of unmonitored access to powerless and vulnerable victims, from young girls participating in TV recordings to psychiatric patients. Savile has also been characterized in retrospect as ‘hiding in plain sight’—a reference to his overtly ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’ persona, which some commentators suggest should have prompted suspicion at a much earlier stage. (In fact there was no shortage of suspicion: the problem was that Savile was a National Treasure, and therefore regarded as untouchable.)
Emphasizing Savile’s uniqueness as the most extreme of the extreme opens up a space for sceptical responses when allegations are made against other celebrities and public figures. ‘Don’t compare X to Jimmy Savile, he’s [insert description of someone ‘normal’: a married man, a father of two, a dedicated public servant]’. ‘They can’t all have been at it: this is a witch-hunt/a conspiracy’. Or maybe ‘Yes, but those were different times: not everyone who had sex with a 15-year old was a serial predator like Savile’. And of course, ‘the Savile case has brought the crazies/the chancers out of the woodwork, making mad accusations so they can sell their stories to the papers’.
We also hear the argument that the police, embarrassed by their failure to act on Savile, have shifted overnight from a stance of blanket disbelief to one of utter credulity. The person who makes this argument often begins by acknowledging that in the past the police used to turn ‘genuine’ victims away, but then suggests it is equally deplorable that they will now believe whatever anyone chooses to tell them. Flimsy and implausible stories about things that allegedly happened 40 years ago are being used to persecute frail elderly men, or to tarnish the reputations of the dead.
Joining the dots
To counter this revisionism, it may be helpful to focus on what Savile did have in common with other men at the centre of historical abuse allegations, as well as what may have been different about him; and also on what links these cases involving the powerful and prominent with other cases which don’t attract the same attention, or the same incredulity.
One factor that is relevant here is the workings of impunity (a mixture of feeling entitled to engage in certain acts and feeling confident that you will never be held to account for them—they will be missed, ignored or condoned). We know that impunity is one of the things that allows sexual violence to flourish in contexts as apparently different as the private space of the family home, the conflict zones where military personnel engage in mass rape of civilians, and the parts of the world where women and girls are trafficked and sold or killed by criminal gangs (or groups like IS and Boko Haram). It is not unreasonable to extend that insight to the exclusive locations in western capital cities where powerful and wealthy men pay to engage in recreational child abuse.
Impunity may explain why some groups of men—those with the most power, whether it is exercised by force and terror or through money and influence in high places—seem to be over-represented among perpetrators of ‘extreme’ sexual violence and abuse. This is a point that gets overlooked in the ‘they can’t all have been at it’ argument, which implies that there is some sort of conspiracy to bring down the rich and famous. A group of men whose position gives them a strong sense of entitlement, and a belief that they need not fear the consequences of their actions, might be expected to have a higher rate of involvement in the most extreme and risky abusive practices.
In Jimmy Savile’s case the belief that he could act with impunity was well-founded: he was never held to account during his lifetime. If other men are to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrated in the past, it will be important to prevent the revisionist view, which portrays ‘historical’ abuse investigations as campaigns of persecution driven by moral panic or political conspiracy, from gaining the same influence as the formula story about ritual abuse. We can acknowledge that such extreme forms of abuse are uncommon, and that some of the details may be difficult to believe. But what we have to resist is the framing of extreme cases as both vanishingly rare and completely different from more ordinary forms of sexual violence. These are not unrelated phenomena, but points on a continuum. In both our analysis and our activism we must continue to join the dots.
In her new book Do It Like A Woman…And Change the World, the journalist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez tells the stories of women around the world who are fighting injustice and pushing against the limits their societies impose on them. In this extract from her book she talks to Meltem Avcil, a Kurdish woman she met at a demonstration protesting against the detention of women who claim asylum in the UK.
