Whose story is it anyway? 1

The stewardship of feminism’s collective memory raises all kinds of ethical questions. Can our approach be based on trust alone?  Frankie Green shares some thoughts on feminism, archiving and accountability.


No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk (bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics).

The context in which bell hooks writes is very different from mine. Yet her words resonate strongly with me, illuminating some questions I want to explore here.

Archiving the history of the WLM is well-established, as we who experienced that era believe it crucial to ensure that our movement is not lost to history. The importance of taking this task seriously has been elucidated by Jalna Hanmer, and many have worked tirelessly on collecting and cataloguing information, making it available to new generations of activists, students and historians. Our collections provide insights into the aims, achievements and processes of the movement and show how it was sustained at grassroots level by thousands of women – many of whom did not become well-known, since they never attracted the attention of the mainstream media.

We want these archives to be seen not as reliquaries, but as resources in our ongoing struggles, useful in the continuing quest for the ending of women’s oppression. As I said when speaking on behalf of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive (WLMA) in the workshop ‘Archives and Activism: Knowing our Past – Creating our Future’ at 2014’s Feminism in London conference, they ‘are not about preserving history in aspic, or rosy-tinted nostalgia.’ WLMA documents feminist music-making in the 1970s/80s, and is the fruit of discussions among musicians and activists who generously donated time, money and material in the belief that it’s important to illustrate the role of culture within political movements. It complements other feminist archives.

But while there’s a consensus that such archiving is important, I haven’t come across much discussion regarding the subsequent use made of these archives. I have become interested in issues raised by this usage, the value created by it and the process of its production.

Ethics and interpretation

The ethics of archiving appear self-evident: responsibility to those who make the collections possible; respect for the holdings and their provenance, integrity and placement; adherence to written or verbal agreements between parties; good practice regarding a professional standard of behavior (including amongst amateurs/volunteers). Such codes of conduct are affirmed by various professional bodies, including the International Council on Archives, which states:

archivists should not collect original documents or participate in any commerce of documents on their own behalf. They should avoid activities that could create in the public mind the appearance of a conflict of interest

What recourse is available to us if such codes are not adhered to? Are there additional, specific principles that feminists need to incorporate into our practice?

These questions point to some wider issues relating to the interpretation of feminist history.

In her 1966 essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag said that interpretation

presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy … Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he [sic] can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

Interpretation creates another layer of temporality and text. Print media acquire legitimacy, being mostly less ephemeral than other forms, bestowing a mantle of authority on writers. Published books acquire credibility, as anyone who’s challenged the texts used on Women’s Studies courses knows. Myriad implications are involved, meaning that this creation of a secondary layer of theorizing and analysis is worth attention. How is this creation achieved? What does it leave out or invisibilise? What checks can be used for verification of data presented? And the age-old question: cui bono – who benefits?

It is unfortunate that amongst people who have contributed oral or written histories to collections, the experience of having their work or words  misrepresented or quoted without permission seems to be quite common. I know of some who feel exploited by researchers who have behaved less than honourably or betrayed the trust placed in them. Donors have cooperated with authors only to find the ensuing publications disappointing or inaccurate. If people have not been consulted or if they feel their own narratives have been taken from them, they are left with a sense of disillusionment.

Disputes frequently arise, and enter public discourse; one recent example concerned a book about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands which was produced without consulting his family about the accuracy of the portrayal of his life. The cultural appropriation of people’s history on a greater scale is a longstanding unethical practice affecting indigenous people, exemplified by the use of sacred Native American myths in Peter Nabokov’s publication ofThe Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo. The issue of ownership arises, as in the question asked of me by a woman who found herself quoted in a book by an author who had misled her: ‘whose story is it anyway?’

Claiming our own histories

Many of us have had to assert a claim to our own histories. It is understood that memory may be fallible, narrators unreliable and, of course, the field of oral history contains many pitfalls. The standpoint of personal experience has been challenged for its claim to epistemological privilege and authenticity. Nevertheless, there is significance in the fact of having been there: of being present at, participating in and causing actual events to which we ascribe meaning and of which we have clear recollections. Having our stories regurgitated in an unrecognisable form is a galling experience. As a mature student in the 1980s, I found myself disagreeing with tutors confident they knew the truth about WLM events of the previous decade – events in which I had taken part. Lived experience lost out in competition with what had become received wisdom. It is disorientatingly unpleasant to feel like a ghost in one’s own story; a kind of cognitive dissonance occurs.

Those of us from that era hope to ensure our stories are accurately represented. Which begs the question of whether we need others to tell those stories and republish them into the world. We were there; we are the experts in our own lives. Do we need interpretation to ‘disclose … true meaning’? And what do we do if an interpreter fails to consult us or has an outlook with which we disagree?

Perhaps the campaigning maxim of ‘nothing about us without us’ needs to be borne in mind. Many people now insist on a caveat ensuring that they retain the right of veto, that they see what is written about them prior to publication. To provide that option may seem a matter of common courtesy, but it does not always happen. In such cases, as with an unauthorised biography, readers need to be aware of issues arising from the lack of consent and that the veracity or reliability of the account may be in question. Editors and publishers rely on their authors acting in good faith, but perhaps they also have a pro-active role to play. Do authors have a responsibility to inform people and organisations that they are being written about? How do our moral criteria as feminists differ from general notions of ethics, if at all?

Of course, the meaning of stories cannot be controlled, and it is not necessarily desirable that they be so; we need to be able to let them go, and hope they will be treated ethically. We can disassociate ourselves if an account is found to be inaccurate or misleading, though of course pre-empting such a thing happening in the first place would be preferable. Feminist projects frequently depend on goodwill; it is to be hoped that negative examples are rare.

We can adopt guidelines, codes, standards of behavior, but the question of enforceability remains. How do we resolve moral dilemmas, rather than rigidly policing, if we wish to work non-hierarchically? How can problems be addressed, not to punish, but to prevent unethical behaviour, and in a professional way, taking care to avoid a descent into trolling and trashing?

Academic careers and capital can be built on the work of others, both original creators of material and those who have collected and curated it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; indeed, the desired outcome of making material publicly available is that users will find it valuable for exploration and exegesis. WLMA has constructive interactions with students who find us useful, as we hoped. There’s reciprocity involved and it’s positive when they make their writings available to us in turn to be archived. Less responsible researchers can cause disillusionment. Perhaps the need for funding can be corrupting, in the scramble to secure it corners are cut, principles relaxed. We expect exploitation from the capitalist marketplace ripping the world apart as it monetises every last thing, but can only hope it does not prevail in the sphere of feminism.

To see one’s writings reprinted or actions written about, when one would not wish them to be so used, is to feel colonised. Under colonisation, a territory’s original inhabitants’ inherent value is less than that which they produce for those taking it over. This throws into sharp relief the difference between intrinsic worth – dignity, rights, inalienable personhood – and extractable, appropriated value. Attitudinally, it’s like the difference between respect and contempt, care and indifference. The momentum that carries colonisers along normalizes their actions, but they make conscious choices for which they are responsible.

