Debbie Cameron reviews Finn Mackay’s book Radical Feminism, which tells the story of Reclaim the Night and reflects on its place in feminist politics.
Finn Mackay’s new book is several things at once. It’s a brief history of British feminisms from the beginning of the ‘second wave’ to the present day (with contextualizing excursions to the US and mainland Europe); it’s an explanation of what radical feminism was and is (and wasn’t and isn’t); it’s a detailed look at the origins and development of Reclaim The Night (RTN) as a form of feminist protest; and it explores the attitudes and motivations of activists involved in RTN today. Though the book is published by an academic press, it is evidently written (in plain English rather than theory-speak) to be accessible to a wider feminist audience. As well as the standard bibliography of references, it includes a list of resources for readers who want to get involved in campaigning, and a section on how to organize a RTN march.
The centre of the book is the author’s research on RTN, which draws not only on her own extensive experience as an organizer, but also on detailed interviews with 25 activists past and present, plus an online survey with 100 respondents. This material shows that RTN is not only a high-profile public protest against male violence and the way it constrains women’s lives: it is also a lightning rod for the larger political arguments going on within feminism at any given time. In the past RTN marches were the scene of arguments between radical feminists and leftist groups like Wages For Housework; they also prompted debate on racism in the women’s movement. Today they have become one arena in which ongoing conflicts about the sex industry, trans politics and the place of men in feminism are played out.
The first RTN march (though it was not yet actually called ‘Reclaim the Night’) took place in Brussels in 1976, following an international conference on crimes against women. It did not take long for similar events to be organized in Italy and Germany; and in November 1977 RTN came to Britain, with marches taking place in a dozen cities around the country. One of them was held in Leeds: the event had a special resonance there, because it was happening at a time when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, an as yet-unidentified sadistic sexual killer, was targeting women in several northern English cities. (He was, in fact, Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver living in Bradford.) The feminists who organized the Leeds march were tapping into a widely-felt anger, as well as fear, among women who were constantly told to protect themselves from the Ripper by staying off the streets at night, or making sure they were accompanied by men.
The route of the march went through Chapeltown, a part of Leeds where Sutcliffe had already killed. But Chapeltown was also an area with a significant Black and minority ethnic population, and this led to a long-running controversy about RTN and racism. The organizers were criticised for apparently suggesting that Black men were more likely than white men to engage in violence against women, and for demanding more aggressive policing of a community already subject to racist police harassment.
The idea that RTN was racist has been repeated in print sources many times since, as has the more general idea that radical feminists are uncritical supporters of the police and other agencies of state power. However, Finn Mackay’s research suggests that in this case it is based on a misrepresentation. The Leeds RTN organizer Al Garthwaite told her there had been no demand for more policing, of Chapeltown or anywhere else. The point was for women to reclaim public space themselves, not to get male authorities to do it for them. As well as being significant in the specific context of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, Chapeltown was an area where many feminists themselves lived, and those factors had determined its inclusion on the route of the march. As Al Garthwaite also pointed out, local feminists at the time had no trust in the police, whose response to the Ripper killings had been consistently sexist and victim-blaming, as well as ineffectual in practical terms.
In fact, Finn Mackay found that none of the 1970s RTN organizers she interviewed had much of a relationship with their local police force. Sandra McNeill, who organized the first London RTN, went so far as to say that even getting police permission to march, let alone enlisting their support, would have been ‘anathema’. Like most radicals in the 1970s, feminists (of all tendencies) were apt to regard the police as reactionary, more likely to arrest them than to offer them useful assistance.
Today RTN organizers have a closer and more positive relationship with the police, though Finn Mackay found there were differing views on this among activists. Some had similar opinions to Sandra McNeill, while others felt that policing is a public service, and women are entitled to demand that their safety should be taken seriously. However, the issues which are most difficult and divisive in current RTN organizing have less to do with feminism’s relationship to agents of state power, and more to do with conflicting views about the politics of ‘inclusiveness’ and women-only space.
RTN (like feminist activism generally) has become more receptive than it was in the 1970s to the active participation of men: whereas the early marches were women’s events, most current ones are mixed (though some limit men to a supporting role or ask them to stay at the back.) Again, this is something activists do not all agree about. The march organizers Finn Mackay interviewed were pragmatic: to maximise the impact of RTN you need large numbers of people marching, so it makes sense to include male supporters (especially if excluding them will also make some women reluctant to participate). However, most of the interviewees were in favour of marches being woman-led, and some expressed reservations about men’s involvement, saying it confused the issue or defeated the object of the exercise (if the point is about women reclaiming public space, it does not make much sense for them to be accompanied—or as onlookers might see it, chaperoned—by men). Some interviewees distrusted men’s motives even where they were placed in supporting roles: one referred to them as ‘glory stewards’, drawing attention to their own status as ‘good guys’.
Explaining her own support for women-only actions, Finn Mackay makes the point that arguments based on the idea of ‘inclusiveness’ are never quite as simple as they look. As one of her interviewees pointed out,
if it’s mixed then you’re not including everyone. You’re always excluding someone, and you’re choosing to exclude women who are survivors and who don’t want to march next to men, and you are making a decision to exclude them. So it’s not like you can include everyone, you’re always making a choice to exclude someone (159).