It all started for Meltem Avcil when she was four years old. She fled with her family from the village they lived in in Turkey. ‘I remember bits and pieces of village life,’ she says. ‘Women doing their chores; girls bringing tea.’ Her family were Kurds, and they faced persecution as a result. Like many refugees, Meltem and her family first fled to Germany – but they were refused asylum. They arrived in the UK when Meltem was about eight years old, finally being settled in Doncaster as the Home Office reviewed their case. Meltem attended school and dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Officials first arrived to take Meltem and her family from her home when she was eleven. ‘I knew what was happening,’ she tells me. ‘Because I was the only English speaker, so I was always on the phone to the solicitor. I knew what was happening. But, I wasn’t really aware… I was in between.’
By the time of their second detention when Meltem was 13, she wasn’t in between any more. She was fully aware and knew enough about the system to want to act as her mother’s translator. ‘The translators are… for some reason, I didn’t trust them. And I could translate properly, because I was sharing my mum’s pain.’ The pain of being blindfolded by Turkish police and being beaten until her ear bled and her eardrum burst, of being taken away from her home by soldiers at six in the morning and driven to a forest, of the ‘unsuitable stuff ’, the ‘ugly things’ that were done to her in this forest. I ask her about taking on this role when she herself was still so young. Meltem hesitates. ‘What else would I do in Yarl’s Wood? Go and play badminton? And pretend like everything’s OK when I’m locked up? I chose to be in it.’ She’s fiery now. ‘I chose to take my psychology and my mum’s psychology on me, so that I could be sure that something good would happen in the end.’
But despite Meltem’s translation of their story, they were not believed. They were collected at three in the morning from their cells. ‘That’s when they pushed my mum onto the ground,’ she continues. ‘They hit her face with the handcuff, they forced her up the aeroplane steps. They kicked her, they punched her. They kicked me, they punched me, they pinched me, and all the time, the immigration officer was saying to me and, keep in mind I was thirteen, “If you resist, if you shout, if you scream, we will tie your hands and legs, and no one will know.” He said this to me five times.’ Meltem pauses. ‘They handcuffed my mum and they put a towel over the handcuffs, because it’s not right to handcuff anyone who hasn’t done anything, right? And they kept on blackmailing me all the way [to the airport]. And a female officer said to me, “Oh you have your GCSEs this year, don’t you?” And then she started laughing.’
I ask her how she felt. Her answer sounds like calm panic. ‘I just had one thing on my mind: what can I do about this? I let them speak, I let them speak into my ear, so many mean things on the way, and I didn’t say anything. Because I was busy thinking of what to do, how not to go back to a country I’ve not grown up in and don’t know. I had so many questions going round my head: tomorrow, where am I going to be? What’s going to happen?’
As Meltem screamed for help, saying the guards were twisting her hands, her fellow passengers began to record the incident. The pilot stopped the plane and ordered the guards to remove Meltem and her mother, who were taken to the hospital. They were visited by the Children’s Commissioner and moved to Newcastle. A new home, a new school. More waiting, more whirling questions.
For six years Meltem was moved unceremoniously around the country, taken in and out of detention. She had to register with the police every week and each time was made to wait. ‘For them, it might be that they’re short on staff and they need someone to just bring out the paper and say, “OK, sign.” But for you, it’s a different thing. All the time you’re thinking, what’s going on, are they going to take me, are they going to deport me…’
Eventually, Meltem and her mother were granted indefinite leave to stay, but she is still haunted by her experience. ‘You know, I’m still in fear,’ she says. ‘When someone bangs on the door very hard, I will just shake.’ Meltem has a British passport but, she says, ‘I still think, can they take it away from me? Can they lock me up again?’ She tells me about a morning not long after they received leave to remain. ‘The door knocked really hard, really really hard and I jumped up, and I said, “Mum, is it them.”’ I can’t help noticing it’s not a question.
A culture of disbelief
Disbelief is not only a common theme in these women’s stories – it’s a common theme in the statistics too. Report after report finds a virulent strain of cynicism within the UK Border Agency (UKBA) that manifests as a ‘culture of disbelief ’. Things are so bad that an investigation was carried out by Asylum Aid specifically into the quality of decisions made by the Home Office on women asylum seekers. The report found that, on average, 28% of all initial Home Office decisions that went against asylum seekers were ultimately overturned on appeal; when it came to women asylum seekers, this figure shot up to 50%. Clearly, something isn’t working. Assessments of the credibility of the women whose applications are initially being turned down are repeatedly found to be inaccurate and ill informed. Put baldly, the UKBA officials don’t believe these women – and the ignorance and callousness displayed in the illustrative cases are shocking.