A coloniser likes to take over not simply a terrain’s resources and the labour of the inhabitants, but control of the narrative, inscribing their own being into the story that is already there. Setting themselves up as expert and writing in an ostensibly authoritative manner allows disregard for the subjectivity of the people of whom they write. The colonised subject struggles then not only to regain material control but for recognition of more nebulous aspects of the problem: attachment to their history and culture, the personal meaning of an era in a lifetime – the emotions which inform their resistance against exploitation.

The coloniser also casts themselves as the discoverer, intrepid explorer opening up unknown realms, an academic maverick boldly going where no researcher has gone before. For the people who are already there of course this knowledge is not new, as they are already know it, indeed created it. Sometimes the person already there is friendly, not sceptical, having no reason for suspicion, only later regretting the openness which facilitated their own exploitation. Then their resistance to being taken over is an obstructive nuisance; they have the temerity to be insufficiently grateful.

Feminists are not a dispossessed ethnic group, our memories or memorabilia are not sacred texts or artefacts, our narratives are not arcane. But it can widen our debate to consider different ways of regarding intellectual property ownership that co-exist in the world. There are models which augment the western legal one regarding protocols, wherein the less technical aspects are valued, elements harder to quantify – intangibles like respect, trust, integrity. Publicly available material can be used under the principle of Fair Use, but that does not grant license to plunder it at will regardless of people’s feelings and wishes. Having no compunction about assuming an entitlement within such narrow strictures, leaving out these other factors, would be self-servingly convenient. Challenging the right assumed by Nabokov and other white authors to retell Acoma Pueblo stories, Fred S. Vallo Sr., discussing cultural property rights, concludes that ‘we like to tell our own story. Let us do it.’

Still here

The contents of archives can be viewed as part of what Bernard Steigler has conceptualized as constituting the ‘already-there’, using a theoretical framework drawn on, for instance, by Deborah Withers in the book Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission. But however useful such analyses may be, in relation to the documentation of feminist history perhaps what needs to take priority is the ‘still-here’: us. Real women engaged in active processes of being, women who embody the political consciousness of that time, who inhabited the ‘structures of feeling’ of its lived experience, to borrow Raymond Williams’ phrase. Though sadly some of us are no longer here, many of us are still alive and very much kicking, carrying on doing what we’ve always done – and archiving our own history.

I’m suggesting that  setting up grassroots projects to do this work without incorporating a formal code of conduct–basing the work on trust alone–may not ensure that our history is safeguarded. Stewardship of collective memory needs to continue to be done with care, always bearing in mind the actual women with whose stories we are entrusted, with respect and transparency as guiding principles.

It would be ironic if women whose work is claimed as feminist heritage, who made possible the very context in which today’s researchers work, felt the latter were careless of upsetting or alienating them. What price feminist scholarship or academic careers if they rest on the invisible labour of people who feel they have been treated unethically or indifferently? It would be nonsensical to treat people’s creations as more valuable than the people themselves. If our histories, ourselves, our politics, are worth taking seriously, then surely so must be the moral parameters deployed in chronicling them.

Frankie Green is the Administrator of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive: https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk

Taking Ourselves Seriously: An Update

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[1] 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 kathy.parker@talktalk.net

[1] See Women’s Report Volume 5 (1) November-December 1976 for the first attempt by LSE to acquire the 19th century Fawcett Collection.

Taking Ourselves Seriously

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. [1]

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).

[1] 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.


Marching on

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.finn

University Challenge

Drawing on the experience of three generations of feminists, Miriam David’s new book Feminism, Gender and Universities reflects on the difference higher education has made to women’s lives, and on the difference feminism has made to higher education. Here she talks to T&S about the past, present and future of feminism in the academy.

T&S: In your introduction you point out that there are lots of histories of feminism and the women’s movement, but not much work looking specifically at the history of feminism in the academy. Why did you feel that was an important story to tell?

Miriam David: I believe that feminism is an educational project as well as a political project, in the broadest sense of ‘educational’. I wanted to show how important learning has been to women, and how transformative in terms of their/our social and sexual relationships. I also wanted to show how feminist knowledge – the basis for feminist activism – has developed apace in higher education, universities especially, and how this has facilitated campaigning and social change.

T&S: You asked the women who participated in your research a number of questions about how they became feminist academics. How did you become a feminist academic yourself?

MD: I first became involved in the women’s movement in London in the late 1960s, after graduating from Leeds University in sociology, and becoming a researcher at various colleges of London University. I had been involved in socialist movements in my teens, and continued until I began to experience political campaigning around issues such as abortion and birth control through the women’s movement. After a year in the USA in the early 1970s, I went to Bristol University as a lecturer in social administration and quickly became involved in the women’s movement there. It was an incredibly active and vibrant time with campaigns for the working women’s charter, including equal educational and employment opportunities, birth control and abortion on demand. We also began to develop courses, but mainly outside university walls rather than for undergraduates. It was one of my first PhD students who convinced me to use the term ‘feminist’ proudly, since hers was a feminist study of birth control in the 1920s and I had to defend her use of the term to an assembled Academic Board. From that moment, I became a feisty feminist academic concerned with policy and politics.

T&S: You divide your research participants into three generational cohorts: women born before 1950, women born between 1950 and 1965, and women born after 1965. What were the similarities and differences among the cohorts?

MD: The first cohort (my cohort), nowadays known as second-wave feminists, tended to be political rather than purely academic, whilst developing feminist scholarship and knowledge. The second cohort tended to develop feminist knowledge and learning through their interaction with other feminist scholars on campus, often at the postgraduate and doctoral stage; the third cohort learned their feminism from undergraduate courses in women’s studies and their social interactions with other feminist academics and colleagues. These are fine distinctions, though, as the vast majority felt passionately about being feminist pedagogues – teachers and learners – and how feminism had transformed their lives.

T&S: In the early years a lot of feminist knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing went on outside universities—you mention institutions like the WEA and Ruskin College, but also specifically feminist initiatives like Women’s University Without Walls and the Bristol Women’s Studies Group which you were involved in yourself. Have these ‘alternative’ spaces become less important because feminism is now part of the academic mainstream?

MD: Yes, to some extent feminism has become incorporated into the conventional structures of academe, and especially as part of a scholarly and research culture. There is much less of a counter and campaigning structure than in the past, but that is also because of the countervailing changes towards neo-liberalism, marketization or commercialisation of universities.

T&S: There’s a perception that academic feminism used to be closer to the concerns of feminist activists in the ‘real world’. Today’s feminist academics are often criticized for being preoccupied with a kind of theory that’s irrelevant and incomprehensible to anyone outside the academy. What do you think about that argument?

MD: It’s both true and not true. In the last few years there has been a resurgence of a more politically aware feminism in academe with projects around everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse, and engaging with feminisms in schools, contesting sexualisation and sexting in an increasingly pornified society, and doing training work with teachers and youth workers around violence against women and children.