Similarly, organizers cannot guarantee that an inclusive policy statement about who can march will generate an inclusive or positive experience for everyone who does march. There are, for instance, ongoing tensions around the participation of pro-sex industry organizations like the English Collective of Prostitutes (an offshoot of Wages for Housework), and there are always questions about how welcoming RTN is to trans women. Both groups have considerable experience of street harassment and male violence, and as a matter of policy they are not excluded from marching at RTN events. But that does not prevent arguments ‘on the ground’ with other marchers who oppose the policy of including them. Trans and the sex industry are significant faultlines within contemporary feminism, and these have always shown up on RTN marches just as they have in other, less public feminist forums.
As someone who participated in a few RTN actions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was interested in the comments some activists made to Finn Mackay about the ‘institutionalization’ of the marches—the well-organized rallies, the introduction of sponsorship, the greater involvement of the police, and conversely the loss of certain ‘unruly’ features of the old protests, which sometimes deviated from the planned route and often involved a certain amount of direct action (like graffiti-writing or gluing the locks of sex-shops). Part of the reason for this is size: in the old days a lot of marches were relatively small, sometimes organized at short notice as a protest against something that had happened locally, and there was no need to close the streets to accommodate them. Also, as some veteran activists pointed out, since the early 1980s there has been a tightening of the legal restrictions on public protest (you do need permission now, and you can’t just go where you like), along with a huge growth in the use of CCTV (which means that if you do take direct action there is a high risk you will be caught). Even the traditional flaming torches carried by marchers in the 1970s are no longer permitted because of the cost of cleaning spilled wax off the pavement.
RTN was always an example of the ‘politics of spectacle’, i.e. the point was public visibility, but what’s most spectacular about it has changed: especially in London and other large cities, what’s impressive is the sheer number of people marching (also their colourful appearance and the noise they make). At the much smaller events I remember from the past, the spectacle had more to do with a group of women appearing and behaving in a noisy, confrontational way in areas where their presence was not expected or welcomed, or—in normal circumstances—considered ‘safe’. Maybe this is ironic, since the point of RTN was (and still is) to affirm women’s right to be safe in public space, but for me what was most positive about the (old) experience of marching was the feeling of actually confronting danger (and the men who embodied it) without the usual fears and inhibitions. I don’t think you get that from marching through closed-off city-centre streets under the watchful eyes of stewards and the police. I don’t think you get it in the same way in a mixed march, either.
But Finn Mackay has a good answer to those of us who may occasionally feel that RTN has lost its edge and become just another annual fixture on the feminist calendar. As she points out, it serves as a gateway through which many women find their way into feminist activism. As one of her interviewees put it, ‘RTN is a pretty easy banner to unite under. …When a RTN is organised in your city, it acts as a platform for collaborating, networking, awareness raising, relationship building’. Another woman who had become very active in local anti-VAW organizations since first taking part in a march, said:
I reckon that I wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for RTN, and I wouldn’t be doing the things I am. Because you get the solidarity, but you get aware of all the organisations as well, like Rape Crisis, and it’s great, motivating and inspiring (p.261).
Motivating and inspiring is an important task for any radical political movement, and it’s something Finn Mackay is good at. She is well-known among feminists for her energy and positivity as a campaigner, her practical approach to political organizing and her ability to speak in a straightforward, engaging way to both feminist and general audiences. All those qualities are also visible in her book. She is clear about her own views on issues like the sex industry and women-only space, but other views expressed by the women she interviewed are presented fairly and not unsympathetically. In general she is more inclined to emphasize the positive (what feminists of different persuasions share, and can therefore build on in campaigning) than the negative and divisive. You might say it’s an activist’s preference rather than a theorist’s—we’re never going to agree with everyone about everything, but what matters in the real world is building bridges where we can, so that something can actually be achieved.
Another kind of bridge-building Finn Mackay is clearly committed to is between the present and the past, or to put it another way, between different generations of feminists. For those who weren’t around in the 1970s, the early chapters contain a lot of informative stuff about British second wave feminism, and particularly the radical variety, which (as we have remarked in T&S many times) is appallingly badly served by most existing histories. This book doesn’t totally fill the gap: it’s more a sketch than a detailed portrait, because it’s trying to do other things as well. But it does cover some important basics.
It also makes an explicit break with the assumption that what should be emphasized in any historical narrative about feminism is change rather than continuity, and that ‘change’ essentially means ‘progress’. Often this leads to the feminism of the recent past being represented merely as a catalogue of errors and failures, making it impossible for those who weren’t involved to relate to their predecessors in a positive way. By contrast, Finn Mackay thinks today’s activists can learn something important from the women who came before. She recommends that readers should seek out both the classic writings of the second wave and the archives in which past feminist ideas and actions are recorded (the T&S archive, available on this site, is one of those she lists).
She also makes an argument about continuity which I was not expecting. Even if the new generation of feminists uses a different language, a lot of what they believe (as demonstrated in her interviews, where she asked women what they wanted to see feminism actually accomplish) is in practice quite close to the ‘seven demands’ of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement* . One of her interviewees even said this:
I’m kind of fascinated by whether we do actually need a card-carrying feminist, you know, back to the Seven Demands. So, this is what it means to be a feminist, and if you don’t agree with these, you’re not a fucking feminist (p.286).
Now, there’s a radical thought.
* The seven demands were: (1) equal pay; (2) equal opportunities in education and employment; (3) free contraception and abortion on demand; (4) free 24-hour nurseries; (5) legal and financial independence; (6) the right of women to define their own sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians; (7) freedom from intimidation by the threat or the use of violence and sexual coercion.
Finn Mackay, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement is published by Palgrave in February 2015–details here.