One case worker had never heard of the term ‘female circumcision’. Another decided on the basis of ‘an article from the American gossip website www.gawker.com’ that a lesbian from Uganda did not have any reason to fear the death penalty if she were returned. A woman who was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen, and who was abused by her father when she tried to return to her family home, was refused on the basis that she had remained in the marriage for thirteen years. This apparently proved that she was not at risk. A victim of sexual assault was asked if she had tried to stop a man from raping her. As if she had asked for it if she couldn’t physically prove that she didn’t want it. An Amnesty report found that photos of scars were not being accepted as evidence of torture. What price evidence in the face of this solid entity, ‘disbelief’?
Some of the decisions seem to move beyond ignorance to outright deceptive manipulation: one woman who feared ‘honour’ killing if she were returned to Iraq was refused asylum on the basis of a report that detailed the support available from local police. The very same report also detailed the danger of sexual assault such women faced from the police themselves if they approached them for help. Somehow, that factor was not considered relevant to the case.
Home Office officials have been told to get rid of 70% of these pesky asylum seekers, and these targets are backed up with the reward of shopping vouchers or the threat of being presented with a ‘grant monkey’, the toy gorilla that is put on the desk of any UKBA official who allows a claim. It is attitudes like these that have led Frances Webber, an immigration barrister, to damningly conclude, ‘UKBA officials sometimes give the impression that their purpose is to catch asylum seekers out – they seem to work from the premise that most asylum seekers are opportunistic liars, an attitude strongly fostered by the media and sometimes by government ministers, although it is very far from the truth.’ As one female asylum seeker explains, ‘They don’t believe you. They ask you five hundred questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.’
That doesn’t explain why the burden of being disbelieved is falling so disproportionately on the shoulders of women. For the answer to that, we have to look further back, to the wording of another one-size-fits-all solution: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II by well-meaning men. The intentions were noble, even beautiful. A person had a right to claim asylum if he or she had a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. It’s not enough to be persecuted – it has to be for these specific reasons. And we can already see that there is a glaring omission in this list, because a woman may well be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or indeed any of the reasons for which men are persecuted. But she is most likely to be persecuted for the simple fact that she is a woman.
It is the fact that she is a woman that means her body is most likely to be used as a weapon of war. It is the fact that she is a woman that means that her sexuality is deemed to be dangerous and sinful, and that therefore her genitals, or those of her daughter, must be cut off and sewn up. It is the fact that she is a woman that means she is likely to be raped, beaten, murdered to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family if she commits the crime of behaving in any way that approximates the behaviour of a free man – and it is the fact that she is a woman that means if she reports this to the police, she is as likely to be attacked again as she is to be protected.
A Women for Refugee Women report found that the number one reason female asylum seekers gave for their persecution was ‘because I am a woman’. But only since 1999 has the UK accepted that women can be considered to belong to ‘a particular social group’, or, sometimes, to hold a ‘political opinion’, if they have chosen to defy the social norms that restrict so many women’s lives. Previously, women did not constitute a social group, and nor did rebelling against limiting female social norms reflect a political opinion. Nevertheless, although we’ve taken our time to get there, the precedent has finally been set. But most women who claim asylum don’t realise that this is the case – and staff at the UKBA seem to be in no hurry to inform them.
It is for the women who are still detained, who are still suffering behind barbed wire and eight metal doors, that Meltem continues to fight. This is why she started the petition that had us all gathered outside the Home Office on a February night. At the time of writing, the petition contains 48,000 signatures. I ask her what she thinks her chances are of succeeding. ‘I have no idea. All I’m doing is just hoping for people to understand more about detention centres and what it is like. I just want them to understand that the detention centre is a prison and no one deserves to be locked up in there’.
Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like A Woman: … And Change the World is published by Portobello Books.