T&S: Fifty years ago, only a small minority of people had any access to higher education, and women were a minority of that minority. Today women are an overall majority of students in UK universities, and that statistic is sometimes cited to argue that gender inequality is no longer an issue. In the book you’re very critical of this idea. What problems do you think women face in universities now?

MD: There has been an increase in overt misogyny on campus both directed against students and academic staff. For instance, the culture of ‘laddism’ is pervading campuses and needs to be addressed, given increases in sexual harassment. Secondly, feminist academic staff are subject to sexist and discriminatory practices, as ever, and including in leadership and management. There is a pressing need to change ‘the rules of the numbers game’, directly confronting patriarchy and misogyny in university leadership.

T&S: The idea that equality can be measured just by counting heads is part of a more general trend towards managerialism and target-setting as universities become integrated into the global, neoliberal order. How has this affected the position of feminism in universities?

MD: Adversely, as feminist academics are not routinely included in any ‘metric’ or performance indicators and feminist courses and curricula are subject to early closure. And the ethic of academic freedom seems to have been lost in this melee of figures.

T&S: What do you think feminists in the academy should be fighting for now?

MD: Feminists still need to fight for women’s rights in the academy and the world, for an end to patriarchy and misogyny, and especially violence against women and girls whether symbolic or ‘real’. Having a vision of a feminist-friendly world and feminist places and spaces enables one to imagine a better world: one in which women are treated with the same respect, reverence and inclusion as men.


Becoming a feminist, becoming an academic: stories from three generations

Feminism, Gender and Universities draws on the life-histories of more than 100 feminist academics who participated in Miriam David’s research. We’ve picked out some short extracts from the accounts given by three women of the paths they took to feminism and to academic careers.

The first generation: Sandra Acker

In one sense I was always a feminist. I did not see why my mother, who was so intelligent, was a housewife and devoted to her children (us) without directly using her education. My parents encouraged all of us to do well in school and go on to higher education and into careers (though we were also to get married). I think my first exposure to feminism per se was reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which I loved. However, I can’t remember when I read it. I think it must have been when I was at graduate school, not undergraduate. The late 60s were such a time of upheaval and feminism came along with student protest and civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests. Students formed CR groups and I belonged to one of them. It was exhilarating …

I think I have approached most of my scholarly pursuits through the lens of feminism – both research and teaching. I also have a feminist way of looking at relationships, family, media, and everyday life. I have never been an activist in the usual sense but have tried to change people’s thinking through my teaching and writing.

The second generation: Heidi Mirza

I went to an all girls’ school in Trinidad, which was quite high achieving in a gendered way. High achieving girls didn’t mean careers for girls, it meant good wives for husbands! The school was started up by my grandmother about thirty years before I had gone there. So there was a tradition of education among the women in the family. My aunts in Trinidad were all teachers – so there were strong female “role models” in my early life – but they lived very traditional lives in a very patriarchal culture. Growing up in Trinidad I was very influenced by the black power movement in the early 70s – I remember seeing Angela Davis on the TV speaking confidently to crowds and raising her hand in a black power salute. I thought she was amazing. We had an attempted coup on the island – black power was an empowering political vision and a crucible for my postcolonial/black feminist thinking.

When we came back to England in 1973 we lived in Brixton and I went to the local school. The racism there was incredible.I was determined to show the teachers and the girls in the school that I was as good as them, if not better. And that’s what really drove me to do quite well in my O and A levels. I do think I was racialized before I was feminized! That came later at university when I got married. It was so important to get a place at university that was funded! I think if it weren’t a free place at university I would never have gone! There was this whole expansion of education in the late 70s, there was a grant system. If I was growing up today I would not have that chance. It was an opportunity that was there for everybody. Higher education was being opened out for the working classes, and for girls as well, and it was seen as a natural progression.

When I graduated … it was very racist times in the UK, with the National Front in its zenith. It was very hard to get a job and on top of that I had a young baby. I had got a first for my dissertation so I sent off to Goldsmiths College sociology department and I got an ESRC quota award in 1981. This amazing opportunity changed my life! My PhD thesis was a small-scale ethnography of young Caribbean girls like myself in a London school. Because of my experience I wanted to write about the interplay between career choices and educational structures. So in a way the thesis was about my own life, it was a process of exploring the practices of racism and exclusion which I saw around me. Young Female and Black became a best-selling book with Routledge. It was a cathartic thing to see it in print. I am amazed it did so well. At the time it was very exciting for me … [but] there was a lot of sexual harassment of young women students by male lecturers in universities … a group of women academics … got together to speak out about their transgressions … but … no one would … risk everything … At least as women we felt some safety in numbers and found common ground and solace with each other. … My life chances shaped my feminism which then spilled over into my academic development.

The third generation: Fin Cullen

I was born in the 70s in Lancashire. The second of four kids, and the only girl…I was first-in- the-family to go to university. I saw university as an escape. I chose one as far as I could from the family home and saved all summer. After leaving home at eighteen, I never returned during holidays, and spent the vacations in the university city working as an office worker, a security guard and an usherette to fund my studies …

I became a feminist probably from the age of ten or eleven. By the age of twelve, I was writing to the editors of the now defunct Shocking Pink magazine asking to contribute. My father [a policeman] intercepted a missive from the radical feminist collective (based in a squat in Brixton) which somewhat thwarted my early dream of feminist journalism. By fifteen I was organizing a debating society at my school, on themes such as “Should page 3 be banned” and by eighteen I had read Valerie Solanas, Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and happily introduced myself to a local feminist library … The feminist library and community centre in the large city I moved to was a bit of a shock to me as a small-town teenage feminist. I met women there who described themselves as “political lesbians” and afraid that I might be found out for dating a boy, I promptly had my hair cropped short, wore dungarees and big boots. …I tried to “pass” as gay throughout my first few years at university, fearful that my heterosexual relationship might somewhat destabilise my “authenticity” as a “true” feminist.

Of course, as my feminism developed it became more nuanced. I read more widely and peculiarly, it was my retreat from activism that gave me the space and air to deliberate and explore in a more thoughtful manner a broader range of issues from personal and sexual ethics, societies’ attitudes toward sex and women’s bodies, attitudes towards porn, to women’s position in the labour market… My professional background is very much tied up with the history of identity politics and an interplay between the theoretical, my practice and my activism is entirely possible.

My feminism for the most part has been largely self-sustaining. I grew up knowing few feminists in “real life”. Those I knew were in books, or by the time I reached my teens in the few feminist youth workers, and teachers I came across. My family have at various times been bemused, confused, irked, ashamed, surprised, and amused by my feminism. I think they saw it as a phase – a bit like dyeing your hair pink, when I was in my teens. My mother is of the “second wave” generation, but the women’s movement if it indeed ever indeed reached our town – didn’t seem to have made much of a splash in our circle. I do wonder what might have happened if my mum had attended a CR group rather than a Tupperware party in the lounge of a friend in the mid-70s … I like to imagine a more content life, although I am not sure feminism makes any of us more “content” …

Miriam David’s Feminism, Gender and Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies is published by Ashgate Press in July 2014 (details available here). Thanks to the author and publisher for permission to reprint extracts from the book.



