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

Not the revolution…but not the end of the world 2

Britain has got its second woman Prime Minister–and once again, she’s a Conservative. You wouldn’t expect feminists to be hailing this result as a triumph, but why, asks Debbie Cameron, are so many of them proclaiming it a  disaster?   

The first article I saw was in the New Statesman, and I thought: ‘well yes, of course’.

The second was in the Guardian.  I thought, ‘right’.

The third was in the (Scottish) National. I thought, ‘OK, but this is getting a bit repetitive’.

Then three more popped up in my feed in quick succession, from various news and comment websites. I thought, ‘hang on a minute, what is this?’

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, the answer is, opinion pieces dealing with the battle between two women for the Tory leadership. Opinion pieces written by women, and summarized in headlines like these:

A leadership contest between two women is not a feminist revolution.

Don’t confuse the Conservatives’ embrace of women leaders with feminism.

Sub-prime: is May vs Leadsom good for feminism? (spoiler: no it fucking well isn’t)

May or Leadsom? Either way, our next PM will be a disaster for feminism.

This contest is, of course, old news: I’d barely started to write about it when Andrea Leadsom announced she was withdrawing and leaving the field to Theresa May. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to discuss. The point commentators were making when it was May v. Leadsom is still being made now it’s just May; it would be made about any woman who aspired to lead the Conservative Party, and probably about many who might aspire to lead other parties.  And I want to explain why I think that’s a problem.

No, it’s not a feminist revolution–but who said it was?

I don’t disagree with the (obvious) point that these women’s political views are antithetical to the principles of feminism. Leadsom is a free-market zealot and a social conservative who bangs on about God and family values. May is less of an ideologue, but at the Home Office she has taken a hard authoritarian line on human rights, immigration and security.  She has now, as PM-elect, laid out a programme which surprised me by looking much less right-wing than I’d have imagined, but I’m not really expecting her administration to be any better for women than the Conservative-led governments we’ve had since 2010. It could well be worse, if there’s a post-Brexit economic meltdown and her response is to initiate a new round of slash-and-burn austerity measures. If that happens it will be women (as the majority of part-time and low-paid workers, public sector employees, single parents, carers and, of course, users of specialist women’s services which have already been cut to the bone) who will suffer most.

So, there’s no way I’m going to confuse the Tories’ willingness to make Theresa May their next Prime Minister with a feminist revolution. But I still think there’s something a bit odd about this stream of finger-wagging articles telling me not to.

Several of the authors begin by implying that when they criticize May and Leadsom they are departing from some kind of feminist orthodoxy. In her New Statesman piece, for instance, Laurie Penny writes:

I have spent the day being informed that I should be pleased that the future leader of my country will be female.

Really, Laurie?  By whom?  You’re a prominent social justice warrior who works for a left-wing magazine, so where did you encounter all these cheerleaders for May and Leadsom?

Then there’s Kate Pasola in The Skinny, who has somehow been made to feel that the right response to an all-female Prime Ministerial contest would involve

doing handstands on the back of a motorbike, braless, wasted and screaming for joy.

Where, I wonder, did she get that idea?

By the time I’d read four variations on this theme, I was starting to think I must have missed a whole other set of articles by feminists making the argument Penny and Pasola criticize—that the Tory contest was a triumph for feminism. So I started to search through the coverage more systematically. What I found was a further crop of pieces just like the ones I’d already read (i.e., ‘stop telling me this is good for feminism because it isn’t’) and not a single piece making the opposite argument from a feminist perspective. I did find one piece by a Tory who said the contest was a triumph for women, but the point was that the rise of May and Leadsom showed that feminism wasn’t necessary: women could succeed on their own merits without the special treatment feminists were always demanding.

So, if anyone actually had confused the Tory leadership contest with a feminist revolution, I didn’t find the incriminating evidence. Instead I found myself asking what had prompted so many emphatic refutations of an argument no one, and certainly no feminist, seemed to have made.

And that wasn’t my only question.

‘The inevitable barrage of misogyny’

I take it for granted that no one with a serious feminist political analysis could be anything but deeply unhappy with a right-wing Conservative government. But that was always what we were going to get after the referendum: the Tories won the 2015 General Election, and if the nation had voted to stay in the EU we’d have been stuck with David Cameron till 2020. When the result turned out to be Leave and Cameron resigned, the general expectation was that we’d be getting Boris Johnson instead. Replacing, in other words, one smirking, self-serving Old Etonian with another who would follow much the same path.

Then when Johnson withdrew it looked as if we might get the guy who stabbed him in the back, Michael Gove—not an Old Etonian, but a fully paid-up member of the swivel-eyed loon tendency.  However, Gove’s behaviour towards Johnson turned out to be too much even for his fellow-loons. So May became the ‘continuity’, ‘safe pair of hands’ candidate and Leadsom stepped into the vacant loon slot.

In the event of a leadership election someone was always going to fill those positions. The fact that they were both filled by women wasn’t the result of any conspiracy to make the Tories look like feminists. It was more of an improvised solution to the unforeseen problem of men going seriously off-piste.  But what the writers of these endless ‘it’s a disaster for feminism’ pieces seem to be saying is that they’d rather things had gone according to plan, and that we’d ended up with another male PM. That Johnson or Gove would not have been as bad for feminism, or for the majority of women, as May or Leadsom.

The thinking behind this comes closest to being made explicit by Kate Pasola:

Intersectional feminism gains nothing from a female prime minister when the options are May and Leadsom. I’m dreading their policies and their attitudes, as I would with any right-wing leader. But I’m also dreading the inevitable barrage of misogyny these women will endure. I’m dreading their inevitable legacies as iron women and witches; for their evil actions to be tethered arbitrarily to their gender. I’m not excited for a woman to be given the power to represent my gender, only to see it go to sore, heartbreaking waste.

She’s saying that these right-wing women will be judged as representatives of their sex, and that their actions will be presented in specifically gendered terms; like Margaret Thatcher before them, they’ll be remembered as iron ladies and evil witches. And she correctly identifies the reason: misogyny.  But by writing a piece about how terrible the two women are and how much she wishes they had not been chosen, she is arguably repeating the very gesture she claims to deplore.  Adding, in effect, to the ‘barrage of misogyny’.

Of course I’m not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize Tory women; but why can’t we do it ‘as we would with any [male] right-wing leader’, on the basis of their beliefs and words and actions?  As feminists, should we not also be critical of the double standard which makes it OK to judge women as more evil than men who think/say/do exactly the same things?

Just before the bit I’ve already quoted from her article, Kate Pasola mentions a friend of hers asking ‘is this what Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse for?’  Rhetorically, this is obviously a question expecting the answer ‘no’. But actually I think the true answer must be ‘yes’. Suffragettes like Davison believed that women’s enfranchisement was desirable in and of itself. They demanded political rights for women without attaching conditions. There was no, ‘so long as they’ve got the right politics and vote in the approved manner’.

Some socialists did fear that giving women the vote would only help the Conservative Party, and for several decades it was in fact the case that the Tories benefited most. But would any contemporary feminist seriously suggest that suffrage was therefore bad for women and ‘a disaster for feminism’?  It’s one thing to say that equal rights are insufficient (which second wave feminists did say, loudly), and another to say they are unnecessary or irrelevant.

Maybe this has some bearing on a question broached by numerous commentators on the May/Leadsom contest, including Eve Livingstone in the Guardian:

Much has been made of the fact that, for all its talk of feminism and equality, the left has returned a grand total of zero female prime ministers, in comparison to what will become the Conservatives’ two.  … What is the secret to [the Tories’] success? Is it a strong commitment from leadership to equal representation? A particularly good mentoring and coaching initiative? Positive action strategies?

Obviously not, but the answer Livingstone eventually arrives at does not really get to the heart of the matter.

In a country so entrenched in inequality, it’s no coincidence that our female leaders have come from the right with an inherently sexist ideology of individualism and meritocracy. It’s that very inequality that ensures the system doesn’t fit women leaders of any other ilk.

This seems to miss the point that male dominance is entrenched on the left as well as the right: it’s not just ‘the system’ that keeps women out, it’s the actions of men defending their own interests. I do think she is right to point to the ideology of individualism and meritocracy as a factor which makes things slightly easier for a small number of right-wing women. A woman leader who presents herself as an individual exception to the male norm, and who does not demand equality for women as a group, is not a threat to men’s collective power; they know her ascendancy will only be a temporary blip, after which normal service will resume. So they can afford to be relaxed about the occasional female leader–especially if she steps into the breach when the party is divided or the country is in crisis (May will be dealing with both those situations).

But I think there are other reasons why female leaders have been more acceptable on the right than the left. One has to do with the ingrained cultural misogyny alluded to by Kate Pasola—the tendency to put powerful women in sex-specific boxes with labels like ‘overbearing mother’, ‘strict nanny’, ‘headmistress’, ‘Iron Lady’, ‘wicked witch’.  These archetypes have currency across the political spectrum: they don’t belong exclusively to either the right or the left. But on the right some of them can sometimes be made to work to a female leader’s advantage.  heel

This is because the right attracts authoritarians, people who respond positively to firmness and discipline. Not all of them like being told what to do by a woman, but they do at least find archetypal female authority figures like Mummy and Nanny familiar and understandable. For some men women’s firmness is comforting, for others it may even be a turn-on—think of Mitterand’s description of Thatcher as having ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’, or the fetish that’s been made of Theresa May’s shoes (notice that the cartoon I’ve reproduced comes from a pro-Tory paper: the ‘female leader as dominatrix’ idea isn’t only used by political opponents to delegitimize women, it can also be deployed by their admirers). And precisely because they aren’t feminists, right-wing women have fewer scruples about exploiting their femininity by playing up to these traditional sexist stereotypes.

On the left, by contrast, which is ideologically anti-authoritarian, the traditional female authority figures have little or no appeal. In addition, most left-wing women don’t want to play Mummy or the Iron Lady. They’d rather downplay their femininity than exploit it: they believe they should be treated as men’s comrades and their equals. In practice, however, they often find out the hard way that however they behave, their sex affects the way they’re perceived. They get stereotyped (and then resented) by default, because there are no alternative, widely intelligible models of female (or gender-neutral) political leadership.

Purity politics?

Another thing that helps to maintain male dominance on the left is the kind of feminist purity politics exemplified by the articles I began with. The sentiment they express could be glossed as ‘If we can’t have a woman leader who perfectly represents all our political ideals, we’d rather not have one at all. No compromise, sisters! If she isn’t going to lead us to the Promised Land where all oppressions melt away, then she’s an enemy of true feminism and our policy must be zero tolerance’.

Some of this may be virtue-signalling, and some of it may be about expecting more from women than we do from men, and therefore being more critical of women who fall short. But I don’t think those things are the whole story. Feminist ambivalence about female leadership goes back a long way.

The second wave Women’s Liberation Movement was self-consciously egalitarian and anti-hierarchical, rejecting the idea that feminist groups should have leaders or spokeswomen. Individual women who were seen or publicly treated as movement leaders, whether or not they had actually sought that status for themselves, were often subjected to harsh criticism.  In the context of feminist activism the rejection of hierarchy makes sense (even if it has sometimes been taken to overzealous extremes). But it is counter-productive to carry the same attitude over into the context of mainstream party politics.  If you’re working within a hierarchically-structured organization, the only thing you’ll achieve by refusing to compromise on your vision of the ideal feminist leader is an endless succession of male leaders.

But there are now feminists who seem to believe that it’s irrelevant, or even crassly reactionary, to care whether women are represented in leadership positions. The Labour MP Jess Phillips has been attacked by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn for suggesting that her Party’s continuing preference for male leaders is a symptom of its continuing sexism. Some of her critics have said explicitly that Corbyn is a better feminist than any of the available women: it’s the politics that matter, not the sex of the individual who promotes them. Similarly, across the Atlantic, some of Bernie Sanders’s supporters insist that he will do more to advance the feminist cause than Hillary Clinton.

At the centre of this argument is a serious point: that the interests of highly privileged women should not take priority over those of the poorest and most oppressed, or indeed the great majority of less privileged women. Few feminists would disagree with that. If some decided, on that basis, to vote for Sanders rather than Clinton (or Corbyn rather than Eagle), I can understand their reasoning. What bothers me is when feminist women go from saying: ‘given the choice between these two individuals I’m afraid I’ll have to go for the man’ to ‘it really shouldn’t matter to a feminist whether a leader is male or female: the question is whether he or she has the right policies’.

Invariably this is said by a woman who is defending her support for a particular male politician, a Sanders or a Corbyn. But when it’s elevated to a general principle, I think it points to the difficulty we still have in visualising women leaders who aren’t just clones of the ones we’ve already found wanting, like Thatcher and Clinton. Why do we think women leaders can only ever represent the narrow interests of the group they belong to (typically white middle-class professional women), when male politicians—usually also white and from an elite class—are credited with the ability to go beyond that? Why can’t we imagine a female socialist leader, or a working class feminist leader? Maybe the answer has something to do with the fact that we’ve never had one. But if so, isn’t that a serious flaw in the argument that it doesn’t matter who a leader is, only what his or her policies are?

Oddly enough, you don’t hear feminists making that argument about anything else. No one says ‘it doesn’t matter whether women become scientists so long as the men are doing the right kind of science’.  Or ‘it doesn’t matter if there are no women on the Booker Prize shortlist so long as the men’s books present women sympathetically’. On those subjects the feminist refrain is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls need to know that science or literature isn’t just a male preserve, and to really know that, to internalize the truth of it, they need to see women doing science, or writing critically-acclaimed novels.

Political leadership is no different. If we are ever to have women leaders of the kind we really want, the kind we could not just dutifully support but actually be inspired by, we need future generations to see female leadership as normal and unremarkable. And for that to happen, we need to recognize that the female leaders we don’t like or agree with have as much right to be where they are as their male equivalents. They may be no better, but they’re also no worse. We don’t have to like them, make common cause with them, or refrain from criticising their shitty politics. But nor do we have to condone—still less join in with—the chorus of everyday misogyny. We can point out that the elevation of Theresa May is not a feminist revolution without suggesting it’s the end of the world.

Situating agency 1

Feminist debates on violence against women have often become polarized by conflicting ideas about women’s agency. But in her research on street harassment, Fiona Vera-Gray found that Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of ‘situation’ offered a way to move our thinking forward.

There is a growing need to revisit our conceptual frameworks for understanding men’s violence against women and girls. Recent high-profile cases have raised public awareness of the extent of sexual violence; by using digital media, feminist activists have highlighted the everyday nature of men’s intrusive behaviour. The diverse voices that give feminism as a political movement its complexity and reflexivity have undoubtedly been amplified. But the internet has also changed the way we create, take in and distribute information; often we end up speaking over rather than to one another.