Find more information on the ‘Set her free’ campaign (and the online petition Meltem Avcil started) here.
We are rapidly approaching a time when the women who were active in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s will no longer be here to describe that history in person. Archives which record that history are therefore becoming increasingly important, while cuts in public spending are putting many of them at risk of closure, and the material they house are at risk of being lost or at best dispersed. The following article, which looks at the politics of archiving the women’s movement and makes the case for taking our history seriously, was published in 1996. Later this summer we will be publishing a new piece by Jalna Hanmer, which will offer an update on the state of the various feminist archives in the UK and a sequel to the stories in this piece. This is particularly timely with the news this week that the British Library have just launched the archive of the long-running feminist magazine, Spare Rib.
To know the future is to know the past. To know the current moment is not enough.
Several years ago I realised I am rapidly becoming the only woman left amongst staff and students at the University of Bradford to know how and when Women’s Liberation Movement newsletters, bulletins and other regular publications of the 1970s and early 1980s developed and, frequently, which of these are British. With such a dismal lack of basic information, a knowledge of when, in a longish run, various publications provided the leading theoretical edge of the Women’s Liberation Movement could not even be formulated as a question. Further, without some basic knowledge, women did not know where to begin a search for material relevant to their interests or how to understand whatever they did find in the archival collection on the Women’s Liberation Movement held at the Bradford branch of the Feminist Archive. Problems experienced by women in using the Archive drove home how the recent past — my living memory — is not shared by increasing numbers of women. This wave of women’s political struggle is becoming as opaque and ill-understood as that of the nineteenth century.
Early on in the MA Women’s Studies (Applied) course on Feminisms and Sexual Divisions the question arises, what knowledge do each of us have of 19th century feminism in Britain? I give my own pre-Women’s Liberation Movement knowledge, “some crazy women chained themselves to the railings outside Parliament”. This brief, but total knowledge statement is echoed by those of other women. Only those with access to more recent education in Women’s Studies or some other disciplinary area with work on women and gendered social relations know more. In Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done To Them (1982), Dale Spender explores what it means to lose our heritage and how losing both herstory and history are major ways of securing the subordination of women. It is not an accident that we do not know our past. People without a past do not have a future. They remain subordinated, the onlookers in the history of the socially dominant and, at best, honorary members of the privileged caste, group, or class.
When we discovered violence against women in Britain, we thought we were the first women to do so. We believed no one previously knew about violence to women from men with whom they lived or had lived or were related to in some other way. It was with some surprise that we discovered a small part of the past. It helped to know that someone had written an influential article with a title we did not think we could get away with today, Wife Torture in England (Cobbe: 1878). It helped to read historical accounts of activism on violence against women as this began a process of connection with the past (for example, May: 1978; Tomes: 1978). It helped to engage in a struggle to save the Fawcett Library collection from being broken up and culled for “important” books which were to be placed — within the Dewey decimal system of library classification — at the London School of Economics. We experienced a moment of living heritage when at the Fawcett Society meeting in 1976 (an organisation that many of us from the Women’s Liberation Movement had rushed to join in order to be able to vote), we were confronted by women in their 80s and even 90s speaking of their and their mothers’ likely reaction to the possibility that the collection might be dismembered. “My mother would be appalled”, said one elderly trustee of some ninety books housed in the Fawcett collection, succinctly summing up the personal position of the most elderly and prestigious members of the Society. Those of us who had recently joined the society began to relax, recognising political allies from the so-called “moderate” suffragist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To know the past is to connect with the present.
Saving our knowledge and finding ways of passing it on involves more than attacking revisionist history, important as that is. The aim is to create a map, a guide, for future generations of women so that women who did not share a particular moment in time may have access to it. In Britain the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1969—1979, saw a proliferation of ephemeral publications, so-called “grey material”. Those original ideas, turned out on the duplicator, often indistinct or blurred, and circulated to small numbers through women-only publications, were major source material and remain so for the future. Because political activists in this decade utilised multi-media, there are songs, photographs, posters and film as well as a multiplicity of forms of written work. Organisations and struggles around specific issues had special relationships with particular songs as well as specific visual representations, for example Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, was described at the time as the national anthem of the National Women’s Aid Federation. In some future time, say fifty to 100 years from now, these multi-media source data will be needed for women to be able to assess the development of ideas, actions and times in which we lived and live. They also will enable other women to discover, if it is not possible to maintain conscious continuity, a feminist past, just as we did.