From the archive

On May 1, International Workers’ Day, we highlight a couple of classic T&S pieces dealing with women’s experiences of work and the workplace. In ‘Don’t ask her, she’s just the cleaner‘, Norah Al-Ani recalls working for £10 a week in a job that’s still underpaid, disrespected and mostly done (whether for wages or in the home) by women. In ‘Bully for Men’ Deborah Lee weighs in on an issue that’s still very much with us: sexual harassment–or should that be sexist harassment?–at work. The struggle continues…

End of Equality

Why did the feminist revolution stall, and how do we get it back on track? Those questions are at the heart of Beatrix Campbell’s new book End of Equality. Marina S thinks it’s a timely intervention which should enrage and inspire us all.

Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Seagull Books, 2014)

We live in a liberal age. I mean the term in its technical sense: rule of law, individual rights, social contract, John Stuart Mill, the lot. And one of the founding beliefs of liberalism is the progressive paradigm: that the world naturally tends towards more equal and just conditions on a liberal progression towards ultimate equality.

The danger of such a belief is that it could lead to quietism—a passive expectation that the liberal hereafter will arrive on its own and with no need for active political striving on our part. Arguably, this liberal quietism is where feminism was for the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, and is the key characteristic of the so-called third wave. Against the background of an inexorable march towards liberation, political engagement was unnecessary; a retreat to the individual and a critical gaze turned inwards were the logical next steps. Liberation became personal: a state of mind, a stance of being a liberated or empowered women. The material reality will take care of itself; the wage gap will gradually narrow, political representation will gradually increase, the glass ceiling will gradually dissolve, male violence will gradually decrease.

Well, none of these things has happened. Progress on all equality measures – and many others such as division of labour in the home, civil liberties for women across the Global South and so on – has either stalled or gone into reverse. The first half of Bea Campbell’s new book End of Equality sketches in devastating detail just how stuck the progressive agenda is: the wage gap has been the same for years; men have added just one minute a year to their share of housework; male violence against women is static and unchanging on any measure – against a backdrop of dramatic and prolonged drops in other forms of violent crime – except in Asia where it is devastatingly on the increase in the form of female feticide and dowry murders.

Unfinished revolution

As is often the case with the best of feminist writing, this slim volume makes clear something which has been stubbornly inexplicable: what went wrong for the feminist movement? Why was our revolution unfinished? How could we have failed so badly (we think) when seemingly so close to achieving our goals? Two generations of feminists have wrestled with these questions, quite often wrestling with each other in the process. Recrimination and antagonism was bred from a frustrating failure of the liberal paradigm to explain the backlash of the 80s and beyond. If history always marches towards greater equality, and we are not seeing that equality manifest for women, then the fault, the thinking goes, must be in us: we have failed to be inclusive; we have failed to understand race; we have failed to take the correct attitudes to sexuality, marriage, domestic labour, sex work.

In contrast to this soul-searching, Campbell locates the seeming retreat of feminism in a squarely material framework. The reassertion of capital’s power after its brief post-World War II retreat rolled back or arrested not only feminist politics, but the civil rights movement, the student rebellions and other political liberation movements that were active in the 60s and early 70s. What she terms the ‘neo-patriarchal’ paradigm congealed around and in support of the neoliberal economic and political turn in global affairs in the last third of the 20th century. Not just Britain and the US, but countries as politically diverse as China and India went through processes of ‘liberalisation’ beginning in the 70s, and the impact of these changes on women has often been profoundly regressive.

In China in particular, the retrenchment of government support for childcare, healthcare and retirement has resulted in what Campbell calls the greatest redistribution in history – from women to men. But that redistribution is present elsewhere: here in the UK, Parliament’s own research has shown that 72% of the current government’s budget cuts were taken from women’s pockets. Women financed the bank bailout; women carry the cost – in money and labour – of the retrenching welfare state. And the load is getting greater: research shows that, contrary to expectations, women do much more hours of childcare now than they did in the halcyon days of the patriarchal fifties.

We are being deliberately squeezed at home and abroad, and in many countries (Campbell concentrates on Japan and Korea, but this is the case in Italy and other European countries as well) women are responding by withdrawing their labour. Literally. Birth rates in many advanced economies are significantly below replacement rates and the looming crisis of elderly care is enormous – and likely to play out almost entirely at the expense of women. Paid less for doing the same jobs and, crucially, taking on the majority of severely underpaid part time work, women’s pensions are on average half those of men upon retirement.

It is refreshing to read a book that places the blame for the ‘unfinished revolution’ somewhere other than the revolutionaries. Apart from anything else, there is something deeply intellectually unsatisfying about the notion that with the election of Margaret Thatcher, feminists just kind of stopped; that the second wavers became gullible and immediately bought into the radical individualism of the Me Decade (they didn’t – their daughters and granddaughters did), or that they suddenly lost a weight of power and influence they had previously possessed. The latter in particular is nonsense. Feminists have never run a single government, dominated a single board, been the majority of any judiciary. To conceive of backlash politics as a retreat of feminist influence – or even as a kind of counter revolutionary reaction from a conservative groundswell – is to ignore the wider political context and to pretend that, in the favourite atomistic idiom of neoliberalism, social movements and liberation politics happen as discrete events with no contextual relationship to the wider socio-political environment. In the final analysis, this breathtakingly infuriating book simply makes sense – and helps us make sense of what the next move of feminist politics can and should be.

A call to arms

Bea Campbell may not thank me for saying this, but this is a book for the Twitter age: terse but perfectly formed sentences tumble over each other in breathless rapidity, making one want to reach for one’s phone at a rate of three times per page. It’s also a book crammed full of facts – enraging facts, sad facts, alarming facts, frustrating facts. But the bleak blandness of exhaustively referenced numbers is borne along on a stream of beautiful, heart-swelling prose.

The biggest philosophical difference between neoliberal, patriarchal politics and feminism is that the former is profoundly pessimistic. Human nature in the neoliberal reading is base, selfish, violent and grasping – and incapable of reform. All radical politics is embedded in a confidence that people will strive to cooperate, coexist and care for each other if the material conditions they find themselves in don’t militate against it.

It is no coincidence, in this view, that we live in an age of war without end; an unintelligible series of local skirmishes and conflicts in which women, and the cooperative, relational social capital they nurture, are often the hardest hit, not as accidental ‘collateral damage’ but through deliberate acts of mass rape and disenfranchisement that hit purposefully at the heart of social existence. Violations of human rights, in Campbell’s phrase, ‘are not side effects, but a decisive methodology’. Feminism’s project, in her view, is to bear witness to the ‘wit and heroism that makes up everyday life amid chronic violence’.