Has our thinking paid the price for this? When we are caught up in the practicalities of provision, prevention, prosecution and policy-making, we can easily miss opportunities to reflect on our differing perspectives and the unresolved tensions between them—to think about how our practice can inform our concepts, and how our concepts can inform our practice. Here I want to briefly sketch my own attempts to grapple with some of these issues – in particular the challenges of theorising women’s agency in the context of men’s intrusion – and share how I discovered an untapped resource in the work of Simone de Beauvoir.

Safety vs. freedom

Across feminist perspectives there is what has been described as a ‘chronic need’ to theorise women’s agency, and in particular women’s embodied agency. That need is felt particularly in relation to debates on issues like prostitution and pornography, where it is often suggested that placing emphasis on the context in which women are making choices is equivalent to negating their ability to choose (a view exemplified in the recent decision of Amnesty International to support the decriminalisation of the prostitution system). It is also seen in the routine rejection of feminist self-defence as a rape prevention strategy, on the grounds that this may encourage victim-blaming in cases where women do not fight back. It seems we have reached a point where suggesting that women can act through our bodies is equated with blaming us for when we can’t.

The absence of a framework which recognizes both that women have agency and that it is limited by the context in which it is exercised can have devastating real world effects. An illustration can be found in the independent inquiry on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, which revealed systemic failings in the statutory response—many of them rooted in a misunderstanding of what appeared on the surface to be young women’s agency. Instead of being seen as making choices in a context of coercion and constraint, young women were imagined as free and autonomous agents who were effectively choosing their own exploitation.

Focusing on violence against women and girls as a context which structures and limits our freedom often prompts accusations of espousing a ‘victim feminism’ that undermines women’s sexual agency. But that perspective is itself unhelpfully reductive: it does not acknowledge the complex, multiple and uneasy ways in which women, individually and collectively, actually live our agency, and our oppression, within the current gender order.

I came to recognise the need to expand our thinking about women’s embodied agency when I was doing research on what is commonly termed ‘street harassment’, meaning men’s intrusions on women in public space. I struggled to find a way of celebrating women’s skilful navigation of men’s intrusions – looking down, wearing headphones, dressing in dark colours, always sitting near the door – while at the same time acknowledging how this ‘safety work’ limits our freedom.

‘Safety work’ is the term Liz Kelly uses to describe the strategising and planning that women and girls undertake in responding to, avoiding and/or coping with men’s violence. The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive: we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive without external confirmation. That confirmation generally comes in the form of escalation: he moves from staring to touching, he walks quicker behind you, he blocks your path. This escalation is what safety work is designed to disrupt. Women learn to quietly make changes, continually evaluating the situation to decide what constitutes ‘the right amount of panic’. Such work, repeated over time, becomes habitual: it is absorbed into the body as a kind of hidden labour.

From the perspective of lived experience there is an opposition between taking actions to increase our safety and taking actions to increase our freedom—increasing one means decreasing the other. But from the perspective of theory, how should we conceptualise a woman’s decision to limit her freedom in exchange for an increased feeling of safety? On one hand it does not seem helpful to argue that she has no choice: a feminist argument that denies the ability of women and girls to act does nothing to increase their capacity for action. On the other hand there is something distinctly uncomfortable about claiming women’s ‘safety work’, which decreases their freedom, as an expression of women’s agency.

Bringing back Beauvoir

For me, it was Simone de Beauvoir’s understanding of the self as a situated embodied subject that provided a framework for understanding this tension. It might seem strange to talk about ‘bringing back Beauvoir’, since her groundbreaking work The Second Sex is referenced constantly in feminist theoretical discussions. But Beauvoir’s ideas have often been misrepresented or misunderstood. In recent debates on sex and gender, her work has been invoked to support both the voluntarist conception of gender favoured by queer theorists, and the opposing view that emphasizes the biological realities of the female body and the role of social processes in gendering it. In fact, both of these views are incompatible with Beauvoir’s understanding of our culturally inscribed, material embodiment. The ‘objective’ body described by biologists simply does not exist in Beauvoir’s account. Her thought is located in a phenomenological tradition that tried to limit abstraction and instead describe experience as it is lived. We can never experience the human body outside of it being someone’s body, a lived bodily-self situated in a particular place and time.

Historically, a major obstacle to English-speaking feminists’ understanding of Beauvoir was their reliance, for over fifty years, on an extremely problematic translation of The Second Sex. The translator, a male zoologist, cut a third of the original text, and had no understanding of the philosophical tradition that shaped Beauvoir’s own linguistic choices. There is now a new translation which, though not without its own problems, goes some way towards giving the English-speaking reader a truer sense of Beauvoir’s ideas about the situation of women. But when her work is fragmented, reduced to the occasional quote dropped into an argument to support one or other of the orthodox positions, we are missing the uniqueness of her insights overall, and how they can help move us forward in our conceptual thinking about men’s violence against women.

(Re)located in its original philosophical context, The Second Sex provides a map for building theory that speaks to the commonality of women’s experience of men’s violence without losing sight of the way our varying social and personal histories shape the way violence is individually experienced. Beauvoir offers us a theory of embodied selfhood that also accounts for the different meanings given to the individual and generated by the individual through their socio-historical location. Crucially, her account of the self as ‘always uniquely situated’ acknowledges the way agency is rooted in real, and often restrictive, contexts, without suggesting that any acknowledgment of the limits of particular situations effectively denies women autonomy.

The situated self

Beauvoir credited Jean-Paul Sartre with originating the idea of ‘situation’, but correspondence between the two of them that was published after her death revealed this as a misrepresentation. Rather what the letters contain is a series of disagreements about, and developments of, the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger on the concept of ‘being-in-situation’.

For Heidegger, human existence has the inescapable characteristic of ‘thrownness’. We are thrown without knowledge or choice into a world that was there before us and will remain after us, and in this thrownness we find ourselves in the world always already in a particular situation, again one that is not of our own choosing.

For example, I was born as a white, able-bodied female in the early 1980s, in a small logging town on the North Island of New Zealand. None of these material conditions, their socio-historical meaning, or indeed my entry into the world itself, are expressions of my freedom; but my freedom nevertheless depends on them. My situation is what makes my freedom possible, as well as being the starting point from which I choose my projects. The influence of our situation on our choice of projects is seen in the way that situation acts to expand our possibilities in the world. A change to my birthplace would have changed my possibilities; a change to my body would have altered the starting point for my perspective on the world. From our situation we make choices from which in turn we derive our meaning. Our situation does not determine us, yet it does give us a location within the world through which it becomes meaningful – through which it becomes ‘ours’.

Beauvoir developed Heidegger’s concept to talk about how this situation that we find ourselves thrown into, a situation which includes our embodiment and the associated meanings and possibilities, is both the point from which we make choices—and thus the basis of our freedom—and the source of our limitations. Human ‘being’ is such that we have the ability to act on the world, and to make it our own through the taking up of projects we find meaningful (the project of ending men’s violence against women, for example). At the same time our situation is constituted by forces that are not of our making, forces that may act to limit the projects we choose and the meanings they have for us (would we have chosen the same projects if we did not have certain lived experiences—e.g., for many of us, experiences of men’s violence?)

For Beauvoir we are both free and constrained, with neither lived reality cancelling out the other. Her philosophy insists on the ambiguity of human existence, rejecting simple binary oppositions between freedom and constraint, subject and object, actor and victim: it is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

Situated agency

Beauvoir’s work offers important insights for current feminist theorizing about women’s agency, especially though not only sexual agency, as it is lived under patriarchy. Her concept of situation provides us with a theoretical tool that enables us to explore the ambiguous, ‘both/and’ position of the ‘victim-survivor’. It helped me to see that safety work is an expression of the way women are both acted on by, and capable of choosing to act within, the patriarchal gender order. The idea of situated agency, agency that is simultaneously free and restricted, can help us resist the temptation to see women’s responses to male violence and intrusion as evidence of their lack of agency, without feeling obliged to go to the other extreme and suggest that their actions are expressions of absolute freedom.

There are connections here with Evan Stark’s theorisation of the constraints imposed on women by controlling partners as limiting women’s opportunities rather than their capacity to enact their life projects. Stark states that in reconceptualising domestic violence from an assault-based model to one of experienced reality, ‘no challenge was more formidable than conveying the extent of women’s resiliency, resistance, capacity and courage in the face of coercive control without minimizing the comprehensiveness of the strategy’. Such a claim connects to Beauvoir’s idea of ‘situation’, referring to the total context in which and through which we choose our projects and so give our life meaning. For Stark, as for Beauvoir, freedom and agency are situated.

The ideas developed by Beauvoir open up a space for feminists wanting to talk about Liz Kelly’s concept of the continuum of sexual violence as a constraining context for women, without denying women’s autonomy and our acts of resistance and resilience. Our choices, our actions, and even our desires are not free-floating: they spring from our material bodies, which are located in ways that open up some possibilities to us while closing down others. All agency is situated.

In the frame 1

Debbie Cameron takes a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution.

Let’s start with a question. Are you pro-sex or anti-sex?

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘of course I’m not anti-sex, who the hell would be against sex?’

Or maybe you’re thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, aren’t those terms a bit loaded?’

And of course, they are. But that comes with the territory. It’s in the nature of political arguments to be conducted in loaded language. The proverbial ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is always, among other things, a war of words.

‘Pro-sex’ (or ‘sex positive’) and ‘anti-sex’ are shorthand labels for political positions on a set of issues (including pornography and prostitution) which have divided feminists since the 19th century. ‘Anti-sex’ is what the ‘pro-sex’ camp call the people on the other side of the argument: it’s not what the other side call themselves. (Because who the hell would be against sex?)

But the competing terms in a political argument aren’t always straightforward opposites like ‘pro-/anti-sex’. In debates on abortion, the opposing camps are most commonly labelled ‘pro-choice’ (supporting women’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy) and ‘pro-life’ (defending the sanctity of human life and the rights of unborn children). Each side has chosen a label that suits its own argument, and both have been relatively successful in getting others, including the media, to respect their terminological preferences.

There’s more to these preferences than just the words themselves. As the linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains, ‘every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework’. For instance,

If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing.

So when the people in a suburban street complain about the council’s new parking restrictions and the local newspaper reports this under the headline ‘Residents in parking revolt’, that implicitly directs us to judge their action in positive terms, as if they were downtrodden peasants courageously resisting tyranny. If instead the paper had called it a ‘parking squabble’, that would frame the residents’ grievance as trivial and petty.

The power of framing to shape perceptions of an issue is what makes the choice of terms tactically important. Lakoff has written extensively about the way this works in arguments between conservatives and progressives in the USA. One of the cases he examines is the argument about cutting taxes for the wealthy—or as the conservatives who favour this measure put it, offering them ‘tax relief’. Progressives oppose tax cuts, but they also use the term ‘tax relief’, and in Lakoff’s view that’s a tactical mistake. The word ‘relief’ frames paying tax as a painful affliction—a frame that reflects the conservative view and so gives them an advantage in the argument. When the progressives declare themselves ‘against tax relief’, they are accepting rather than challenging the conservative view of tax as an intolerable burden. And when tax is framed as a burden, the politician who offers ‘relief’ will be more popular than the one who doesn’t.

What Lakoff thinks the progressives should do is frame the issue in a different way. Like, ‘paying taxes is paying your dues to your country’. If rich people take pride in their ability to pay the hefty subscriptions charged by exclusive country clubs, they should also be proud to pay for their membership of what so many of them like to call ‘the greatest country on earth’. More generally, he argues that whoever controls the framing of an issue stands a better chance of winning the argument. It’s a mistake to accept terms which have been chosen by your opponents to serve their own interests, and to let them define your position for you.

In the case of abortion feminists haven’t fallen into that trap. But on other issues, especially issues which feminists are divided on, the situation is rather different.

Prostitution/sex work: framing the debate

The current debate on what to do about prostitution (or ‘sex work’—different terms, different frames) is a case in point. On this issue there are two competing arguments which both claim to be progressive. The first is that commercial sex should be legally available in the same way as other personal services: the state should treat the (mainly female) purveyors and the (overwhelmingly male) consumers as equal, autonomous agents, and should not limit their freedom by making the buying or selling of sex a crime. Wanting less state interference and fewer restrictions on free trade is a position typically associated with the political right, but in the case of the sex trade it’s more common on the left. It’s also the position taken by some feminists.

Other feminists, however, view prostitution as a fundamentally exploitative institution which depends on and reproduces inequality between men and women. From that perspective there is nothing ‘progressive’ (or as Jeremy Corbyn recently put it, ‘civilized’), about making it more easily accessible and more socially acceptable. Supporters of this argument do agree with the opposing camp that the state should stop punishing prostitutes. What they favour is the ‘Nordic model’ (so called because it was pioneered in Scandinavia, though it has recently also been adopted in France), in which the law defines purchasing sex as a crime, and it’s the buyer rather than the seller who is penalized.

This second group of feminists has struggled to present itself as ‘progressive’ and to resist being labelled ‘conservative’ by the first group. In Britain last August, a YouGov poll found that the majority of respondents thought ‘consensual sex work’ should be legal—though the overall majority in favour wasn’t large (around 54%), and there was a significant difference between men and women. A clear majority (65%) of men were in favour, with only 15% opposed; most women, by contrast, were either opposed (27%) or undecided (30%), with 43% in favour.

The reasons why people hold the views they do are likely to be multiple and complex; but one relevant consideration may be the way language has been used in this debate. Feminist opponents of prostitution have arguably done the same thing Lakoff criticizes progressives in the US for doing in the argument about tax relief: they’ve accepted terms that favour the other side. In particular, they’ve accepted that what they’re arguing about is most aptly described as the ‘decriminalization’ of prostitution.

One immediate problem with this is that it’s confusing. In reality, both sides want to decriminalize the selling of sex: the point they disagree on is whether buying sex should be legal. Sometimes, campaigners for the Nordic model try to get around this confusion by explaining that what they oppose is ‘full’ decriminalization (meaning, of buyers and sellers alike). How well this works depends on how aware the audience is of the details of the competing legal proposals (for those who are not deeply engaged with the debate, the difference between ‘decriminalization’ and ‘full decriminalization’ is probably obscure). But in any case, there’s a more general issue about the way the term ‘decriminalization’ frames the question being debated.