The ten year period, 1969—1979, preceded and provides the basis for the subsequent widespread publication of feminist academic work in books and other publicly available sources. To achieve accessibility to the core ideas of the British Women’s Liberation Movement these ephemeral materials need collecting and ordering in relation to the Women’s Liberation Conferences held between 1970-1978, women’s organisations, demonstrations, campaigns, meetings, and local, regional and national group activities and publications. The first part of the project consists of listing the above activities by date, followed by collecting and cataloguing the relevant newsletters, journals, single publications, conference hand-outs, minutes and other notes on meetings, flyers, posters, and any other materials that relate to each of these. Oral history interviews then run alongside specific occasions or organisations or locally based activities. 
There is a sense of urgency about this project as complete sets sets of some publications are yet to be collected by at least one of the existing archives in the UK. Twenty five years is not that long ago, but it may be too far away to ensure everything is collectable. Further, while the collection of ephemera is being undertaken by women in many locations in Europe, in Britain these poorly funded or unfunded archives are constantly threatened with closure and, as a result, the loss of material. Unfortunately, disagreements amongst women who assume responsibility for collections may also lead to losses. At its best when all else fails, storage in damp garages, sometimes dry attics, provides a slender thread of continuity. This replicates in a material way the retention and loss of conscious knowledge of the past referred to earlier. Because retention and loss of knowledge is about power and whose ideas are to prevail, securing the feminist past in all its diversity is a future oriented radical feminist activity.
So what of the future? If we cannot be sanguine about retaining knowledge of the Women’s Liberation Movement and our radical feminist past then to secure the future, the present must include work to retain consciousness of the past. To keep alive knowledge of women’s struggles with each other and with men; their efforts to understand and organise against their oppression and exploitation, means passing it on from woman to woman from mother to daughter through the generations. There have been bigger waves of protest and activism than that which began at the end of the 1960s and there may be even larger, or perhaps smaller, ones to come. We cannot know this with certainty, but we can point to recurring patterns of high and low mobilisation of women to resist and transform their social situations in countries around the world. If we had full access to this knowledge, our heritage, think how empowered our social and collective identity would be.
Working to retain the past is also a radical feminist activity — in an activist and intellectual sense — in the here and now. Women’s Liberation Movement publications and activities were usually women-only in Britain. To respect the woman-only distribution policy of these publications makes it even more difficult to obtain funding and therefore, secure the future of these sources, but remaining loyal to the intentions and thereby the politics of its authors and editors, is a way to maintain an herstorical organisational tradition. Seeking to secure women-only anything is as subversive now as it was in the 1970s, as a consequence, something of the feelings and meanings attached to women-only activities and publications is conveyed to women today. This simple action, this experience, creates a present connected to the past.
Respecting the diversity of Liberation Movement material is another aspect of radical feminist activity today. This requires coming to terms with emotionally charged beliefs and actions and accepting that sisterhood was, and is, about disagreements as well as agreements. While at the time disagreements could be responded to in intensely personal ways, on another level, disagreements are not unfortunate occurrences linked to personal inadequacies, but central to the development of ideas and understanding. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain was diverse with multiple connections from the student movement, to sexual libertarianism, to the anti-imperialist struggles, to the political left via various forms of Anarchism and Marxism, to gay liberation. To seek to deny the relevance of any source or connection is to create revisionist history.
Because radical feminism is about social transformation in the interests of all women, multiple positions are to be respected. This is of course, easier for women who were not activists during the 1970s as all of us involved in those times have views on what was important and what remains crucial. To move forward each of us should vigorously argue our position, but to secure the future it is up to us to leave as complete an account as possible so that women who come later may make their own judgements, building on our work and achievements just as we have built on those of women who came before us. Taking ourselves seriously is to recognise and value a diverse heritage of our own making and to act to preserve it for future generations of women.