This is a hard picture of the world to face up to, to take responsibility for; but it is also a call to arms. In calling for a new revolution, Bea Campbell arms us would-be revolutionaries with an explanatory framework and a set of milestones to strive towards in order to achieve the fundamentally optimistic, life-loving aims of a world free of degradation and destruction. So by all means, let’s live-tweet this book. Let’s send all of it out there into the world to enrage and inspire us all. Now is the right time, and we are the right people. I’ll end with a quote from Campbell herself:

Imagine men without violence. Imagine sex without violence. Imagine that men stop stealing our stuff – our time, our money and our bodies; imagine societies that share the costs of care, that share the costs of everything; that make cities fit for children; that renew rather that wreck and waste. This is women’s liberation. It is do-able, reasonable and revolutionary.


Marina S blogs at It’s Not a Zero Sum Game. Find her on Twitter at @marstrina

See Beatrix Campbell talking about End of Equality here

Creating the world we want to live in now

Speakers at the Writing on the Wall festival’s ‘50 billion shades of feminism’ event in Liverpool last May were asked to reflect on Billion Women Rise. Liz Kelly pondered the tension between purist politics and mass mobilization—and asked whether dancing can be a political act.

First, some ground clearing. My minimal position is that feminism is an understanding that women are oppressed and a commitment to change it: a theory and practice, both of which are in movement.  There are many possibilities and variants, not all of which align with the left or other social movements.  But fifty billion feminisms suggests that we can each craft a personalised version, an idea that sits uneasily with women’s movements, which require collective politics, however fractious.

Billion Women Rise (BWR) marked the 15th anniversary of V-day, the brainchild of playright, poet and survivor of child sexual abuse, Eve Ensler.  For fifteen years across the globe, women have performed her Vagina Monologues on Valentine’s Day to protest violence against women and girls and raise money for women’s organisations. BWR was the audacious idea that in 2013, on February 14th, a billion women would dance to recognise that a billion women and girls have been raped and say, as Ensler does in her enraged poem, that we are ‘over it’.

Ensler is a controversial figure, and I don’t find her easy to like, but that is not the point.  What we need to explore is how she has done feminist politics. Critiques of The Vagina Monologues come from many directions, but the most repeated are that she retains control of the content, and that each performance requires paying a fee to the V-Day Foundation.  I too ranted about this until recently, when I asked myself whether other writers allow anyone and everyone to alter their words. How, once something becomes a global phenomenon, could you create a workable way of vetting and approving new texts? Are they just for single performances or do they become part of an accessible collective library?  And at this festival the question of whether writers should receive royalties when their work is performed must be a live and important one.

So my concern here is whether we hold Eve Ensler – and by analogy other feminists, especially those with a public profile – not just to different, but to unreasonable and unattainable standards.  This then places them in invidious positions, available for ‘trashing’, where any misstep or gap in their politics invalidates what they have done.  This play, flawed as it undoubtedly is, has travelled the globe, been performed in places and spaces where it was a revolutionary and dangerous act for women to say those words: in Afghanistan; by Muslim women in the UK; by survivors of sexual violence.

Ensler was arguably already in this invidious position when she proposed BWR.  Here the most articulated contention has been the mode of action – dancing – with a number of impassioned blogs and a piece in the Huffington Post asking what can dancing have to do with ending VAWG.  I was reminded of that quote from Emma Goldman, ‘if you can’t dance, its not my revolution’ and sought out the original, only to find that she never actually wrote those words.  However, what she did write in her autobiography, Living my Life, is even more relevant.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did  not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.  It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own  business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not  believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and  freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. Iinsisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. [Living My Life, New York: Knopf, 1934, p. 56]

For Emma Goldman joy and pleasure are not anathema to politics, they must be part of it; we transform spaces and relationships – to others and to our bodies – as we claim and create freedom and liberty now.  Feminism has perhaps understood and enacted this more than other progressive movements and the moments I remember as ‘beautiful and radiant’ were all joyful rebellions, challenging conventions, and two involved dancing!  

  • Dancing without tops at a Women’s Liberation conference in the 1970s.
  • Embracing the base at Greenham Common – after decorating the fence, thousands of women collectively shook the fence down.
  • Trafalgar Square in November 1997, at one of the first November Women’s Action national marches against violence women.  We were freezing, had listened to many stirring speeches and stood in silence with candles remembering women who been killed at the hands of men in the last 12 months.  A sound system them blasted I Will Survive across the square and thousands of women began to dance – both warming ourselves, shifting our mood and taking over the square.

Each was a moment of liberation, embodied not just cerebral.  The charge that BWR was just a moment, that moments do not make movements, neglects the point that those in movement need sustaining moments of joy and collective engagement.How many of you have ‘given up’ a form of politics because it became a trial, a test of your ability to continue despite getting nothing and giving much?  This to me is the lesson of BWR – that in 207 countries countless women, and some men, danced, experienced their bodies strongly, joyfully, collectively – it was a symbolic reversal of the shame and pain which sexual violence imposes.

I was teaching all day on February 14th, on a module about sexual violence.  It was another form of pleasure to be able to show a diverse group of students women dancing in Asia, Africa and Latin America – students from those regions were moved and it gave them an immediate window not just on theory but also the practice of feminism.

This is not the whole story though: one of those students is involved in Million Women Rise – the minority women-led march against violence against women that has happened for six years in London – and now other cities – on the Saturday closest to International Women’s Day.  She had a strong critique of Ensler, and especially her work in the Congo, partly due to working closely with a group of Congolese women living in London. Common Cause UK see the V-day Foundation work  – City of Joy  – as a neo-colonial project, in which Eve Ensler assumes a leadership role and fails to challenge the root of the conflict – control over natural resources, especially the mineral coltan.  At the same time 200 rape survivors in Congo chose to live and work in the City of Joy, and appear to have strong relationships with Ensler.  This is where shades of feminism return to challenge and disquiet us – multiple truths jostle for recognition.

So I am left with a conundrum – how is mass mobilisation possible without some simplification? Is complexity and purity of analysis more important? What use is our rage at injustice if we turn it most viciously on each other? My route through this for the last decade is to work in coalitions, and especially the End Violence Against Women coalition. We come together around the issues we agree on, but do not require more.  We debate issues of contention until we arrive at a consensus – it has taken us four years to develop a position on prostitution, for example, since both the TUC and Amnesty UK are members.

Creating the world we want to live in now has always been part of my feminism, spaces where debate can be impassioned AND respectful, where joy and dancing are not ‘frivolous’ extras, where we can be beautiful, radiant and enraged.  For many Billion Women Rise was such a moment, for others not: the shades of feminism.

See Rahila Gupta’s talk from the same event:  http://www.troubleandstrife.org/2013/07/50-billion-shades-of-feminism/

Margaret Thatcher, Then and Now

Margaret Thatcher was as divisive in death as she had been in life: when she died earlier this month there were outpourings of adulation from her admirers, while some of her detractors held protests and parties. Her status as Britain’s first woman prime minister was constantly emphasized, whether in positive terms or negative ones. Here, four contributors reflect on their experiences of the Thatcher years, their feelings about Thatcher and what her career might mean for women and feminists today.