Whenever there’s a proposal to ‘decriminalize’ something, the implication is that its current status as a crime is arbitrary and unjust. The fact that it has been ‘criminalized’–made into a crime–is either a reflection of conservative social attitudes from which most people have now moved on, or else an expression of the state’s need to control its citizens, especially those it perceives as a threat to the existing order (e.g. youth, the poor, and members of ethnic or sexual minorities). This was the argument that led to the decriminalizing (under certain conditions) of abortion and sex between men in the late 1960s. These were/are said to be ‘victimless crimes’, acts which do not harm others, and which therefore should not be forbidden or punished.

For people on the political left, who pride themselves on their tolerant social attitudes and their resistance to authoritarianism and injustice, the term ‘decriminalization’ works like ‘revolt’ in Lakoff’s example: it frames the proposal in positive terms, as the obviously ‘progressive’ thing to do. Conversely, the label ‘anti-decriminalization’ frames the people it is applied to as the opposite of progressive. The label says nothing about their political motives; it merely suggests that they are standing in the way of change, and so endorsing a right-wing ‘law and order’ agenda. In fact, feminist critics of prostitution reject the traditional conservative case against it (that it flouts the religious/moral norm prohibiting extra-marital sex, and that the women involved in it are ‘dirty’); but they do not believe it is ‘victimless’ or harmless. However, the ‘pro-versus-anti-decriminalization’ frame does nothing to help feminists get that argument across.

Could feminist opponents of prostitution take Lakoff’s advice, and use different terms to put the issue in a different frame? Some campaigners do call themselves ‘abolitionists’, thus placing themselves in the tradition of earlier struggles to abolish slavery. Another possible reframing is suggested by the writer Rae Story, a former prostitute who now describes herself as a ‘sex-industry critical feminist’. Discussing the support recently expressed for decriminalization by the left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Story comments on the paradox of a committed socialist taking this position. The sex industry is run on capitalist principles: the argument for ‘full decriminalization’  is, she says,

in effect an argument for the full industrialisation of prostitution. It opens the way for businesses to be able to leverage their wealth to build large brothels and chains, thus consolidating potential industry profits and hiving them off into smaller and smaller numbers of hands.

This isn’t just wild speculation: the proliferation of mega-brothels run on super-exploitative, neoliberal lines is what has happened in Germany since the sex industry there was decriminalized.  Would leftists find the cause so obviously progressive if it were described as ‘the industrialization of prostitution’, or in other terms which activate a ‘neoliberal capitalism’ frame, like ‘deregulation’ and ‘free market’? Would people who associate ‘decriminalization’ with campaigns for social justice feel the same about a campaign for ‘legalized brothels’?

But being labelled ‘anti-decriminalization’ isn’t the only problem for feminist opponents of prostitution. Another problem is the framing of their position as ‘anti-sex’.

From prudes to pearl-clutchers: the rhetoric of ‘anti-sex’

Attitudes to sex are a major dividing line between modern conservative and progressive ideologies. Whereas conservatives see sex as a socially disruptive force which must be regulated and contained, progressives regard it as positive and socially liberating. Because of this, anyone who expresses concern about any kind of sexual behaviour is liable to be described by progressives as ‘anti-sex’, meaning conservative, moralistic, intolerant and prudish.

Feminists of my generation have been hearing this accusation for nearly 50 years—originally it came from anti-feminist men, and now it often comes from younger feminists, who maintain that female sexual agency and pleasure were not part of the second-wave agenda. In reality, these were key questions for the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. One of the most-read texts produced by the early WLM was Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’ (1970):  after observing that women had been ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’, Koedt asserted that it was time for them to insist on their own right to sexual pleasure:

We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard.

What Koedt and her contemporaries were against wasn’t sex, it was men dictating the terms for sex. And men dictated the terms just as surely in the ‘progressive’ counter-culture of the 1960s as they did in the most conservative family homes. The terms themselves were different, but men’s entitlement to set them was the same. And feminists had had enough of that.

Unsurprisingly, some men were less than delighted by the prospect of sisters doing it for themselves—defining their own desires, making their own demands, saying no to sex they didn’t want (and in some cases, to heterosex in general). That kind of female agency wasn’t what men had in mind when they talked about sexual ‘liberation’. (An apter word than ‘agency’ might have been ‘availability’.) Calling feminists ‘uptight’, ‘frigid’ or ‘prudes’ was a way of dismissing the challenge feminism posed to traditional, male-centred ideas about sex. Terms like ‘anti-sex’ and ‘pearl-clutching’ do the same job today. The vocabulary has changed, but the framing is the same.

On some issues, feminists have succeeded in changing the frame. 50 years ago, for instance, you could be labelled ‘uptight’ for expressing concern about rape. Today you can disapprove of rape without being labelled ‘anti-sex’, because rape has been reframed as an act of violence rather than sex. But feminist criticisms of prostitution have not had the same impact. On this topic we still hear all the old arguments about men’s sexual needs, and even the claim that if prostituted women did not provide an ‘outlet’, the rest of the female population would be at greater risk of rape. We also hear a newer set of arguments about the ‘empowering’ nature of commercial sex work for women. Feminists who disagree are called ‘whorephobic’, and accused of denying other women agency and choice.

Of course, feminists have contested these arguments and accusations; they haven’t just retreated into silence. But Lakoff would say that engaging in debate with an opponent on their terms, using their preferred language, is a less effective strategy than redefining the issue in your own terms. If you want to change the picture, change the frame.

How have we come to this? 1

Yasmin Rehman reviews Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror

The sociologist and theorist Christine Delphy has been one of the most influential figures in French feminism since the 1970s, when she was active in the Mouvement de libération des femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement), and co-founded the journal Nouvelles questions féministes with Simone de Beauvoir. Separate and Dominate is a collection of ten essays which she began writing in 1996. Originally published in French in 2008, this is the first English translation, and it contains an opening chapter written specifically for this volume.

I read the book in the midst of the fierce social media debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo cartoon featuring Aylan Kurdi, in which those who criticised the satirical magazine for using an image of the dead toddler were accused of failing to understand satire and/or the French.[1]  I was aware that my own lack of inside knowledge might affect my understanding: Delphy makes repeated reference to details of French governance, political controversies and pieces of legislation with which I am unfamiliar. But the issues and arguments raised by the book—terrorism, racism and imperialism, identity—are relevant and timely for British readers too.

I’ve taken the title of my review from a question Christine Delphy herself asks (p.65), though it has also been asked by politicians and policy-makers, academics, community activists, faith leaders and others in different parts of the world. With each terror attack in the West and each new report of Western-born Muslims and/or converts travelling to join Daesh (ISIS), the inevitable question is: how have we come to this?

Delphy’s aim, which she sets out in the opening sentences of the book, is ‘to elaborate a materialist approach to not only oppression and marginalization, but also domination and normality’ (p.1). She explores the way social divisions and hierarchies are constructed, and focuses on ‘the oppression of women, of non-whites and of gays’, which ‘divide the whole of society into two categories, two camps …. the Ones and the Others’. Domination relies on classification and separation in order to exert and retain power. Her objective is to demonstrate that hatred of the Other is not a natural, human trait but is socially constructed through concrete material practices, including ideological and discursive ones. She is interested in the way dominance operates and is imposed by the Ones, contrasting this with the ‘psychic suffering’ of the Others.

This juxtaposition of the dominant and the dominated is thought-provoking and challenging, but there are problems with Delphy’s binary opposition. It ignores the diversity that exists within both groups, and particularly among the ‘Others’.

Delphy suggests that Muslims in France are a homogenous group originating from former French colonies. She does not make reference to minorities within oppressed groups, or acknowledge differing cultural traditions (the Pew Forum estimates that there are 4.7 million Muslims in France, and whilst most hail from North Africa, there are also hundreds of thousands from the Indian sub-continent, Turkey and elsewhere bringing with them their own diverse experiences of Islam). She also fails to distinguish between Muslims, Islam and Islamism. She does not discuss Islamism as a political movement which has spread through communities across the world, nor the opposition to Islamism that exists within the same communities. As Karima Bennoune observes, we rarely hear ‘the perspectives of secular people of Muslim heritage concerned with both rising fundamentalism and increasing discrimination against Muslims’.

In Britain since the ‘Rushdie affair’ in 1989 (when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses), there has been a shift away from identity categories based on racial, ethnic or national affiliation, and towards identities based on religious faith. South Asian communities in particular are now divided and identified along religious lines, and there has been a growing demand for more sensitivity to religious values, especially in the light of growing anti-Muslim racism. However, framing a feminist political response to these demands requires us, as Pragna Patel points out, to consider who defines ‘religious values’ and for what purpose.  Although Delphy discusses the war on terror and its impact on Muslims living in the West, she glosses over the conservative, fundamentalist forces which may be at work within these same Muslim minority communities.

To veil or not to veil

Very few issues attract as much attention or public discussion as the niqab or face veil. Is it a symbol of oppression or of minority women asserting their religious identity? In 2004, when France became the first country in Europe to introduce legislation banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, the law was initially presented as a matter of laïcité (state secularism) and what it means to be French. This ban in schools was later extended to wearing of the hijab in public spaces in 2007. It was followed by a ban on face coverings in 2011 based on security concerns. Delphy puts these events in the context of increasing anti-Muslim racism and growing support for the far right in France. She argues that banning the veil will further marginalise and isolate the very women and girls the State says it wishes to protect.

Other feminists take an opposing view. Marième Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian living in France, argues that

When talking of veils in schools, one automatically refers to the veiling of under-aged girls, i.e. not the veiling of women. The question thus becomes: who is to decide on girls’ veiling—themselves or the adults who are in charge of them? And which adults? This point requires special consideration given the new trend to veil girls as young as 5 as shown in the numerous campaigns going on now throughout North Africa.

Hélie-Lucas locates the debate about the hijab/niqab within a context that once applied to FGM and forced marriage. She asks, who is the adult in charge of protecting the girl-child’s rights? The state already plays this role when it prevents families from performing FGM on girls, or subjecting them to forced marriages. Why should it not also take responsibility for preventing the deep psychological damage induced by wearing a veil before adulthood? Why should the state be seen as authoritarian when it prevents the veiling of girls but not when it protects them from FGM? In the 1970s in Europe and North America there were many on the Left, as well as some feminists, who defended FGM as a ’cultural right’ and denounced efforts to eradicate the practice in Europe as ‘western imperialism’. At no point was any reference made to the struggles of women on the ground to eradicate FGM in parts of Africa. We see the same pattern replicated regarding the ‘right to veil’, which is now seen as a ‘religious right’ despite the fact that numerous progressive interpreters of the Qur’an have stated that it is not an Islamic injunction.

Delphy accuses feminists who support the ban of failing Muslim women by supporting racist laws. She also criticises organisations like Ni Putes Ni Soumises (‘neither whores nor submissive women’), which was established by Fadela Amara—an activist with roots in the anti-racist organization SOS Racisme—to break the silence about violence against Muslim women in French immigrant communities. She commends the group for challenging sexism but accuses it of supporting a racist agenda in order to secure government funds (p.154). This attack on minority women makes me deeply uncomfortable. Delphy fails to recognise the very real risks minority women face when they challenge violence against women and girls and the power structures within their communities. Why should the government not fund organisations to protect those at risk of violence and abuse?

The veil is only the latest example of men in minority communities using the imposition of traditional/religious dress codes to control women and girls. Many South Asian women and girls have spoken in the past about being forced to wear shalwar kameez in order to maintain modesty and conform to community norms. Over the years schools in many areas adjusted their uniform policy to allow the wearing of trousers for girls and/or shalwar kameez in school colours. This accommodation to community dress code demands later incorporated the hijab/ headscarf, but not the face veil.

In 2002 Shabina Begum, a young Muslim girl, took legal action against her school for refusing her permission to wear the jilbab (full ankle-length dress). She claimed that this breached her human right to manifest her religion, and also her right to an education, since she was barred from the school unless she complied with its uniform policy. In 2006 the House of Lords delivered a judgement stating that Shabina’s rights had not been violated, and that any infringement was necessary and proportionate for the protection and well-being of the wider school community. The judges stated that school’s uniform policy already took account of ‘mainstream’ Muslim opinion.

According to Pragna Patel, this decision reflected an understanding of the political context: Shabina’s challenge had been motivated by the desire of others to impose a politicized religious identity on women and girls at the school. Shabina was represented by her older brother, who appeared to be part of an extreme Muslim political group. The group had protested outside the school—not against the uniform policy, but against the education of Muslim children in secular schools.

However, some feminists, like Maleiha Malik, criticised the judgement for failing to recognise that Shabina was exercising her autonomy by wearing the jilbab in an environment where Muslims are constantly demonised and discriminated against. Like Delphy, Malik located the debate primarily in relation to the issue of anti-Muslim racism. But what both overlook is that for a woman to wear the veil is not necessarily an act of individual agency, but is profoundly shaped by political processes that involve the privileging of a religious identity over others.

This is not to deny that Muslim women may wear the veil by choice. Muslim women themselves have talked about wearing the hijab or niqab as a visible symbol of their religious identity, or to protect themselves from male attention and aggression. As Mona Eltahawy says in her book Headscarves and Hymens,  the act of wearing the hijab is far from simple. But let us not forget that some Muslim women face violence and abuse for daring to challenge community norms justified by so-called codes of honour. Both Eltahawy and Aliyah Saleem, an ex-Muslim and former student at an Islamic school, have written about their experiences of being forced to wear the hijab. Aliyah has recently produced a series of videos discussing the challenges she faced when she decided to remove her hijab.

The veil continues to be a source of challenge in both Muslim majority and minority contexts. There is a long tradition of Muslim academics and theologians offering feminist interpretations of Qur’anic verses including references to the veil. The late Fatima Mernissi, a leading Moroccan sociologist and feminist, Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American scholar, and Amina Wadud are among the women who have argued that the Qur’an prescribes modesty, and not specifically veiling. Delphy, however, makes no reference to these arguments.

Racism, Identity and the War on Terror

Like the debate on the hijab, discussions of the ‘war on terror’ are polarised, with neither side moving towards the other. Are there only two positions? Must we either support the war on terror and recognise the Islamist threat, or else maintain that the war on terror is a war against Islam and an excuse to demonize Muslims?

It would appear that the French Left, like its British equivalent, views terrorism as the result of imperialist interventions in Iraq and elsewhere, or as a result of earlier injustices during the period of colonial rule. Yet the first of these arguments seems unconvincing in relation to France, which opposed the war in Iraq but has still seen terror unleashed on the streets of Paris. If we accept the argument that terrorism and violence are a response to the West’s attacks on Muslims, then as a strategy I would argue it has failed spectacularly. Every act of terrorism, from the bombings of American targets in the 1980s and 1990s to the recent killings in Paris and Brussels, has prompted increased military action by the West and its allies, resulting in further loss of Muslim lives. In the West it has led to increased surveillance of Muslims, fuelled the growth of anti-Muslim racism and promoted the rise of the far Right.