Thanks to Spinifex Press for giving us permission to reproduce this article, which was originally published in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein (1996).
 During the 1994—1995 academic year, Elizabeth Arledge-Ross, as part of the mapping project, began to interview women in Leeds and Bradford about their involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1970s and, with the help of Karen Boyle, to greatly improve the organisation of the Archive and the cataloguing of its material.
In ‘You Are Killing Me’: On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing, Jane Clare Jones examines what’s behind the claim that radical feminist critiques of gender are a form of transphobic hate speech.
As the General Election looms, Debbie Cameron wishes people would stop talking nonsense about women doing politics differently.
Last Wednesday on The World at One, the BBC’s Martha Kearney interviewed two politicians about their parties’ newly-launched manifestos. The first interview was a bit of a gladiatorial contest, with the participants competing to set the agenda. Though Kearney cut in frequently in an attempt to stem the flow, she was often defeated by the time-honoured tactics of the experienced politician—raising the pitch and volume of your voice and continuing to say what you came to say, whether or not it’s an answer to the question you were asked. There was a lot of simultaneous speech, and at times it got quite heated. But the interviewee stayed on-message, and ultimately in control.
The second interview was different. It began as a polite, almost stilted exchange, with none of the overlap that is normal in conversation. The interviewee allowed Kearney to direct the proceedings, waiting for her to finish each question before starting to speak, and sticking to the terms of the question. At times the answers were rather halting, but Kearney showed no impatience. A few minutes in, though, she asked a question which elicited some obvious waffle. At that point she did interrupt: her guest tried to keep going, and the exchange turned into something more like the first interview, with both speakers raising their voices and talking over each other. The interviewee became increasingly flustered, and struggled to respond to Kearney’s challenges. If you judged it as a contest, then Kearney won on points.
If I asked a random sample of people to tell me who they imagined these interviewees were, most would probably say that they imagined the first one as a man and the second as a woman. If I asked them to explain their reasoning, they might point out that men are generally more assertive and less intimidated by adversarial situations; they tend to take up more speaking time, and they frequently interrupt and talk over other people, especially when those people are women. Women, by contrast, are less assertive and more supportive, more respectful of others’ speaking rights and more attentive to their contributions. They don’t typically enjoy verbal duelling, and may not perform well in situations that demand it.
These differences between men and women have been a recurring theme in the 2015 election campaign. The campaign has been a multi-party affair: neither of the main parties is expected to win the election outright, so more attention than usual has been given to the smaller parties they may have to rely on for support. Three of those parties are led by women: the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. Their profiles have been raised by their appearance in televised debates, and it is widely agreed that they have performed well. Many positive comments have focused on their style of debating. ‘Look’, people say approvingly, ‘these women are showing us that political debates don’t have to be competitive shouting matches. They’re listening to their opponents rather than constantly interrupting them. They’re not just hurling insults or trying to score points, they’re engaging constructively with the arguments. How civilized! What a refreshing change! Let’s have more women in politics!’
For some of us this is déjà vu all over again. In 1997, when the landslide Labour victory brought a record 119 women into Westminster, we were told that their civilizing influence was going to change the culture of politics and make the House of Commons ‘less of a bear-garden’. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, declared that female politicians were a good thing because ‘democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. Over in Swindon South, her colleague Julia Drown opined that ‘women are more co-operative: they’re not so into scoring points and more interested in hearing different points of view’.
As a feminist I am broadly in favour of female politicians. But these observations about their more co-operative, more ‘civilized’ style of speaking make me want to bang my head against a wall. Why? First, because they’re factually wrong; second, because they’re patronising; and third, because the thinking behind them is sexist to the core.
Women in the debates: how did they really speak?