Emma Wallace remembers her involvement in Women Against Pit Closures during the miners’ strike

I was born in 1965 and lived until I was eighteen in a village to the east of Rotherham. There were five collieries within a five-mile radius, and a high proportion of men who lived in the village were employed within the coal industry.

For me the most important event of the 1980s was the 1984-5 miners’ strike. When it broke, I was eighteen years old and had been living in Sheffield for several months. Unemployment was already high in south Yorkshire owing to lay-offs in the steel industry, and being unemployed myself I felt that we all had to fight together to prevent the situation getting any worse. My mother was of the same opinion, so we both went to join the Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures group.

I had never been involved with any political organisation or pressure group before I joined WAPC and I was very impressed with the organisation, as it was highly democratic; we all joined in the decisions, and we all took part in activities to support the strike. There were women in the group from all walks of life with differing viewpoints, perspectives and experiences, and it was wonderful how we all managed to get along with only minor disagreements.

The major function of SWAPC was to fund-raise. We also used to go on demonstrations and arrange pickets, and it was these events more than anything else which affected me, as they opened my eyes to many things which I didn’t realise happened in this country.

Before the strike I had always been of the opinion that we had a fair, just and neutral police force. However, as the dispute progressed I began to realise that this simply wasn’t the case. The police were just as violent towards us as women as they were to the men, but in addition they used to treat us with a mixture of contempt and sexual intimidation. The comment was always made that no woman worked down the pit, so we shouldn’t be on the picket line but at home doing the dishes, or in bed with our husbands. They were often obscene, and frequently talked to us like dirt. In the end I grew to accept this, viewing it as part of the job. The only thing that really worried me was the thought of being arrested whilst I was having a period. I’d heard the police tactic with women was to arrest them and not let them go to the loo, and I felt that being degraded in that way would be more than I could take.

The police tactics at the big pickets were really frightening. One night two of us went to Treeton. There were no police when we got there, but they soon arrived in great numbers. They came in from both sides of the village so, being in effect surrounded, we fled in the only direction we couldn’t see blue flashing lights. I somehow ended up in the middle of a field, alone, not knowing where I was. Then the police searchlights began panning out from behind me and I was on the verge of panic. Over to my left was a small ridge, so I made my way to the bottom and then climbed up. As we looked down we saw blue flashing lights and riot shields everywhere. Because of the searchlights we had to lie flat for the best part of three hours before we dared attempt to leave the village. We got out via railway lines, back gardens, and with a lot of dodging police cars in between. It was an incredible night which could have come straight out of a war film, but it happened less than ten miles from the centre of Sheffield.

Trying to explain what it was like to people who weren’t active in the strike was very difficult because most of the time I wasn’t believed. The TV and press were pouring out endless streams of rubbish, yet apparently they had more credibility than I did. Looking back on it now, I can’t help thinking that if I had been a man in, say, his mid-thirties, rather than an eighteen-year-old woman, people might not have been so dismissive.

After witnessing events such as Orgreave, where thousands of police in full riot gear with horses, dogs and armoured vans, fought with unarmed miners who were trying to picket the coke-works, I began to question our society and the assertion that Britain is a free country. In SWAPC there were women from Greenham Common, and women who had contacts in the Black community and Northern Ireland. After I listened to what they had to say, it began to appear to me that only people who supported the status quo were free; anyone who challenged the status quo, or even questioned it, had the powers of the state brought to bear on them. This idea made me feel uncomfortable, but there can never be a return to my pre-strike viewpoint. I know many women who were involved in the strike share that feeling, because for most of us it was the first time we had ever challenged the state.

The strike ended in March 1985. I went on the march back at Silverwood colliery, on a cold damp morning that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Despite the fact that the strike was lost, I wouldn’t have missed that year for the world, and I’d do it all again tomorrow. I learned so much – about politics, about the country I thought I knew but found I had to come to terms with all over again, about people, about myself and about comradeship. The women at SWAPC had been like an extended family. We’d laughed together, cried together, been tired together and in danger together. We’d all experienced so many different things, but for me that was the spirit of the strike – comradeship.

This is an edited extract from a piece that originally appeared in Surviving the Blues, ed. Joan Scanlon (Virago).


As she joins the protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square, Atiha Sen Gupta ponders Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, and concludes that she is more alive than ever

I had been toying with the idea of going to Trafalgar Square. The idea of gathering in the Square on the Saturday after Margaret Thatcher’s death was conjured up by the Anarchist Collective 24 years ago. I had seen tatty stickers bearing this message pegged to adverts along tube escalators years before her passing. But then again, she was a human being, some counselled: was it wrong to go?


Liberal sensitivities aside, I went to the Trafalgar Square gathering to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was cold. It was raining. I looked up at the sky and thought ‘Et tu, Brute?’ I started to feel that even the clouds were conspiring against us. Was it not enough that £8 million of public funds was going to finance this woman’s ‘ceremonial’ funeral? Was it not enough that the police were threatening to pre-emptively arrest people who wanted to protest her stately departure? However, according to estimates by the press, 3,000 protestors were in attendance. There were 1,700 police officers present. My maths isn’t great but that’s roughly one police officer to every two protestors. I’m flattered.

Seeing so many people out on such a hostile night was comforting. The right-wing media reports of the disgusting antics of left-wingers in rejoicing at her death state the facts but draw no conclusions from it. What does it say that so many people come out to ‘celebrate’ the death of an old woman? Does it say that the British public is fundamentally nasty? No. If John Major died tomorrow, I am willing to bet money that nobody would be out dancing in the streets. There’d be articles in the press condemning or elevating him but the public reaction would be wholly different and altogether more ‘respectful’. The gloating reaction to her death says more about Thatcher and her style of politics than it does about sections of the British public.

When I arrived, the police had encircled the Square in the hope that the revelry wouldn’t spill out of it. But there wasn’t much revelry. There were women, there were men, there were punks, there were drunks, there were teachers, there were students. There were the miners from 1984 bearing a banner from the North-East who appeared like celebrities. People were shaking their hands and having their photos taken with them. I marvelled at the creativity of the left when across the square I caught sight of a wonderful effigy of Margaret Thatcher made out of plumbing pipes, polystyrene and papier maché. She drifted regally across the crowd with square handbag in hand. Cleverly, her makers had her clutch a pint of semi-skimmed milk. Her hair was made up of bright orange Sainsbury’s bags which filled with wind like the sails on a ship and lit up the grey, drab square.