In the context of increasing anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination it is incredibly difficult to raise concerns about political Islamist movements, violations of human rights by Islamists or the oppression of Muslim women, without feeding an anti-Muslim discourse. In Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Right and Universal Human Rights, Meredith Tax asks:

When US diplomats invoke the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and neo-colonialism? When the US targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry about violations perpetrated those same jihadis or focus on violations by the State?

Conversely, how does one raise the points discussed by Delphy with regard to the war on terror, drone strikes, Guantanamo, and the denial of any discussion about the real or perceived causes for terrorism, without feeding the Islamist agenda and reinforcing the Muslim victim narrative?

In her discussion of Guantanamo Bay, Delphy is right to denounce the utter lack of due process and the incarceration of prisoners without charge, but I disagree with her claim that ‘their only crime is to be of Arab origin or Muslim faith’. The reality is more complex: it is possible to be both a victim of injustice and a supporter of terrorism. Delphy’s portrayal of French Muslims as passive victims of discrimination and prejudice—the Others dominated by the Ones—repeats the very same argument propagated by Islamists. It could be asked whether this helps to give credibility to the Islamist narrative—a narrative which is strongly contested in Muslim majority countries, as Karima Bennoune and others have shown.

Delphy identifies the centrality of racism to a construction of Muslim Others as backward, patriarchal and oppressive. That racism is fuelled on a daily basis by media portrayals of Muslims as oppressed women, rapists, terrorists, child abusers, illegal immigrants and benefits cheats. However, it is also unhelpful to deny that some people in Muslim communities do fall into those categories. To move forward, we need a more open and honest debate, including women and men, those of faith and of no faith, whites and non-whites, gay and straight people and all minority groups. We should heed the call to action with which Separate and Dominate ends:

We all need to revisit our way of thinking about the articulation and imbrication of patriarchy and racism, as well as the way we ‘do’ activism. The feminist movement cannot survive unless it becomes truly universal, taking all women, all their situations and all their revolts into account.


[1]  The cartoon shows Aylan Kurdi – the child whose picture, lying face down on a beach, highlighted the refugee crisis – with a message “What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?” The answer, “A groper of women in Germany.” Under the headline “Migrants”, the cartoon shows two men with their tongues out and arms outstretched running behind a woman. It clearly alludes to the recent incident in Cologne, Germany where mass sexual assaults were reported on New Year’s Eve, allegedly perpetrated by refugees.


Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror,  translated by David Broder, published by Verso Books, 2015.

Find Yasmin Rehman on Twitter @RehmanYasmin



Party Lines

With elections coming up in May this year, Holly Dustin gives us a briefing on what the Women’s Equality Party is all about.

Without a doubt, the British political landscape has shifted significantly since I was trudging through a Politics degree at the University of Nottingham 25 years ago. It was, in some ways, a simpler time for those of us interested in who has power and what they do with it. Margaret Thatcher was still in office (until 1990), and you were either for her or against her. Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robben Island and the Cold War dominated geo-politics. You voted in elections and in between time you could make your voice heard by going on a demo or wearing a t-shirt (I did both). There were no smartphones, no epetitions, no Facebook likes, and definitely no lobbying your MP on twitter.

There were few women in Parliament then and Thatcher, known for ‘pulling the ladder up behind her’, only ever promoted one woman, Baroness Young, to her Cabinet in all eleven years of her premiership. The Politics Department at Nottingham was an all-male affair too (my memory is of a micro-Cold War between the Thatcher supporting majority and Marxist minority). Politics (capital P) was black and white, and did not appear to include feminism.

Twenty five years later we can say for sure that British politics is less blokey, though still too white and male with only 29% of MPs being women and less than 7% of MPs being from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and there is a new wave of feminist activism both in Parliament and outside it. Furthermore, British politics is fragmenting; the three-party system is breaking up with the collapse of the Lib Dems in Parliament and the rise of Nationalists around the UK. and smaller parties, such as UKIP and the Greens, gaining electoral support even if first-past-the-post means that support doesn’t translate into seats.

WE: the beginning

Emerging onto this new political terrain is the Women’s Equality Party (or WE as they prefer), led by journalist Sophie Walker and forming in the blink of an eye from an idea discussed by her fellow journalist Catherine Mayer and BBC presenter Sandi Toksvig in March 2015 (it was registered with the Electoral Commission by July). A political party with the sole purpose of advancing women’s equality would have been unimaginable to my teenage self and it is, of course, no coincidence that it has happened at this juncture of a surge in feminist activism and the breakdown of traditional party politics. Indeed, UKIP, which has pulled mainstream parties to the right on immigration and forced a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, are constantly referenced in discussions about WE. Unlike UKIP, WE say they want to be put out of business.

Having been to an early public meeting at London’s Southbank Centre in March 2015, one of the things that struck me was the name and framing. It was decided early that it would be the Women’s Equality Party not, for example, the Feminist Party as in Sweden (Feminist Initiative), and, whilst the F word is used liberally by Walker in media interviews, it is absent from the official Party blurb. This may be intentional in order to make the Party more palatable for those who feel they can sign up to women’s equality but not feminism (see recent Fawcett research on this) and to attract a membership that can potentially be drawn from the whole population. The strong message is that the Party is for both women and men, and that men will benefit from a more equal world for women (which they will, of course, but will also have to give up their social, economic and political privileges along the way.)

WE quickly made a splash when it launched, securing media attention well before it had a set of policies. It attracted many thousands of members before anyone really knew what they were signing up to beyond the concept of ‘women’s equality’ and ‘more women in parliament’. It already has over 70 local branches across the UK and a membership of more than 45,000 (as of October 2015). This in itself suggests a huge appetite for something more inclusive to women, less traditional and less alienating than the usual political fare. Hardly surprising when there are no female party leaders sitting in the House of Commons and Westminster politics looks increasingly stale and out of date when compared to the rest of the UK, especially Scotland where women head up the Scottish Government and lead the three largest parties.

WE policies

After considerable work by themed committees, WE launched its policies across six areas in October 2015. These are; equal representation in politics and business, equal pay, equal parenting, equality in education, equal treatment of women in the media, an end to violence against women. With violence against women and girls (VAWG), the area with which I am most familiar, there are a range of strong policy positions, including scrapping the married couple’s allowance and shifting £800m of savings to legal aid and specialist support for women experiencing domestic and sexual violence. WE has also come out in support of the Nordic model of tackling the harms of prostitution whereby the selling of sex is decriminalised and the buying of sex is criminalised.

Rightly, WE aims to be ‘transformative’ but it does not yet have transformative policies in place. Party leaders have said that its remit is narrow and that WE candidates will be required to sign up to its core policies but free to hold positions on other issues. This seems to me to be unsustainable in the long run (and, sadly, I think we will need WE in the long run). In the first instance, it is unhelpful, not to say inaccurate, to send a message that women’s equality is a narrow issue, limited to six policy areas, not least when two of the biggest priorities for voters, the economy and foreign policy, are not amongst the six. Indeed, Walker herself has written coherently about sexual violence in conflict and the disproportionate impact on women of war in relation to Britain’s participation in military action in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe. Likewise, it is difficult to justify not having a comprehensive economic policy when, a) it is the government’s top priority and b) the mainstream media and main political parties in Westminster routinely overlook the disproportionate impact of austerity measures on women and women’s poverty meaning that WE could have a real influence in the debate here.

Secondly, the positions of candidates on other policy areas might well conflict with the Party’s core policies. For example, immigration, also a top concern for voters, is not one of WE’s six policy areas and yet immigration policy has a real impact on the safety and equality of migrant and refugee women in the UK (and outside it). A WE candidate could conceivably find themselves in the position of supporting certain immigration policies that conflicted with WE policy and aims.

The policy-making process itself raised issues for me. Whilst there was a laudable intent to create policy from the grassroots up, such consultations have of course been carried out by other parties for many years so there is a risk of reinventing the wheel. For example, in relation to violence against women and girls, experts in the sector worked together for years to secure a cross party-commitment to a VAWG strategy in Westminster which the then Labour Government published in 2009. This was followed by the Coalition Government publishing its own Strategy in 2010 and a refreshed strategy is promised by the current Conservative Government this year. At a time when child sexual abuse and exploitation dominates the news headlines, this work continues to be championed by the Home Secretary and there is considerable engagement with the sector. The Strategy is far from perfect, but I would have preferred to see WE review and consult upon what is already in place and work with experts and specialist women’s services to improve it. Starting from scratch risked appearing to erase the hard work of the women’s sector, and indeed women in other parties, in getting government and other parties to the place they are. Hardly the collaborative approach WE espouse.

The Party has said that it wishes to appeal across the political spectrum and that it is non-partisan but I am not quite sure what this means in practice other than it does not accept the labels ‘left’ or ‘right’; mainstream parties are normally pretty happy to welcome defectors from other parties, and WE themselves have already shown that they are not above taking a well-deserved pop at other parties (see, for example, Walker’s astute dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn’s consideration of women- only train carriages to deal with sexual harassment).

Furthermore, whilst Party leaders consistently say that representation in politics matters and has an impact, the dominant image we have through the mainstream media (it may be different at meetings) is of a highly intelligent, but narrowly drawn group of women. The Party will be conscious that it will be under the spotlight on diversity, particularly now as it is selecting its candidates for elections this May for the London Mayor, London and Welsh Assemblies and Scottish Parliament.

These are all serious issues for the Party to address. However, when I look at the balance sheet I can’t help but think that WE is, overall, a pretty good thing, especially in a macho Westminster context. On the plus side, WE are very media savvy, as you would expect. Walker, Toksvig and Mayer are regularly quoted and interviewed, Walker in particular has commented on a range of subjects from the ‘tampon tax’ to the proposed removal of feminism from the school syllabus. The website is appealing and social media activity is engaging, including from local branches which sprang up with impressive speed. Bearing in mind that only a quarter of candidates who ran in the General Election in 2015 were women, WE’s application process for becoming a candidate in this May’s elections looked refreshingly accessible and welcoming, and included four days of free childcare.

What can WE do?

WE have been criticised for focusing on women’s representation as an end in itself (it supports quotas for the next two General Elections to herald in 50/50 representation in the House of Commons). I think this criticism is misplaced. If WE can help secure concrete shifts in the political representation of women of all backgrounds and fast forward us to a time when the insults ‘Blair’s Babes’ and ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ are no longer misogynistic currency it will have been worth it in my book. In fact, we know from past experience that significantly increased numbers of women has a direct impact on law and policy-making. When Labour used all-women-shortlists for the 1997 General Election there was a huge increase in women MPs, mostly Labour, and there followed a raft of policies on issues ranging from domestic violence and childcare to equality legislation.

Of course, without quotas, our First-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons is a barrier to WE winning seats but it is surely not impossible, as some argue, that one or two high profile candidates might win seats in 2020 if they have made progress in electoral support between now and then? And, as Caroline Lucas has shown for the Greens, one high profile MP can secure a lot of attention for the Party. The criticism that WE will split the progressive vote if they target seats where the sitting candidate does not support women’s equality is clearly a risk, especially in Westminster elections, but as WE say, nobody owns the votes of progressives.

I also believe that WE could have a strategic role in setting the standard for other parties on specific issues, as it has on tackling the harms of the prostitution industry where its support of the Nordic model sends a powerful message about the need to entirely transform gender relations including ending men’s right to buy women’s bodies. It is a controversial policy though and spokespeople will need to be confident in making connections with other areas of inequality including poverty, racism and sexualized sexism in the media. Likewise, WE will need to be astute in the positions it takes and arguments it makes about discrimination, harassment and violence towards trans women and men. These are important issues but they are currently at risk of being subsumed by calls for changes in equality laws and policies which would threaten specialist women’s support services and undermine monitoring of sex discrimination. It is a rocky time for feminist politics and debate with deep splits on these increasingly dominant issues and WE’s approach will be critical.

Britain has not had a female Prime Minister since 1990 and there has never been a permanent female leader of the Labour Party. The current Conservative and Labour leaders in Westminster are unable to shake off the perception that they struggle with women’s equality and endless scandals attest to a deeply ingrained culture of sexism across the political spectrum. It is a shameful state of affairs to be in in the 21st century.

So whilst we debate WE’s politics, whether to join and shape it from the inside, challenge from the outside, or even be inspired by it to set up our own feminist party, I believe that WE has a real contribution to make both to British politics and to women’s equality in Britain.

Holly Dustin is former Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition and co-Founder of the Centre for Gender Equal Media. @HDbrighton


Catherine Mayer of WE responds….

Dear Holly,

I’ve closely read your piece on the Women’s Equality Party in order to give you the thoughtful response your own thoughtfulness deserves. You and I agree on much, not least on the urgent need for this party. One of our founding aims is to galvanise older parties into recognising and fixing their own failings on gender equality. In the same spirit I’m happy to learn from you—and there’s much to learn. There’s nothing like doing politics for real to understand the huge obstacles to transformational politics. The costs of politics are ludicrous and anti-democratic; the bureaucracy is stultifying; the electoral system is designed for stability but instead does a really good job of blocking change.

In spite of that, as you point out, the Women’s Equality Party continues to grow and flourish. WE are running candidates in the London mayoral and GLA elections, and for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. WE have 45,000 members and supporters and more than 70 branches, all of this from an impulse less than a year ago, on March 2 2015, when I stood up at the WOW Festival and said maybe a women’s equality party was needed.

That’s the name I used right from the outset, and the name we debated at the very first meeting you attended later the same month. As you’ll remember, quite a few people argued we should drop the word “women” in order to widen our appeal. Others argued we should drop the word “women” because they believe gender equality can only be achieved in lockstep with other forms of equality, by dismantling all existing power structures.

You make the point that we don’t call ourselves a “feminist” party. I am a feminist. You’re also correct that WE believe men essential to achieving gender equality. WE need men—their votes, their money (please!), and yes, their perspectives. WE aim to be inclusive and diverse as a party and a movement, not just to advocate for inclusivity and diversity. Yet if a fear of alienating men had guided our decision not to call the party “feminist”, I’d also have shied away from the word “women”. I am confident that WE will resonate with men—and men are joining in substantial numbers—because gender equality is better for the vast majority of men than the current status quo. You mention that gender equality means men have “to give up their social, economic and political privileges”, but more gender equal countries have lower rates of depression and divorce, higher rates of well-being and enjoy enhanced economic growth.