I have struggled to reconcile my own observations of the female party leaders with the comments made by other people on their behaviour. The suggestion that these women’s approach is less adversarial than the men’s—that they don’t compete for the floor or talk over other speakers or try to score points off their opponents—is so inaccurate, I can only understand it as a case of what scientists call ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to pay attention to things that match our expectations while overlooking things that conflict with them. We expect women to be different from men, so we look for differences and pass over similarities. We think certain behaviours are typical of women, so examples of those behaviours—even if there are very few—get noticed and remembered in a way the counter-examples don’t.
Consider, for instance, one of the most memorable moments in the first TV debate that featured seven party leaders. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage made some racist, scaremongering remarks about immigrants with HIV, and Leanne Wood told him—to applause from the studio audience—that he should be ashamed of himself. This was a highly adversarial move. Wood jumped in to deliver, in tones of unmistakable disgust, a highly effective put-down. Her behaviour contrasted starkly with that of the three male politicians, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, who were conspicuously silent. She deserved the applause for her guts and her presence of mind. But how can anyone who watched this intervention maintain that women ‘aren’t into point-scoring’? What did her comment to Farage have to do with being constructive or preferring consensus to conflict?
Nicola Sturgeon is seriously into point-scoring. The most experienced of the three women, and for many people the most impressive, she is also the one with the most consistently adversarial debating style. In the second, ‘challengers’ debate (involving five opposition party leaders, but not the leaders of the governing coalition parties), she provided one of the night’s main talking points when she confronted Ed Miliband about his unwillingness to work with the Scottish Nationalists. In this section of the debate it was Sturgeon who took the initiative, forcing Miliband onto the defensive. She did it by issuing a series of challenges, putting him on the spot with a direct command or request (‘tell me, Ed…’ ‘so are you saying…?’). Rather than listening politely to his responses, she rarely allowed him to finish his turn uninterrupted. She repeatedly talked over him, and refused to stop speaking when he did the same to her.
Sturgeon wins points not only because her arguments are good, but also because she doesn’t shy away from attacking her opponents, and she doesn’t give ground when they attack her. She is not only a skilful exponent of the adversarial style, she is also a highly competitive one: there’s no doubt she’s in it to win it. In fact, I would say she’s a more competitive debater than either Miliband or Farage (who comes across as combative because the substance of what he says is often inflammatory, but whose discourse style is actually not particularly adversarial).
Some commentators have pointed out that the women have been very supportive to one another—agreeing with each other’s points, not challenging each other, and engaging in a group hug at the end of the second debate. All that is true, but I think it has more to do with party politics than female solidarity. The women have nothing to gain by challenging one another, because their parties are not in competition for the same votes. The two nationalist parties are only contesting seats in Wales and Scotland respectively, and the Greens are not a serious rival in either territory. On the other hand, they do have something to gain by supporting one another, because the main platform on which all of them are fighting this election is opposition to austerity. So, it makes sense for them to amplify that message by maintaining a united front, and it would equally make sense if they didn’t all happen to be women. Would they show the same supportiveness to women who were not their political allies? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t: if UKIP were led by a British Marine Le Pen, I don’t think she’d have been invited to join in the group hug.
But we don’t have to speculate here. I’ve already described an extremely adversarial encounter between one of the three female leaders and another woman. Contrary to what you may have assumed, the first of Martha Kearney’s two interviewees, the one who dominated their exchange and resisted Kearney’s attempts to take control, was not a male politician. It was, in fact, Nicola Sturgeon.
You’re all individuals
The second interviewee, the one who initially deferred to Kearney’s authority but then got flustered and defensive when she challenged his waffling answers, was a male politician: he was UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. And if your reaction to that is ‘Who?’, you’ve anticipated my next point. It’s always a mistake to treat individual men and women as generic representatives of their gender, and to assume that any difference between them must be a gender difference. In the case of O’Flynn and Sturgeon I think it’s pretty clear that gender is a red herring. The key difference here is experience: Sturgeon has done far more political interviews than O’Flynn, and is therefore a much more confident and skilful performer.
The point that individuals are not generic men and women isn’t just something to bear in mind when making cross-sex comparisons. One reason why it is problematic to talk about a female style of speaking is that female speakers aren’t all the same. Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I’ve been discussing there are clear individual differences.