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

The much-repeated and tedious idea that Thatcher was a woman and was therefore a fantastic role model for women is a nonsense – often propagated by men, who have no time for feminism or, by women, who have no time for feminism – do you see a pattern emerging? These anti-feminists (for generosity’s sake, let’s call them ‘non-feminists’) emphatically inform you that Thatcher was in fact a woman and that you should at least respect her for that. This ‘you’ refers to me. I have been involved in two virtual Facebook fights stemming from her death last Monday. The first was particularly nasty. A (female) friend on Facebook had written a eulogising tribute to the great ‘Mrs T’. I waded into the stream of comments and put my opinion down on the screen. One young woman had written that Thatcher dying was nothing to mourn. The reaction was hysterical. I then stepped in to support her and the elitist firing squad turned on me. The internet can be a lonely place. I was called a ‘knob’ for supporting the first anti-Thatcher woman (who was labelled ‘knob 1’). As I took over the anti-Thatcher position, I was labelled ‘knob 2’ which made me despair a little a bit. If you’re going to insult me, at least let me come first in something.

It has shocked me to note how many of my virtual friends (many of whom are women and/or from ethnic minorities) have seen Thatcher’s death as something to mourn – posting non-ironic tributes to her or liking others who have done so. This to me reflects the post-modern universe ushered into existence (to some extent by Thatcher) where nothing is fixed, identity is what you make of it and you can be what you want to be. So what if you’re black and you support Thatcher? That’s your free choice and nobody should pick you up on it. It is hard to speak hypothetically, but I doubt that these university-educated individuals (often with degrees in political science) would have mourned the likes of Thatcher 30 years ago. It wouldn’t have been fashionable. Students are supposed to be radical. If you’re 19 and a Tory where do you have left to go?

People who emphasise the uniqueness of her position as the first and, to date, only woman Prime Minister point out what she did do as a woman (i.e. managing to reach such a high level of office) rather than what she did not do (i.e. bringing women’s issues to the fore to enact societal change). Perhaps she cannot be blamed for this, in that her inaction on women’s struggles was consistent with her overall logic. There was, after all, no such thing as society. There were only individuals who were responsible for their own triumphs or tribulations. In her framework, she was a woman, she had made it and now it was up to other women to make it for themselves (or not). This overbearing individualism marked her time in power, but imagine how much she could have done had she understood feminism, social dynamics and oppression. She could have introduced more women to the Cabinet, she could have funded childcare for women who work, she could have criminalised rape in marriage. Should I go on?

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

Margaret Thatcher was a capitalist first, and a woman second. She was the Jesus Christ of market capitalism. She pulled her socks up and got on with it so that everyone else could. She scraped and saved and succeeded to give us eternal life (on the stock market). Her legacy is everywhere – in the truisms we repeat to ourselves and to others in daily conversation, in the slogans we chant, and in the types of television programmes we watch. If Thatcher commissioned TV drama, she would have programmed The Apprentice (I have to admit – I loved the first two series). Everything about it embodies the spirit of Thatcher’s hopes for Britain: the suave, easy freedom of the boss to fire employees, the mad dash for profit at any cost, the backstabbing and the competitive individualism.

At Trafalgar Square on Saturday, apart from the odd punk shouting ‘Maggie/Maggie /Maggie’ and then answering his own call with ‘Dead/Dead/Dead’, there was a strange unease and dampness to the day that had nothing to do with the rain. If the ambience could be condensed into a question it would read ‘What now?’ I came away with the sense that the biggest tragedy of yesterday is that Thatcher is more alive than ever.


A female role model who shattered the glass ceiling, or a ruthless elitist who treated other women as subordinates? Bea Campbell knows which side she’s on

Let’s begin with the tribute paid to Britain’s first woman Prime Minister by the United States’ first black President Barack Obama: Thatcher, he said, ‘stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.’

But by then the prospects of a woman leading the Conservative Party in the House of Commons were as remote as before her election as leader in 1975. (Scottish Tories, however not only elected a woman leader in 2005 (Annabel Goldie) but a gay woman in 2011 (Ruth Davidson).

Obama’s comment was misleading.

Whereas Obama’s election mantra ‘Yes We Can’ was an affirmation of the electorate’s collective will, and a vindication of black Americans, Thatcher’s mantra might have been ‘Yes I Can’. She was an elitist, not an egalitarian: equality evaporated from her lexicon once she was elected leader in 1975 – ironically UN International Women’s Year.

She always addressed women as something she was not: as subordinate, as homemakers and private people. Women may have enjoyed her performance of power, but even her supporters regretted that she did not empower women or expand their room for manoeuvre in the party or politics generally. At the time of her death, the Conservative Party’s once awesome Women’s Organisation had shrivelled. It did not influence party policy. If individual women were inspired to become MPs, Thatcher had not encouraged her party to select them. Women comprised a pathetic 16 per cent of Tory MPs – below the 22 per cent average among European conservative parties, and well below Labour’s 30 per cent – the outcome of intrepid reform initiated during Thatcher’s tenure of Downing Street.

The notion of a glass ceiling presupposes that like Humpty Dumpty, once broken it could not be put together again. But if the ceiling is a structure, it works like a membrane that can expel or absorb an alien and spontaneously heal over. And so it was with Margaret Thatcher. The concept implies that individuals’ success or failure requires not social change, but merely an ability to withstand the institutions’ metabolic resistance to hitherto foreign bodies. The concept is as problematic as its partner in political crime: the role model.

Thatcherism’s patriarchal priorities are often excused as a problem of critical mass – there just weren’t enough women for her to promote; she would not have been allowed to get away with promoting women’s issues.

This is not sustainable.

Feminist political scientists have queried the notion of critical mass by showing that impact depends not only on numbers, but acts – exemplified by Thatcher herself: she triumphed, she was robust and ruthless.

The difficulty also derives from Thatcherism itself: its triumph was to enforce the lore of the market as the language of life. But that also marked the beginning of the end of the gender gap in favour of the Conservatives.

In the wake of almost obsessive national media attention after her death, Labour was 12 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives but 26 percentage points ahead among women voters. Research showed the complexity of women voters as a category, and the primary importance to them of social support, for relationships, for dependents, health and welfare – the very themes that were imperiled by the free market legacy of Thatcherism.

This is an extract from the introduction to a new e-book edition of Beatrix Campbell’s Iron Ladies, to be published by Virago in May 2013, reproduced by permission of the author and publisher.


Feminists opposing Thatcher were always faced with a dilemma, argues Debbie Cameron.
If not ‘Iron Ladies’, what do we want powerful women to be?

In 1979, the year the British first put Margaret Thatcher into 10 Downing Street, I was a student in Newcastle, and just beginning to get involved in non-student feminist politics. In the north east at the time that meant socialist feminism; many of the women I knew were union activists and members of the Labour Party. It went without saying that we opposed Thatcher’s politics, but we struggled inconclusively with the question of how to do it without endorsing slogans like ‘ditch the bitch’, or pandering to the sexism which said a woman could not be Prime Minister.

This last week has been déjà vu all over again, as ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’ ascended the charts and street parties were held to celebrate Thatcher’s demise. Despite my history as an anti-Thatcher activist, I found these responses disturbing. Not because of their disrespect for the dead or their insensitivity to other people’s grief, but because of their casual misogyny. Bitch, witch, Iron Lady — now as in the 1970s, the epithets are gendered. So is the visceral loathing behind the words: I can’t recall a male politician whose death has inspired proposals to go and dance on his grave.