The reason we’re called the Women’s Equality Party is because women are a little over half the world’s population and yet nowhere on the planet are we on an equal footing to men. It seemed to me from the beginning as it does now that the name of the party should proclaim unapologetically and unequivocally our overarching aim. It’s not just that “equality” is too huge a term to avoid ruckuses about whose equality we might mean. It’s not just that there are already parties of the left making the wider argument for equality—while often doing too little to practice what they preach within their own parties. If only I had £1 for every woman I’ve seen undervalued and overlooked by so-called progressives, or told to get in the queue behind other “interest groups”… I’d give it straight to WE.

I’m an intersectional feminist and have always been of the left, but I long ago lost faith in the parties of the left to deliver gender equality without external help—or pressure—to concentrate minds. I also do not believe the left exclusively owns gender equality or can deliver it without support of the centre and centre right. When I conceived the Women’s Equality Party as a non-partisan party, I freely admit that I was thinking to some extent in strategic terms. Just as we need men to vote for change, so we need the broadest spectrum of support possible. I made efforts from the start to build political diversity into the organisation along with other kinds of diversity. But the party model also reflected my growing conviction that urgent action was needed to re-engage the people who voted at the last election while holding their noses, turned off by all the political parties, or who chose populist parties not because they really supported them but to protest, or who didn’t vote at all. Nine million women and eight million men stayed home at the general election last year.

These people were turned off by the sense that none of the parties represented them. They were turned off by the political culture that put party interests and, in David Cameron’s phrase “Punch and Judy politics”, before national interests—and you and I both know that improving gender equality could not be more firmly in the national interest. They were turned off by seeing parties pay lip service to promoting women—all the main parties are in theory signed up to gender equality—but somehow not quite managing to do so. These people, switched off by traditional politics, have fuelled the growth of WE. Although many of our members are also members of the older parties, the biggest single group are regular voters who have never before felt moved to join a political party.

You worry that our model is unsustainable and that our policies are not sufficiently transformational, because in your view creating a party around six core objectives (equal representation, equal pay, shared parenting and caregiving, equal education, equal treatment by and in the media and an end to violence against women and girls) is too narrow. Well I don’t think the party would now be thriving as it is if we lacked clarity and focus. The older parties have competing priorities and gender equality too often takes a backseat.

At the same time I dispute that ours is a narrow remit. On the contrary, each of those six objectives covers huge and interlocking areas of policy, foremost amongst them the economy, health and an internationalist outlook. WE’ve approached the migration debate in a way that highlights the vulnerability of female migrants, too often ignored in the clamour. The starting point for any economic debate is the disparity that sees women on average poorer than men, in lower paid jobs if employed, carrying out far more unpaid caregiving work and therefore more vulnerable than men to a tightening of public finances. These are realities all the big parties regularly ignore.

Our first policy document, published in October, not even three full months after we registered with the Electoral Commission, contains practical policies to fix these imbalances that all the big parties should be able to sign up to. Most of them don’t even cost anything or are funded by better deploying existing budgets. Policies are transformational only if implemented.

The document is an amazingly strong piece of work because of your input and the input of many other people like you who helped funnel time and expertise into formulating the policies. It was to avoid reinventing the wheel that we consulted as widely as we did—and indeed took on board the existing VAWG strategies of other parties and organisations. But WE aim to be a forum for voices that find it hard to make themselves heard in traditional political cultures so we also reached out to our activists and asked them to reach out further still.

It was particularly important to do this because we are so new. The core group that got this thing up and running had to build structures for internal democracy and then adapt them and adapt them again to keep up with the crazy speed of the party’s growth, from kitchen table to full-on campaigning organisation. WE are looking forward to holding our first party conference later this year and to ever-more collaborative decision-making taking in an ever-wider range of views and experiences. Our members will ultimately decide our policies and the scope of our remit.

In selecting our candidates for the May elections we not only deployed the wisdom of our branches in the shortlisting process but also enabled members to decide the outcome in a free vote. The turnout was very high indeed. And as you’ll have seen, we now have an exceptionally strong list of candidates. That list is also pleasingly diverse though there are some protected categories that we would want to see better represented in future elections. We wished to take positive action to ensure diversity and discovered that the laws to protect against discrimination also prohibit a new party such as ourselves from doing so. However that list goes some way to answering your concern that the party is formed by “a narrowly drawn group of women”. WE have worked and will continue to work very hard to broaden and open and extend, to all backgrounds and economic groups. The hardest to reach are those most in need of being reached—and listened to—people working several poorly paid jobs in order to survive, and people who have no work at all, people who are marginalised, exhausted and excluded.

Incidentally I’m not surprised that you assumed WE to be a bit of a clique. The meeting you attended in March 2015, a few weeks after I first proposed the idea of the party, drew heavily on my personal networks, though it did attract you and quite a few other participants I didn’t yet know. WE had to start somewhere. The whole thing was organised via a Facebook page I set up without any firm expectations that anyone at all would come. As you’ll recall, about 250 people crowded into the room.

The reason the Women’s Equality Party has grown so fast and diversified far, far beyond my friends and friends of friends and their networks is that WE speak to a conviction, a passion, an impatience: to get on with making gender equality a reality. You and I share that conviction, passion and impatience. I hugely appreciate your help and advice and I look forward to continuing the debate.

Yours in gratitude,


Catherine Mayer is a journalist and one of the co-founders of the Women’s Equality Party. @catherine_mayer


T&S choices for the festive season 1

It’s the season for round-ups of the year’s cultural highlights, but instead of giving you our views on the books and films everyone was talking about in 2015, we’ve decided to suggest some you might have missed. In other words, here are a few of the things we’ve enjoyed, and think our readers will too. Not all our recommendations are from this year, but they’re fairly recent and all available, and in our opinion they’re all absorbing and entertaining. So, put some feminism into your festive season with the T&S collective’s Christmas list.

Books worth reading:

Liz Kelly:

My recommendations for holiday reading are two novels written by friends and one which opened up new vistas of sci-fi/fantasy. All of them are available on Kindle and as a real book

Hotel Arcadia, Sunny Singh

Promoted as a thriller, and with a number of glowing reviews, this is a novel written by one of my colleagues. Set in a luxury hotel which is subjected to a terrorist attack the text moves between two central characters who challenge gender stereotypes. Sam, a fearless, yet traumatised, war photographer, is a woman who appears to in control of her life, who has her own ethics and moral compass. Ahbi, the hotel manager and a closeted gay man, angsts about having failed to live up to his military father’s hopes and expectations.

The terrorists and the past are the backdrops against which the Sam and Ahbi enter a conversation with each other and themselves, although they never actually meet. The extreme context creates a situation in which they muse on the personal in the political, the global for the individual. The central section is taught, tense – I found myself holding my breath and had to keep on reading as the writing evoked this small dangerous space.

Golddigger, Hilary McCollum

Written by a long time friend and radical feminist, Golddigger is in the tradition of lesbian historical fiction. The book traces the early life of Frances Moriarty as she escapes the cruel ty of famine hit Ireland for the promise of the US. The scenes in Ireland are full of the stolen moments of a first and forbidden love, the delight and amazement when women fall in love with each other, the simple pleasure of a look, a touch and that first electric kiss. Tragedy strikes and the writing turns to loss and grief, as Frances has to face the challenge and adventure alone. Unsurprisingly she decides to dress as a man and whilst in New York decides to join the legions travelling to California to make their fortune in the gold rush. You have to read the book to find out if she makes it. Ultimately this story is a quest, by a poor but determined woman for a life unconstrained by religion, tradition and feminine conformity, of loving and living against the grain.

Lagoon, Nnedi Okarafor

The plot line comes straight out of B movie science fiction – aliens land on earth and are not impressed by what they find. What makes this different is that it is set in Lagos, which made me realise how much of the scifi and fantasy I read takes the West as its template. More than this how the aliens are realised, and the uncertainty of whether they might be saviours or tyrants, offers more than a late night movie. This coupled with the machinations of various groupings to use the aliens for their own agendas – a failing sick president, a corrupt pastor, the ambitious military man, and a street gang – make for a complex and at times chaotic plot. What I most enjoyed, however, were the encounters with Nigerian mythology and the chapters which were written from the perspective of a swordfish, a giant spider and even a section of road. Speculative fiction at its best, and part of the new genre of Afrofuturism.

Debbie Cameron:

Dietland, Sarai Walker

Sarai Walker’s Dietland takes the upbeat, anarchic political spirit of the early Women’s Liberation Movement and infuses it into a novel with a contemporary setting and pop-culture sensibility. Set in present-day New York City, it’s the story of Plum Kettle, an isolated and initially somewhat downtrodden woman whose job is answering the anguished letters readers send to the editor of a teen girls’ magazine. Plum’s own problem is that she’s fat in a world where fat women are despised: she’s waiting and saving for the bariatric surgery that she thinks will change her life.

But then she stumbles into a parallel world. An anti-beauty industry activist who has infiltrated the magazine where she works leads her to Verena, a philanthropist who inherited a fortune from her mother’s slimming business (the Dietland of the title), and is using what she regards as the proceeds of the devil’s work to do the work of feminism instead. She makes Plum an offer: she’ll pay for the surgery if Plum still wants to have it after a period of living in Verena’s all-female communal household.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot about a shadowy organization calling itself ‘Jennifer’ (the name has been chosen because it’s so generic, the most popular girls’ name of the 1980s). Jennifer is essentially a terrorist group, and its targets are men who have perpetrated violence against women. It kidnaps them and either kills them or uses them as leverage to make feminist demands (such as the removal of degrading images of women from public sale).

I won’t reveal how it all comes out, but the reason I think it’s a great radical feminist read is not, in any case, the plot. It’s the mixture of what you might call political satire and fantasy. Walker is both incisive and uncompromising in her critique of the misogyny of contemporary ‘post-feminist’ societies. There is almost no aspect of the contempt, violence and hatred women are subjected to—by capitalism, by their own internalized self-loathing, and above all by men—that isn’t touched on at some point in the novel. Yet it doesn’t turn into a horrorfest or a one-note rant; first, because the satire is often funny as well as enraging, and second, because of the fantasy element. The ‘Jennifer’ subplot has women rising up and turning the tables on their oppressors: we might not approve of their methods in real life, but in fiction this revenge is sweet.

In a way Dietland is a (feminist) novel of ideas, but it’s unlikely to be described as such, because it isn’t a ‘difficult’ or inaccessible book, and it’s not aimed at readers who like their writing self-consciously literary. Some reviewers have been a bit sniffy about it for that reason; a few have gone so far as to compare it to chick-lit. Some readers clearly made that assumption too, to judge from their online comments expressing disappointment that the initially sympathetic Plum turned out so ‘unlikeable’.

I’m more in agreement with the reviewer who described Dietland as ‘a thrilling, incendiary manifesto disguised as a beach read’. And what you can enjoy on a beach, you can equally enjoy during the inevitable longueurs of the festive season, or use to lighten the gloom of a British January. Think of it as a feminist alternative to joining the gym and going on a detox diet.

Films worth watching

Joan Scanlon:

My recommendations begin with two films that are more about pleasure than politics, the first an elegiac film about women and wine-making, and the second a romantic comedy with a twist.

Les Cabotines: le vin au feminin

Les Cabotines: le vin au feminin (freely translated as: Wine, Women & Friends, which is the English title of the film) was produced and directed by Fiona Cunningham-Reid. It is the story of Carole Leblanc and Jo Béfort, who started their wine adventure eight years ago in Collias, France. Their dream was to produce excellent wine. They had no experience, no professional support, just their passion for wine – and the support of their friends. This captivating film follows their wine-making adventure and gently explores their relationships with the village and each other. This is not a lesbian separatist community; far from it. Key to the success of their integration in the village is their absolute determination to make the best possible wine, and vice versa. The villager from whom they hire their cellar is thoroughly approving of the quality of their wine, which far exceeds that of the previous occupant. When asked about their sexuality, he says: “It was talked about, but there’s no problem.” Their sexuality is neither here nor there, but a remarkable unremarkability nonetheless in the context of village life.

The film was screened at Channel 4 on  23rd January 2013 at the launch of Stonewall’s female supporter initiative, followed by a wine tasting of Carole & Jo’s latest vintage. Long lingering shots of the Pays du Gard landscape, Jo mucking out a wine press, Carole lyricizing about the quality of the grapes, warm evenings eating outdoors with quantities of friends celebrating (and consuming) the fruits of their labour. The film is not coy about the physically arduous work involved in wine-making, but in spite of this, I doubt there were many lesbians in the audience (materially influenced by a glass or two of the very fine Les Dames d’Epicure), who didn’t consider packing up shop and moving to Languedoc-Roussillon. A recent review in G3 magazine (mostly very positive to be fair), nonetheless argues that: ‘the documentary is at times almost sickly sweet and idyllic beyond belief’, and I can’t help wondering if this isn’t a warning to the readers of G3, Diva et al, that this film isn’t about power, danger and sex – it’s purely a film about pleasure.

To buy or download the film: http://lescabotinesfilm.com/ or you can simply order a copy of the DVD from Amazon (under the English title). Sadly, their wine is not available in the UK, but it would scarcely be a hardship to visit the vineyard and buy it for yourself: http://domainelescabotines.fr/


Margarita – a film by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert – was screened on the closing night of the London Lesbian & Gay film festival, 24th March 2013. Ostensibly a lesbian love story, here, as in Les Cabotines, sexuality is not the issue. Margarita, a young Mexican nanny, has been living and working in Canada illegally for the previous six years. She is employed by Gail and Ben, a cash-strapped power couple (brilliantly acted by Patrick McKenna and Gail Lautier), who are oblivious to her dependence on them – and theirs on her: she does everything in the house, from cleaning and cooking to building maintenance (there’s a very funny scene where she appears as a kind of superwoman with a tool belt strapped to her ready for any DIY task).

When the couple decide they have to make economies, Margarita’s tiny salary is on their hit list, although they struggle to inform her of this, and their teenage daughter Mali goes into full rebellion when she finds out. The film is wonderfully ironic – Margarita is self-consciously portrayed by Nicola Correia-Damude as a Mexican Mary Poppins (the reference is explicit). Everyone loves her (not just the family, but Carlos the gardener, the shopkeepers – and, of course, her commitment-phobic lover Jane). When Margarita is knocked off her bicycle, and thus brought to the attention of the authorities and threatened with deportation, Ben and Gail realise they can’t manage without her, and, since they are not married themselves (on principle) each of them in turn propose marriage to her in order to keep her in the country (and of course managing their household). These scenes are hilariously funny – the heterosexual couple convinced that each of them is making an irresistible offer.