There is a particularly striking contrast between the most experienced of the three, Nicola Sturgeon, and the least experienced, Natalie Bennett. Bennett is more reticent, more formal and less spontaneous; she’s much less inclined to challenge others directly or to take the initiative in the way Sturgeon did with Miliband (or Wood did with Farage). Apart from the difference in experience, the two women have different personalities and are differently positioned in terms of political influence (it’s a big advantage to Sturgeon that everyone expects her party to be a serious force in Westminster after the election; Bennett has no such leverage). The cumulative effect of these differences is large: you would no more confuse their debating styles than you would confuse their hairstyles, or their accents.
But the problem isn’t just that commentators make sweeping generalizations about women. The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?
The burdens of civilization
Telling women they’re different, and that in some ways their difference makes them superior to men, has always been one way of consoling them for their inequality and powerlessness. It has also served as a convenient excuse for perpetuating that inequality: women demanding entry to some male-dominated institution can be told that they’re unsuited to it, or too good for it. The latter was a popular argument with Victorian anti-suffragists, who were fond of asking why the angel of the house would want to dabble her pristine wings in the sewer of politics.
At a certain point, when the angel’s demands can no longer be denied entirely, the argument changes tack: women can be allowed in after all, but not simply because they, like men, are people. Rather, because women’s distinctive qualities and ways of doing things are needed to civilize the institution. Like wives putting up curtains in their husbands’ sheds, women in politics, or business, or the Church, will use their feminine touch to smooth off the male rough edges, and everyone—men as well as women—will benefit.
This is exactly what was said about the women MPs who went to Westminster in 1997. Evidently their civilizing mission was not successful: eighteen years later, here we are again. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: you can’t be expected to change an institution’s culture if your position within the institution is one of structural powerlessness. And the women MPs (or ‘Blair’s Babes’, as the Labour ones were different-but-equally called) were in exactly that position.
It wasn’t just that they were heavily outnumbered, though they were. The linguist Sylvia Shaw, who did research in the House of Commons a few years after the 1997 election, found that the men did not treat their female colleagues as equals, they treated them as interlopers. The women were subjected to sexist barracking when they rose to speak, and sanctioned for breaking the arcane rules of Parliamentary debate while men were allowed to break the same rules with impunity. As a result the women got less speaking time and had less influence in debates. They didn’t struggle with the adversarial debating style of the House of Commons; what they struggled with was the sexism of the men in the House of Commons.
This is another reason why I get angry when people say that women don’t shine as public speakers because the adversarial style doesn’t suit them: they aren’t into point-scoring, they’re not interested in power, they’re natural consensus-seekers who shy away from conflict. This implies that women are unequal in public life because they’re different, when really it’s the other way round. If women aren’t allowed to participate on equal terms, any differences we see are more likely to be effects of sexism than of sex. We can’t know what difference their sex makes until we see how they behave in conditions of sex equality.
That’s what makes the election debates so interesting. They’ve offered a rare opportunity to watch politicians performing in conditions of near equality (in one debate there were four men and three women, in the other three women and two men; all participants had the same status as party leaders; they were all bound by the same rules and had an equal number of pre-allocated turns). And under those conditions what I think we saw was not a male-female stylistic divide. There were differences between individuals, but no clear division by sex.
You might be thinking: but surely there are good feminist arguments for a less adversarial style of political discourse? I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that some of the conventions and rituals of Westminster have little to contribute to modern democratic debate (the cheer-and-jeerfest that is Prime Minister’s Questions comes to mind). But I have never bought the argument that adversarial discourse itself is a ‘male’ thing, and serves only as a vehicle for macho posturing.
Since conflict is an integral part of politics, I think adversarial discourse will always have a place in it. It’s not the only game in town—deliberation and negotiation are also important—but I can’t imagine a political movement or a democratic assembly that wouldn’t require its members to engage in debate. Saying that women are too civilized to get involved in the adversarial stuff is like saying that angels shouldn’t dabble in sewers. It’s saying that women can’t do politics at all. And if that’s a feminist argument, I’m a banana.