It’s the Tories who’ve been emphasizing Thatcher’s gender, speaking openly about the prejudice she confronted when she started out, to make the point that she was a trail-blazer, someone who advanced the cause of women. (The BBC commentator on the funeral echoed the point, describing the Queen as ‘a woman who inherited her position honouring one who fought her way to the top’). What feminist commentators have mostly emphasized, meanwhile, is Thatcher’s difference from other women and the way her policies harmed women as a class. She was not, they insisted, ‘one of us’.

It’s possible that Thatcher herself would have preferred the feminist assessment. She was, after all, a rampant individualist, famous for her dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’. But she was wrong about that, and the feminists who have suggested that her gender was an irrelevance are also wrong. Whether she liked it or not, she was judged as a woman; the hatred felt towards her was not gender-neutral. Rather it exemplified the general principle that when men act in ways we consider morally reprehensible they are condemned, but when women do the same things they are demonized.

Margaret Thatcher attracted the particular kind of loathing reserved for powerful women who exercise their power without apology or subterfuge, and are therefore seen as usurping men’s prerogatives. ‘Not a man to match her’, ‘the best man in the Cabinet’ — such assessments might have been offered as praise, but they still depended on the tacit assumption that legitimate authority is male by definition. For her detractors, the same assumption could be used to portray her as unnatural and monstrous. In the satirical TV programme Spitting Image, for instance, she was literally a woman in men’s clothing, her puppet dressed in a suit and tie; in many sketches the joke revolved around the way she emasculated the men in her Cabinet.

The undercurrent of misogyny that swirled around Thatcher throughout her career has been airbrushed out of the eulogies, presented only as one of the many obstacles she had triumphed over in the early part of her career (despite the fact that she was eventually removed from office not by the will of the British people, but by the men of her own party). But feminists should not forget it. Nor, however deeply her political legacy offends us, should we forget that Margaret Thatcher actually did do something that no woman before or since has done: she won power in her own right, and used it unashamedly to pursue her own agenda. She served no master, and feared no opponent. If feminists give her no credit for that, I think that isn’t only because we despised her brand of politics, it’s also because of our own ambivalence about powerful women.

What do we want, as feminists, from our female politicians? If not Iron Ladies, what kinds of women should they be? When I think about the available role models, it drives me almost to despair: loyal female lieutenants with no vision or personality (Margaret Beckett or Theresa May), self-promoting nonentities (Nadine Dorries), women who owe their political influence to their dynastic relationship with a man (Marine Le Pen, Alessandra Mussolini and — in case you think this is just a fascist phenomenon — the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi)—and don’t even get me started on the unelected ‘First Ladies’ who get so much attention in the media.

One female politician who seems to have acquired something of a feminist following is a fictional character: the Moderate Party leader who becomes Prime Minister in the Danish TV drama Borgen. To me, though, she is a depressingly reactionary figure: politically she embodies the ‘feminine’ desire for consensus, and in the course of two series her personal life goes to hell — her husband divorces her and her daughter has a nervous breakdown.

How did we get from Margaret Thatcher to this? Since she died I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone piously intoning that she ‘did so much for women in politics’, but when you look at women in politics what’s most striking is how little they resemble her. And I don’t mean that in a positive way: I mean that old habits have reasserted themselves, so that male dominance and misogyny are as entrenched in today’s political culture as they were before 1979. In office Thatcher was no token woman, but history might yet turn her into one. If so, it will show how little difference she really made to the underlying structures of patriarchal power.

Women of 2011 1

After reading that the BBC had chosen a panda as one of its women of the year in 2011, and that half the actual women on its list were notable only for marrying or shagging powerful men, I thought T&S could do better. So, to start the ball rolling, here’s my own roll-call of the year’s most memorable women:

World politics: the women activists of the Arab revolutions (and not only those whose names we’ve learned because they speak/write/blog/tweet in English).

National politics: Angela Merkel. The Eurozone crisis might not have been her finest hour, but she still advanced the cause of women political leaders by being so much less appalling than Berlusconi, Cameron, Sarkozy et al.

Local politics: Pauline Pearce, the woman who took issue with some rioters in Hackney. She talked more sense in a few minutes than politicians and pundits managed in hours of heated debate and pointless waffle.

Feminist campaigners: Tristane Banon, the French woman who told the world that Dominique Straus-Kahn had form even before he was accused of sexual assault by a New York hotel chambermaid; also

Tanya Rosenblit, who challenged the growing religious pressure for sex-segregation in Israel by refusing to sit at the back of the bus; and

Laura Nelson, who got Hamley’s toy shop in London to organize their toys by category rather than by gender (she also inspired a columnist for an Irish Sunday newspaper to rant under the immortal headline ‘SEXIST MY ARSE’).

Media personalities: Sue Perkins. How many women on the telly are equally at home presenting a baking competition, conducting a brass band and displaying their wit and erudition on QI? And how many of them are lesbians?

Light entertainment/satire: Princess Beatrice. Who knows if it was deliberate, but she made the royal wedding look even more ridiculous by wearing a giant pretzel on her head.

The mighty fallen: Rebekah Brooks—not that I’m applauding her, but she’s a rare case of a powerful woman being brought down for sins of some actual moral consequence, and not just because of sexism and double standards. The cardinal points of her wonky moral compass went beyond the usual female repertoire (‘slag, adulterer, gold-digger, bad mother’).

The late lamented: Cesaria Evora, singer; Amy Winehouse, singer; Christa Wolf, novelist.

And finally…IMHO, the female animal of the year (not to be confused with a woman) is not Tian Tian the panda, but the nameless polar bear who was judged too dangerous to film for Frozen Planet, thus sparking a row about reality and fiction in nature programmes.

Note to the BBC: I’ve managed to find enough human women to list without even touching on art, business, science or sport… Feel free to add your own nominations, sisters, and may 2012 bring joy to one and all


Libbers 8

I’m not quite sure what to make of tonight’s Libbers episode of the BBC Four programme Women.

I’m trying to figure out who the target audience is intended to be. For women familiar with the women’s liberation movement, there is potentially some interesting history and archive footage, but I can’t imagine what women unfamiliar with the politics and history of the movement might make of it.

As a history of the origins of the movement, it didn’t quite hit the mark, as it focussed on a few (famous, white, middle class) (mostly) writers: Robin Morgan, Kate Millett, Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, Sheila Rowbotham, Ann Oakley, Susan Brownmiller, and Lynn Alderson.

As an exploration of early influential feminist writings, it also didn’t quite work. For example, the programme gave varying amounts of background to Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, Greer’s The Female Eunuch and French’s The Women’s Room, but didn’t mention any of Rowbotham’s writings and gave short shrift to Millett’s Sexual Politics.

The writer/director Vanessa Engle seemed to have a checklist of things to question her subjects about, regardless of whether it arose naturally within the context of the interview — most bizarrely asking each of them if they had vaginal or clitoral orgasms. WTF?