Margarita (à la Poppins) is of course only interested in marrying for love, and the film ends with Jane (finally) proposing. Do we have a Jane Austen conclusion: all the social divisions, turmoil and personal tragedies, neatly resolved by matrimony? I may be attributing too much satire to the film, but it was so consistently self-ironising that I was inclined to read the conclusion in that light too. We suspect that the rather shallow Jane is probably commitment-phobic at least in part because of Margarita’s class and race, and I for one did not feel the lesbian marriage conclusion was the end of her struggles. In the end, the film was more a feminist film than a lesbian feel-good movie. It is not a coming out story; Margarita just happens to be a lesbian (and this is simply accepted by all the other characters in the film). Her sexuality is not the focus: the film is more concerned with issues of social justice (class, race and immigration policy) and with parenting, heterosexuality, marriage. However, it deals with all these issues with a light touch, and was that rare thing: a beautifully crafted, surprisingly funny, thought-provoking film, which I can recommend whole-heartedly.


If you want stir some history and politics into your festive viewing, then you can now get hold of a copy of Myriam Fougère’s Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution. This documentary about lesbian separatist communities in North America in the 1980s was screened on the opening night of the first London Feminist Film Festival on 30th November 2012. It is now available on DVD from the following website: http://www.lesbiana-film.com

Shortly after the screening, the Trouble & Strife collective mulled over the history and significance of lesbian separatism, and you can hear this discussion on our podcast, downloadable via this link.

Picture this

If you want to get ahead, get a head-shot–on a professional profile or a company website, your photo is not an optional extra. But why should women be obliged to put their faces on public display? It’s a recipe for sexism, says Debbie Cameron

Remember Charlotte Proudman? She’s the barrister who made headlines this year after a male lawyer commented on the ‘stunning’ photo that adorned her profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Her response was to shame him on social media, telling him that she didn’t appreciate being objectified in this way. The emphasis put on looks, she said, ‘silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject’.

Predictably, she was pilloried by the likes of the Daily Mail, which called her both ‘prim’ and a ‘feminazi’, but what Proudman was saying struck a chord with many women. For anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, it was déjà vu all over again, with men telling us that they were only being friendly and that most women enjoyed the attention (i.e., you feminists are just jealous), or plaintively asking what the world was coming to if a man couldn’t pay a gal a compliment without someone outing him as a lech on Twitter.

But there was one question nobody seemed to be asking. If a person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to the judgment of their professional attributes, why do people put photos on their LinkedIn profiles at all?

When I ask this question, I’m not trying to blame Charlotte Proudman for her own objectification. I’m not saying, ‘if she didn’t want men to fixate on her looks, all she had to do was not display her photo on her profile’. My point is the opposite: this is not really a free choice. And that’s one thing that makes 2015 different from 1970. In the age of the internet and the digital camera, it has come to be more or less taken for granted that your professional profile—whether on LinkedIn, on your company’s website, or on the announcement of the talk you’re giving next month at a conference on Facilities Management—will be accompanied by a picture of your face. If you don’t put a photo on it, your profile will look ‘unprofessional’ (LinkedIn profiles with photos get seven times more clicks than those without), and if you don’t agree to provide a photo on request you will be judged as eccentric, uncooperative and rude.

I know this because it happens to me all the time.

I am an academic: I belong to a professional community where in theory your looks could hardly matter less. (Male academics’ inattention to professional standards of dress and grooming is legendary: there’s even a popular website called Professor or Hobo, where the game is to guess whether you’re looking at a photo of an expert on string theory or a homeless person.) When I started my career, in the early 1980s, there was no demand whatever for photos of people like me. Photos were only for models and celebrities, not least because in those pre-digital days it required skill and fancy equipment to take a professional-quality photo, and you also had to send the film away to be developed.

Then, one day in the mid-1990s, a man knocked on the door of my office and announced he’d come to take my photo for a display of staff head-shots that was going to be put up on the departmental noticeboard. When I asked him why, he said it was a ‘customer care’ initiative to make the staff more accessible to students and visitors. ‘If there’s a picture of what you look like on the noticeboard they’ll know who you are’.

I pointed out that students already knew who their lecturers were: we were the ones on the podium in lectures, or in front of the whiteboard in classes. He said, ‘and what if someone wants to see you who isn’t in your class?’ I replied that a student in that position would probably do exactly what he’d just done: come to my office, and then proceed on the assumption that the person inside was the person whose name appeared ON THE DOOR.

But this snark got me nowhere: it was the first of many arguments on this subject I was destined to lose. Within a few years, the parade of staff mugshots on the departmental noticeboard had become the norm in every university. It’s a symbol of institutional approachability, and if you didn’t have one it would be like putting up a notice saying ‘in this department we’re remote, unfriendly bastards’.

Within a few more years, as the internet became the main medium for all kinds of communication, and digital images became ever simpler to produce and then reproduce, it also became the norm for people to expect photos with everything. Today, if I’ve been invited to speak at a conference, or visit a university abroad, or give a talk at my local bookshop, whoever’s doing the publicity will ask me not only for the traditional things (name, academic affiliation, title and brief description of my talk), but also for a picture of myself.

I have sometimes asked, ‘but why does it matter what I look like?’ Invariably, the answer I get is that of course the actual details of my appearance aren’t important, but being able to see my face makes it easier for people to relate to me. Or as one put it recently, ‘a picture makes you more relatable’. Being ‘relatable’ is now an obligation, a professional imperative if you want to be successful. And part of that imperative is to show your face.

You’re probably wondering why this bothers me so much. Am I hideously ugly? Exceptionally shy? No: and even if I were both, that wouldn’t be the point. My objection to the routine use of photos in professional contexts isn’t about the way it makes individual women feel. (Which is, of course, variable.) It’s a political objection: although it is rarely discussed as such, I think this is very much a feminist issue. It affects men and women differently, in ways that work to the disadvantage of women as a group.

It wouldn’t be true to say it doesn’t affect men at all. Everyone today has to pay attention to their self-presentation and ‘public image’. From the moment a teenager constructs her or his first Facebook profile, s/he’s engaged in the process of deliberate self-commodification for an audience with certain expectations. But while both sexes expect to be judged, and are liable to develop the kind of self-consciousness that entails, the standards are not the same for males and females, and nor are the consequences of failing to meet them.

I’ve mentioned Facebook, but Facebook isn’t really what I’m complaining about. On Facebook you can choose not to put your photo on your profile: many of my own friends use an image of something else entirely. You can also control who sees what you post. But in professional life, you don’t always have a choice, and you certainly don’t have the same control. I sometimes used to dodge the request for a photo by saying I didn’t have a suitable one; but what usually happened was that whoever it was just went off and found some random old photo on the web. If you’ve ever had an image of it publicly displayed, your face becomes a kind of permanent public property. And for women that can cause all sorts of problems.

The most obvious problem is the one Charlotte Proudman had: unwanted sexual attention in what’s supposed to be a professional context. Lest we forget, that’s the basic definition of sexual harassment. But because it’s happening at a distance, most often in the form of online verbal communications like comments on a woman’s profile or email sent to them directly, it’s rarely put in the same category as the classic form of workplace harassment where the harasser and the target work in close physical proximity.

Proudman’s experience was relatively mild: the unwanted attention didn’t escalate to explicit sexual propositions, or threats, or stalking. Those things do happen, though, and arguably they are more likely to happen if your profile displays your face than if it merely displays your CV. The trouble is that for women, being ‘relatable’ is often a euphemism for being sexually available. The question isn’t whether men can relate to your views on best practice in accountancy, it’s whether they’d like to relate to you in a more intimate way. If they think you’re attractive you’ll get comments, and if they don’t you may get comments of a different kind.

Judging by appearances is not just something harassers do. Research suggests we all do it. People who are ‘good looking’ by the prevailing standards of their culture get hired more easily, promoted more quickly and earn more than their less attractive peers. As a broad generalization this applies to both sexes, but if you look at research on the way career prospects are affected by specific aspects of appearance—in particular, whether you’re fat, skinny or average—it becomes clear that the effects are both different and more severe for women. Putting photos on everything makes this kind of bias worse, if only because it kicks in sooner than it might otherwise: if a picture is the first thing someone sees, that will colour their judgment of the stuff that’s actually relevant. Actually, there’s research suggesting that ‘colour their judgment’ is an understatement. According to one study,

recruiters spend 19% of their time on your online profile looking at your picture. Not as much time is spent on your skills or past work experience. Therefore, your picture plays a big role in whether you’re able to interest a recruiter enough to reach out to you.

The use of profile pictures also facilitates other kinds of discrimination, since a photo reveals not only a person’s sex, but also their race and their approximate age.

Advice on what constitutes a ‘good’ profile picture makes clear that the expectations are not gender-neutral. Men are told to present themselves in a suitably professional way. This will probably involve tidying whatever hair they’ve got on their head, shaving (or trimming their facial hair) and wearing a collar and tie. For women it’s more complicated. You’re expected to be ‘well-groomed’, which means, in the words of one site, ‘appropriate make-up and jewellery’, and you must combine looking professional with not looking ‘unapproachable’ (severe, bossy, intimidating). These demands mean you have to pay attention not only to what you wear, but to every nuance of your posture and facial expression. Should you smile or look serious? What kind of pose, or gaze, will make you look approachable but not too girly? And of course, you worry that whatever you decide, you’ll be judged and found wanting. Because you’re a woman, and that means everyone feels entitled to judge the way you look.

Once I was interviewed for a Sunday newspaper, and they sent a professional photographer to take some pictures. His most ‘successful’ shot showed me in profile; he explained that in his expert opinion a standard full-face shot would not flatter me. At the time, I didn’t resent him telling me that: I figured it was his job to make those judgments. But later, I wondered: would he have said the same if I’d been a man? In that case I think he’d probably have taken the full-face picture, because he wouldn’t have cared so much about whether the shot was ‘flattering’. You can show a man the way he is: you can look for the individual personality in his face. With a woman, though, it’s assumed that what you should do is make her look more conventionally attractive, which may also mean less individual. It’s also assumed that she will want that.

I do resent it when I get random blokes on Twitter telling me how ugly I look in my profile photo. Or advising me, as one once did, that I should cut my fringe and use better hair products. I think: what’s it to them? They don’t know me personally; Twitter isn’t a dating site, and I haven’t made my appearance the subject of a poll. Yet they seem to take what they see as its shortcomings very personally. As if my lack of attention to what they consider proper standards of grooming were a calculated insult that they can’t allow to pass.

The photo I use on Twitter is a drastically cropped version of an ineptly-taken selfie, and I don’t use it for professional purposes: since it doesn’t show me looking ‘professional’, it isn’t suitable for putting on a poster or a university website. The photo that does appear on my department’s website is less casual, but so out of date, you could probably sue it for false advertising. And as I write that, I realise it’s not just a figure of speech: in professional and public contexts, these endless head-shots basically are a form of advertising, with you as the product.

In the final analysis, I think that’s what bothers me most—not just that I’m expected to sell myself, but that I’m expected to do it in the way women always have, by using my looks. And however women look, there’s a price to pay for that: a ‘stunning’ photo will get you objectified, while a not-so-stunning photo will get you sneered at. No photo at all will get you a rep for being snotty, or out of touch with the self-promotional demands of the 21st century world.

Meanwhile, men who look like the ones on ‘Hobo or Professor’ just upload their warts-and-all images and then forget it. They know they have more important things to advertise; we are constantly reminded that we don’t.

Bringing up the body

Maddy Coy reviews Alison Phipps’s book The Politics of the Body, and finds it partial in both senses of the word

By Alison Phipps’s own account, her book The Politics of the Body sets out to ask ‘questions about how contemporary discussions of issues to do with women’s bodies reflect how we conceptualise embodiment’. Each chapter picks out a particular issue, or set of issues, relating to this general theme: the topics examined are sexual violence, gender and Islam, the politics of the sex industry and the reproductive regimes of birth and breastfeeding.

On the plus side, it’s good to see a feminist book that’s critical of the way neoliberalism has normalised ‘the politics of personal responsibility’ and conferred feminist status on any choice a woman makes, regardless of the constraints of social structure. It’s good to see someone examining discourses and debates around women’s bodies, and drawing on academic research to support, or dispute, what have become normative frameworks at best and incontestable truths at their most divisive. But it’s disappointing and frustrating to see this much-needed analysis marred by blind spots, misunderstandings and a thorough, seemingly deliberate hatchet-job on radical feminism.

For me, the book’s best and most accessible chapter is the last one, on birth and breastfeeding – the ‘new reproductive regimes of truth’. How, Phipps asks, has the ‘natural’ become so idealised, often robbing women of medical, technological advances that have made modern motherhood less painful and frankly, more convenient? When practices of attachment parenting and ‘the breastfeeding mafia’ are both lauded and decried by the mainstream media, even to suggest that there might be a place for epidurals, caesareans and formula milk as means for women to reclaim and re-inhabit a maternal body is no small stake in the ground.

Not that this is necessarily Phipps’ aim: rather she presents a careful argument about how choosing a ‘normal’ birth and the ‘self-sacrifice’ of breastfeeding is inextricably linked to privilege. In ‘attempt[ing] to apply the principle of intersectionality’, she calls out the way campaigns, initiatives and organisations that promote less intervention and ‘normal’ birth have become yardsticks by which to judge, as ill-informed and selfish, the choices made by the working class and minority women who are more likely to opt for pain relief and formula feeding. She unpicks the gender essentialisms behind these maternalist ideals, and how they have pushed women’s bodily autonomy aside in favour of ‘prescribed practices’. Never mind that research shows most women experiencing some form of ‘birth trauma’ have had ‘normal’ deliveries, or the inconsistencies in the evidence base on the benefits of breastfeeding. She points out that ‘only women who know they are able to give birth safely are able to reject the trappings of technology’, thus making a structural link with the romanticisation of natural birth in many parts of the world where there is little or  no access to medical care. This, as she astutely observes, illustrates the ‘shift from rights to choices’.

Nor does the merchandising industry that has sprung up around managing labour pains, aiding ‘natural’ birth, breastfeeding and kangaroo care-style attachment parenting, escape her forensic gaze. How neat that a movement supposedly empowering women to do what comes naturally requires relentless consumerism! Here Phipps identifies the way feminist goals have been co-opted by a neoliberal fetishization of personal responsibility. It’s the kind of incisive analysis many feminists will have been hoping for.

The chapter on sexual violence also starts promisingly, with a critical account of the controversies that swirl around Julian Assange, his refusal to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, and the similar defences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Roman Polanski. The lefties who vocally supported Assange are painstakingly exposed. That powerful men have been allowed to abuse women with impunity has perhaps never been so publicly evident than at present, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations and the arrests of various celebrities. Phipps shows that responses to Strauss-Kahn, Polanski and Assange were similarly revealing, and she distils these cases to explore ‘rape apologism’.

However, I am less than convinced by her argument that a central problem on the left is ‘an assumption that left-wing men are above misogyny’—not because I doubt that this assumption exists, but because it elides sexual violence with men’s hatred of women rather than their abuse of power. Some left-wing men might well be misogynists, but as feminists have long known, they can also be capable of abusing gendered power in ways that jar with their awareness of classed power. In this chapter on sexual violence (and the politics of victimhood), men’s entitlement to women’s bodies is discussed only once, with reference to Adrienne Rich, when surely it is central to any understanding of how all of these men were variously excused and idealised. Nor is there any reference here to the huge body of feminist work (much of it radical feminist) which relates to the debate on victimhood. It was after all Kathleen Barry who introduced the concept of ‘victimism’ in 1979 in her book Female Sexual Slavery.

Phipps does explore how the women abused by these men were interrogated by the media and found wanting, and links this insightfully to the way choice, agency and personal responsibility have come to dominate understandings of human behaviour. Yet her passing concern at how little attention is paid to the choices and agency of perpetrators is mirrored by the chapter itself. The argument here that only women’s choices have been ‘responsibilised’, especially with respect to sexual violence, leaves an echoing silence about men’s actions. The chapter ends with an ambivalent account of the controversy surrounding ‘Slutwalks’, celebrated as an initiative that rejects victim-blame and personal responsibility, but criticised at least in part because of concerns voiced by Black women about the racialisation of the term slut.

In the end, this chapter felt like a missed opportunity – a set of expectations raised and dashed, not least because of the sledge-hammer approach to radical feminism, which is repeatedly accused of an unholy alliance with neoconservative moralism, and used as the scapegoat for the deep suspicion with which left wing movements now regard victimhood.

Radical feminism: an enemy within?

In a book where every assertion is meticulously referenced, a strange and telling absence is the total lack of any reference to sources when repeating the assertion that radical feminism has embraced a ‘neoconservative gender essentialism’. So striking is this absence that it comes to define the author’s point of view. The refrain that there is a ‘convergence of radical feminism with neoconservative and neo-conservative law and order agendas’ is sprinkled throughout the entire text, sometimes on almost every page. In a couple of places ‘trafficking’ is invoked as an example of this alliance, but with no specific examples (of campaigns, support services or research) which might substantiate the point. In a book of this scope and potential, containing a thoughtful and sophisticated discussion of how neoliberalism and neoconservatism are defined and understood, it’s a pity Phipps fails to offer readers even the most basic definition of a strand of feminism that she repeatedly vilifies. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this omission is deliberate, for fear of giving radical feminist politics any intellectual legitimacy. Instead she reinforces every stereotype and myth (I’m sure you can reel them off without too much thought) in ways which ultimately diminish the intellectual integrity of her own position.

Taken at its most basic, radical feminism identifies men’s privilege over women as the root of women’s inequality, exercised particularly through entitlement to women’s bodies, and thus many activists on violence against women and girls trace the way we understand violence back to radical feminism. Many of the issues she engages with in the book – sexual violence, prostitution, crimes in the name of honour – owe their public profile to these very activists and the framings they use.

This is not to question the legitimacy of critiquing any political position, or the need to challenge the ways in which intersections with race and class have been less prominent than they should have been in some aspects of radical feminist theory and practice. But there is a disconnection throughout this book from the grassroots feminists who work on violence against women and girls. At times this is more of a shadow cast by the now familiar refrain about radical feminists jumping into bed with neocons, but it is also explicitly articulated, nowhere more obviously than in the chapter on gender and Islam.

For instance, Phipps insists on using the term ‘female genital cutting’ (linking the word ‘mutilation’ to an ‘Orientalist framework’) and when she uses the full term ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM), she adds ‘[sic]’ to distance herself from it. There are interesting and legitimate debates about the meanings of the word mutilation, and particularly what it means for women who have undergone this form of violence to be labelled ‘mutilated’. Some use the term FGM/C to denote the complexities of finding language that does not alienate whilst also naming and defining. I would have welcomed discussion of this. But five seconds on the Internet would have told Phipps that many of the grassroots women’s organisations who specialise in campaigning against FGM (e.g. FORWARD, Daughters of Eve), led by women from practising communities who identify as survivors, use the term ‘mutilation’. This links the procedure to other forms of violence against women and girls. By insisting on using the term ‘cutting’ instead of ‘FGM’, Phipps manages at one stroke to decouple FGM from VAWG, placing herself at odds with international human rights approaches, and inadvertently slipping into both cultural relativism and colonial feminism.

It jars more than slightly for a privileged academic (Phipps refers to herself as ‘a white, western, able-bodied and cisgendered woman married to a man, living a fairly conventional middle-class lifestyle’) to reject the language that activists from the most respected and prominent NGOs use to frame the experiences of women in communities that practice FGM. I found myself wondering if Phipps deliberately rejects this framing because she views these organisations and survivors as under the umbrella of the radical feminists who are in turn in thrall to neocon law-and-order agendas. If so, then this example illustrates another way in which the intellectual positioning of this book, and Phipps’ wilful misrepresentation of radical feminism, leaves her arguments circulating within the rarefied sphere of the academy and totally detached from contemporary activism.

Not only is the term ‘female genital cutting’ used in this chapter, but the similarly problematic ‘wife-beating’ (with no ‘[sic]’ to suggest that it is someone else’s term with which she disagrees). There is a short section in this chapter on constructions of honour killing, which succinctly addresses the ways in which ‘culture’ (conflated with Islam?) is used as justification and explanation, whilst the motivations of ‘white’ men who kill women are not attributed to notions of honour. However, once again, to devote less than a page to violations of women’s bodies in a chapter of this potential scope, and instead spend most of its space on veiling, is wholly inadequate. What the key issues are for a political sociology of women’s bodies with respect to Islam depends on perspective; in the media it is indeed about veiling, and the contentions around ‘banning the burqa’. For those of us in the VAWG sector, there are deeper questions about the violations of women’s bodies, and representations of the Black woman’s body in relation to honour-based violence. There is, of course, a broad argument made here about the challenges facing feminism. But language matters, and ideas matter, and Phipps has chosen to position herself at one remove from specialists in the field and from many feminist activists.

The chapter on the sex industry reinforces this. Trafficking is only referenced in relation to that now rather tired old refrain about rad fems cheering on neocon rescue industries, a charge levelled at feminist organisations providing support to women who have been trafficked. Elsewhere, this slur is more insidiously used to suggest that such NGOs exaggerate the extent of trafficking. Again, my point here is not that the notions of rescue do not feature in the framings used by some of those that support victims of trafficking. I would have welcomed a discussion unpicking and evidencing this. Unfortunately, Phipps manages to problematise critical feminist perspectives on trafficking while providing no evidence for what is often a lazy pejoration.

The main thrust of this chapter, however, is a deconstruction of the ways in which arguments about women’s agency have been used to make the voices and experiences of the most privileged women in the sex industry the loudest. The wonderful term ‘sex work glitterati’ is deployed to great effect, exposing again how the appearance of cool liberalism privileges women who already enjoy social and economic capital, yet have become the ‘authentic’ voice of the sex industry. There is brief acknowledgement of how structural inequalities result in women choosing to commodify their bodies, which is then plated with a seemingly impenetrable veneer of voluntarism. The gendered asymmetry of prostitution is recognised, and ‘whorephobia’ – an accusation levelled noisily at most of us who critique the social institution of the sex industry – is identified as an example of the ‘politics of recognition’ which chooses to ignore structural inequalities.

So why might this otherwise trenchant critique be so disquieting? The first reason is relatively superficial – she insists on using the term ‘sex work’ throughout, language inextricably associated with the position that she critiques, rarely used by women in the sex industry (except by the ‘sex work glitterati’ that she discusses) and of course rejected by those of us with a more critical engagement. Secondly, in the binary of philosophically incompatible positions that Phipps discusses – sex radicals who celebrate the empowering potential of the sex industry and radical feminists for whose position she provides no explanation – she draws entirely on sex radical writing and research. Fair enough for a chapter aiming to interrogate this position. But it seems disingenuous to write a chapter on the politics of the sex industry which does not acknowledge any of the feminists who have for decades developed our thinking and empirical knowledge about it. It effaces our history, doubly so because it allows her to claim radical feminists’ arguments as her own.

Let us take a couple of her examples. (1) Evidence of trauma in ‘sex work’ – referenced to her own review of literature on this, not the radical feminist-inspired original research by Melissa Farley and her colleagues. (2) Failure of sex radicals to make the link between wider commodification of women’s bodies, especially in heterosexual exchanges? I can think of several pioneering – and radical – feminists who first put forward these very arguments. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon and Sheila Jeffreys all developed analyses which linked heterosexuality, the social institution of marriage, women’s economic dependence and men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Yet they are invisible here.

We all build on the work of others, of course, and sometimes we may be unaware of some of these influences and omit to credit those who first say new things. However, combined with the constant belittling of radical feminism, the omission here seems less the self-absorption of which we can all be guilty and more a conscious attempt by Phipps to make the work of those with critical views of the sex industry invisible, and thus unimportant. I think of my students, who might take this chapter as a measured and balanced discussion of feminist politics on prostitution, and how they might finish it with no sense of the richness and complexity of radical feminist critiques; instead they will have a fist full of references for writers on the sex industry from a different position, and be left with a completely unbalanced view of the history and present shape of this debate. A deeper analysis would have considered the argument that there is nothing ‘sex radical’ about accepting that men need access to the bodies of the world’s poorest women and girls for sexual release. Phipps seems again unable to critique men’s actions and the choices they make to use women’s bodies.

As a treatise on how progressive movements, with progressive goals, have been co-opted by neoliberal agendas, this book will be a thought provoking and uncomfortable read for many. Phipps identifies some hugely important questions, not least the problem for feminism of figuring out how it got itself into a kind of ideological impasse: caught between a libertarian position, which holds to questionable notions of agency, and an experiential position which runs the risk of being cast as moralistic and authoritarian. The disappointing thing is that Phipps herself reinforces this dichotomy, uncritically reproducing the caricature version of a materialist feminism which is at the root of most activism around violence against women. For those of us that locate our politics of the body in radical feminism, however loosely, this book will cause discomfort because of the way it dismisses or misrepresents our thinking and political activism.

Alison Phipps, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Polity Press, 2014.

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.

Jeremy Corbyn: Two views


Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party has sparked heated discussion amongst feminists about whether or not the new Labour politics is good news for women. Here we publish two pieces which take opposing views of this question.

Cartoons by the amazing Angela Martin.


The rise of the dick-swingers?

Rahila Gupta argues that knee-jerk feminist anti-Corbyn reactions are unwarranted and misplaced.

Feminists of all persuasions seem to be divided about whether or not the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a blessing or a curse for women, and much of the negative reaction seems to come from a historical suspicion of the male left. However, I have been particularly dismayed by the kneejerk reaction of some radical feminists to the rapid ascent of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to the Labour leadership and shadow chancellorship, who have portrayed this phenomenon as ‘the rise of the dick-swingers’. As far as I am concerned, the recent outcome of the labour leadership election, and the debate that has accompanied it, is one of the most exciting developments in the last 40 years and has enthused me about British parliamentary politics in a way that I didn’t think possible. But this enthusiasm hurts, accompanied as it is by the fear that this challenge to the consensus may be strangled at birth. We have seen how the powers that be in Europe have attempted to stunt the growth of Syriza and Tsipras. The knives are out for Corbyn from every possible direction – the media, the Tories and apparently most of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The last thing corbyn_bandwagonwe need is for feminists to jump on this bandwagon. Some of the anti-Corbyn positioning, from radical and socialist feminists alike, is predictably about the jobs (or lack of) for women in the shadow cabinet. Whilst I agree that there should be visibility, equal opportunities and representation for women, surely we should go beyond identity politics and also be asking questions about the policies espoused by the women we choose. I voted for Corbyn and Watson as his deputy on the basis of their record and their politics. Watson was like a hound dog in his determination to expose child sexual abuse in the Westminster elite and holding the Murdoch empire to account. None of the women inspired a similar confidence although I would have dearly loved to give one of them my vote. When the first four shadow cabinet jobs were announced, they had all gone to men, so the clamour grew about this being the same old left politics. When the entire cabinet appointments were announced and slightly more than half were given to women, this was still not enough to please the naysayers.

Radical feminists have been particularly vocal in their anti-Corbyn commentary, arguing that that his decision not to appoint a woman to any of the four top positions is indicative of how he intends to engage (or rather, not to engage) with feminist concerns. I actually buy Corbyn and Mcdonnell’s view that foreign affairs being perceived as more important than health or education (both these portfolios went to women) is a colonial hangover when Britain is playing a much smaller role in the world. This is the NEW politics. Given the mountain that Corbyn has to climb to build party unity, two of the jobs were kept by Blairites (Hilary Benn and Lord Falconer) who were already in post. John McDonnell, who became shadow chancellor, is absolutely the best person for the job. As MP for Hayes and Hillingdon where Heathrow airport is located, he is indefatigable in his support for refugees and immigrants both at an individual and at a policy level. He is in tune with Corbyn, perhaps even more left-wing than him and if he were to ever become chancellor, I can think of no other person in Parliament who would make the funds available to implement some of the most ambitious pledges to end austerity and deal with violence against women.

Much of what I have seen from feminists appears to be based on ignorance of his policies for women as laid out in his Working for Women document. Here are just a few of Corbyn’s pledges:

  • Work towards providing universal free childcare
  • Recognise women’s caring roles through tax and pension rights
  • Reverse the cuts in local authority adult social care and invest in a national carers strategy, under a combined National Health & Care Service
  • Properly fund Violence Against Women and Girls Services and make it easier for women to be believed and get justice.

corbyn_landslidesThey want to restore cuts in legal aid which have massively damaged women’s access to justice and ensure that women asylum seekers get proper access to health services. Dawn Foster has written about the potential for positive impact of Corbyn’s policies on women on the Open Democracy site at length so I won’t rehearse all the arguments here. We know how austerity has disproportionately affected women and none of the other Tory-lite candidates had much to say about it until they were pushed to a more progressive position by Corbynmania. By pushing the knife into Corbyn, feminists are damaging their own best interests.

That is not to say that there is nothing to worry about in Corbyn’s pro-feminist politics. I have written about the gaps in his manifesto, namely around religious fundamentalism and the sex industry. I attended a hustings at Ealing Town Hall in August in order to challenge him about these issues. As I was there as a journalist, I didn’t get to ask any questions in the hall. Fortunately, a colleague, Sukhwant Dhaliwal from Southall Black Sisters (SBS) urged him to make a statement against religious fundamentalism because it was antithetical to human rights, rocked the foundations of democracy and had a devastating impact on women. He gave an untypically woolly answer saying, ‘we’ve all got views on this’ and invited SBS to contribute to the document.

However, we spotted him outside the hall and detained him for further questioning much to the unhappiness of his son and campaign manager. Apparently an ear infection had temporarily affected Jeremy’s hearing and he had not quite heard the question on religion. He made it clear that he was a secularist and saw no place for religion in politics or in the public sphere such as the provision of violence against women services. I have written about this trend elsewhere when the Home Office contract to POPPY for running a refuge for trafficked women was handed over to the Salvation Army.

I asked whether he would pull the plug on funding faith schools which gave him pause for thought. He felt the system was too entrenched, that perhaps the answer was to deal with it through a change in admissions policy although he accepted that admissions could not tackle the inherently discriminatory nature of faith schools, their lack of commitment to gender equality and the absence of sex education and PHSE classes. He suggested that strengthening local education authorities and their role in defining and providing education in local areas could be another way of tackling this issue.

On the question of prostitution, Corbyn seemed open to persuasion. Niki Adams, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, delightedly claimed that Corbyn opposes the Nordic model which calls for the criminalisation of those who buy sex, the decriminalisation of prostituted women and the development of exit strategies for them. I have not seen any statements by Corbyn himself on it. The fear that Corbyn is typical of many men on the left who see it as ‘sex work’, a trade union issue and an industry which can be cleaned up with the right laws and proper implementation is justified. This is John McDonnell’s Achilles’ heel too. However, Corbyn agreed that without tackling demand, trafficking of women would increase, seemed concerned that the majority of women enter prostitution as children (average age of 15) and offered to meet with survivors of prostitution to talk further about the issues involved. We shall certainly take him up on that offer.

We need to engage with this new force in the Labour party not stand on the side-lines and throw brickbats at it.


After the revolution?

Delilah Campbell ponders the rise of Jeremy Corbyn: is it a triumph for feminism or the triumph of hope over experience?

Last week, I watched the fourth and final episode of the historian Amanda Foreman’s TV series The Ascent of Woman. The episode’s title was ‘Revolution’, and it traced a recurring pattern in the history of modern revolutions, from Paris in 1789 to Cairo in 2011. Women stand beside men (or sometimes in front of them) in the fight for freedom, only to be comprehensively sold out by the leaders of the new regime, who have no interest in the liberation of the female half of the human race: more often they are determined to prevent it. In France, the feminist Olympe de Gouges was executed during the Terror, and French women soon found their position redefined by the Napoleonic code, which was even more restrictive than the pre-revolutionary law. In Russia, Alexandra Kollontai was given the power to make a difference for a while, but ultimately she was removed from her position and forced into exile. Variations on this pattern have been repeated time and time again.

corbyn_revwindowThe ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party is hardly to be counted among the great revolutions of world history, but as I watched Amanda Foreman lay out her depressing thesis, I couldn’t help thinking that British feminists are enacting a miniature version of the same old story, enthusiastically supporting a male-led leftist coup without making that support conditional on any kind of commitment to meeting our political demands. Not that such a commitment would necessarily be honoured, of course, but in this case I’m embarrassed by how little feminists seem to expect, and how eager many have been to defend Corbyn whatever he does or doesn’t do.

I would not say I am anti-Corbyn, and I’m certainly not criticizing the feminists who voted for him in the Labour leadership election. Most of the feminists I know who voted did vote for him: though a couple preferred to support what they considered the best, or least worst, of the women candidates, Yvette Cooper, most felt that women’s interests would ultimately be better served by the anti-austerity politics which only Corbyn represented. What I’m ‘anti’ is the idea that feminists have a duty to act as cheerleaders for the new regime, and that we are not entitled to hold it to account when it acts in ways that do not serve our interests as we define them. For instance, all the feminists I know who voted for Corbyn also voted for Stella Creasy as deputy leader. It isn’t Corbyn’s fault that she wasn’t elected, but if he cared what feminists thought he should have offered her a decent job.

Also, while we’re on the subject of jobs, I’m afraid I don’t buy that line about health and education (portfolios he did give to women) being more important than those pompously named ‘Great Offices of State’ (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary). To me that sounds like a classic piece of spin, invented to do the same job as the hasty elevation of Angela Eagle when the media started shouting about the absence of women at the top. When that happened, feminists joined in with the chorus of ‘stop carping and give him credit for appointing a Shadow Cabinet that’s half women’. Sorry, but I don’t think feminists should give anyone points for that. Surely in 2015 we ought to be able to assume that any group of people appointed purely on merit will be approximately 50% female. We should cry sexism when that isn’t the case, not say ‘wow, congratulations’ when it is.corbyn_lowexpectation

Before he was elected, Corbyn put out a policy document on women’s issues which has been positively received by many feminists, and which does tick some important boxes. But it doesn’t cover all the issues that matter to radical feminists, and those of us old enough to remember when the Left Corbyn grew up with had power—in local councils, in trades unions, in the Labour Party—have reasons for thinking we can’t just trust him to do what we consider the right thing. The sexual liberationism of Corbyn’s generation of leftist men has frequently brought them into conflict with radical feminists in the past, and there’s potential for that to happen again in future. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest ally and now his Shadow Chancellor, is a vocal advocate for legalizing the sex industry: how long before he tries to make that Labour policy? Corbyn himself was MP for Islington during the time when children in council care were being sexually exploited and abused. It’s not illegitimate for feminists to wonder what he knew, what he did, and what he thinks should be done about it now. But we’re told to keep quiet, because raising these concerns would be a gift to the Tory press; we’d just be helping to keep the heartless greedy bastards in government forever. And of course, no one wants to do that.

But does it really follow that our support for the Corbynistas has to be unconditional, our loyalty absolute? The Labour movement has been in the habit of depending on women’s (and other oppressed groups’) loyalty, reasoning that we have nowhere else to go. But that’s what’s so frustrating: women are not a minority, so why haven’t we created somewhere else to go? It’s noticeable, for instance, that more young women seem to have been galvanized by Corbyn’s campaign than have been inspired by the founding of a new Women’s Equality Party. So far, the WEP has looked pretty moderate and middle-of-the-road, but just as the Corbynistas have shaken up the Labour Party, so women joining the WEP en masse could redefine what it is about. It’s true that without proportional representation the WEP is doomed to remain electorally on the margins, but it could be to feminism what the Greens are to environmentalism (or what UKIP, unfortunately, is to racism)—a force that the mainstream parties must respond to in their own thinking and policymaking.

But I’m not really expecting that to happen. There has never been a feminist revolution: a revolution planned and led by women that put women’s interests front and centre. And there probably never will be, because not enough women would support it. Most women think it’s selfish and unfair to put their own interests ahead of men’s, and most still seem to believe that men are better equipped to lead. So we go on putting our faith in men, and we go on being surprised and disappointed when they do what we refuse to—put themselves first.

Refugee crisis: where are the safe havens for women?

In the last two weeks, groups of ordinary people across Europe have declared ‘refugees welcome here’, and called on their governments to do more. But the particular problems faced by women are still going unacknowledged, and where policies do exist, there is a crisis of implementation. Women deserve better, says Jackie Turner.

Over recent months there has been increased media attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people attempting the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy or overcrowded boats. Many have no doubt paid a premium to unscrupulous smugglers; others will have fallen victim to people traffickers ready and willing to exploit their desperate need to flee war zones and other hostile and violent conditions at home. The media attention is welcome. It has exposed a serious humanitarian crisis although, regrettably, it has also exposed an EU leadership in disarray. Search and rescue missions are scaled down, and then scaled back up. Governments bicker about who is bearing the brunt of the financial burden and where these thousands of displaced people should go. There is ready conflation of refugees and migrants, people smugglers and human traffickers.

Even so, something is missing from all the coverage. What remains largely unreported and is absent from most policy responses is the particular plight of women and girls.

There is nothing new in this. Women are regularly written out of history or relegated to the footnotes; this despite decades of international, regional and national laws intended to promote the human rights of women. Violence against women, in particular, is acknowledged to be a consequence of inequalities between women and men. Yet amidst the extensive media reports of hardships at sea and the appalling loss of life, representations of women are few and far between, their voices rarely heard and their stories even more rarely told. Nor are they attracting much government attention.

Yet the women fleeing violence at home do not leave that violence behind them. It travels with them right up to and into countries of destination. And very often this is gender-based violence: violence against women because they are women. Such violence is all too prevalent in times of peace: domestic violence, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lives lived in the shadow of ‘honour’. In times of war violence against women, including rape and other sexualised violence, increases exponentially. It is an ever-present reality, in their homes, in refugee camps, during travel, at staging posts and in countries of destination.

Migration is a particularly hazardous undertaking for women, yet even here they are often hidden populations, viewed as a residual category of those ‘left behind’, or those crossing borders as dependent family members. Such notions do little to capture the complexities of women’s lives, the push factors which drive them from their homes, and the extent of the dangers and the dangerous masculinities they face every step of the way.

In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that almost four of every five people who have fled Syria in the last three years are women and children. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (2014) many end up in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, but many more live outside of formal camps. Here, social norms place restrictions on women’s mobility, leaving them less able to access humanitarian aid or engage in economically fruitful activity. If and when they do find paid work, they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by employers, just as they are vulnerable to sexual predation by landlords who demand more than rent if women are to keep a roof over their heads and the heads of their children. Sexual harassment means that mothers are afraid to send their daughters to school, resulting in girls being deprived of education. Yet women and girls in formal camps scarcely fare better. Sexual harassment and exploitation is again commonplace where women and girls are forced to exchange sex for aid, or where collecting water or visiting latrines is fraught with the dangers of sexual assault and rape.

Conflicts elsewhere in the region or in North and sub-Saharan Africa have forced countless more women from their homes, compelling them to embark on hazardous dessert and sea crossings. Here, the boat trip from Libya to Europe is just one more of the numerous dangers they face as they flee the armed conflicts in which they are held hostage to power struggles among men. Yet during flight they are confronted with other dangerous men and with the dangerous masculinities which dominate the trade in women. However much or little money they have is extorted, they may be sold en route, or forced to sell sex to pay for the next stage of the journey, while also facing gang- and multiple rape by fellow travellers and the men they have paid to secure their passage. There is invariably little food and water and certainly no safe and equal system for distributing what few resources are available. Pregnancy offers no protection against this violence and many women give birth to babies which result from rape.

These atrocities have been well documented by international NGOs and by UN bodies in current and previous wars. The international community is well aware of the disproportionate burdens women bear in armed conflicts and of the escalation of physical and sexual violence against them. It expressly gave voice to this in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000. Since then there have been a number of further related UN Security Council Resolutions and international events such as the 2006 International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond in which participating states vowed to ‘strengthen our shared commitment and action to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations’. In 2012, the former UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ (PSVI) with the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. The campaign aims to address the culture of impunity, prosecute more perpetrators and ensure better support services for survivors through greater international cooperation, and by increasing political will and the capacity of states to do more. It was followed in 2013 with the adoption by G8 Foreign Ministers of the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, subsequently endorsed by 155 countries. The Declaration recognises that violence against women is inextricably linked to inequality between women and men. It commits to offering no safe haven to perpetrators of sexual violence against women in war zones.

But what of safe havens for women? For those who do make it to the shores of Italy, some end up hidden away in detention centres. There, as Lauren Wolfe of the Women’s Media Centre, documents in her blog of 24 July 2015, these ‘missing women’ are illegally detained, often for weeks or even months with access to only the most basic levels of care and medical help. There is no sign of ‘better support services’ for these survivors, who have been traumatised by their experiences of violence and by the violence and deaths they have been forced to witness. Other women, living beyond the walls of detention centres, are often left with little choice but to engage in what the UN calls ‘survival sex’, while others again are forced into prostitution by their traffickers. Family members may be held hostage while women are required to sell sex to pay off debts accumulated during journeys to Europe but which, in fact, are never paid off. Women who had no choice but to face dangerous men and masculinities in countries of origin and in transit, are still having to contend with dangerous men and masculinities in countries of destination.

Women who come to the UK fare no better. Here, they face a tough and complex asylum regime which systematically discriminates against them, as Caroline Criado-Perez details in her new book ‘Do It Like A Woman – And Change the World’. Their stories of trauma, risk and threats are met with a ‘culture of disbelief’ among Home Office decision-makers. Even those who are eventually given asylum face an uncertain future. Leave to remain is frequently granted only for short, fixed terms and can be reviewed at any time. An early morning knock on the door, the sudden removal to a detention centre and brutal deportation are constant threats and realities for many women and their children.

For several decades now we have had international treaties, conventions, platforms for action, resolutions, directives, initiatives and campaigns to combat and prevent violence against women. But still it continues unabated, with no sign of any abatement in the culture of impunity which affords men their safe havens. The international community has long faced a crisis of implementation when it comes to taking effective and decisive action to end violence against women. The three pillars of Security Council Resolution 1325 – protection, participation and prevention – have a particularly hollow ring. But dangerous men and dangerous masculinities are not products of armed conflicts. Violence against women in times of war cannot be addressed without addressing violence against women in times of peace.

The time for rhetoric and lip service has long passed. Women facing and fleeing violence across the world deserve better. They cannot continue to be relegated to the ranks of ‘the missing’ or absent from media and policy debates. Their voices and their stories must be heard and the international community, as well as individual governments, must confront this crisis of implementation. It is time to stop passing paper laws and resolutions and, instead, to act with resolve. The crisis in the Mediterranian is a humanitarian crisis but it is also a gendered crisis. It is time to move from ‘aims’ to concrete actions. It is time to demand greater international cooperation and increased political will and it is time to demand safe havens for women.

Believing the unbelievable: a statement by the Trouble & Strife collective 3

Feminists who campaign on the issue of sexual violence against women and children, and those who work with survivors, are well aware that we live in a culture of disbelief, where accounts of rape, assault and child sexual abuse are routinely met with scepticism if not dismissed outright as lies, fantasies, exaggerations or misunderstandings. Believing survivors is an important feminist principle; combatting the culture of disbelief is an important political task. But there are some accounts of violence and abuse that even feminists may struggle to come to terms with.

In the early 1990s, Trouble & Strife was one of the few feminist publications that addressed the issue of ritual abuse. The discussions we had in the editorial collective were instructive, with those not involved in support work finding the issues raised difficult to contemplate. Our conversations were informed by the feminist principle of believing survivors, but much of what was being said seemed unbelievable: even some rape crisis groups struggled with the accounts that were emerging, despite their extensive knowledge about sexual violence. This is still an area of work that stretches our humanity – why would one want to believe that adults can abuse and torture children in such vile ways?

In the last few years, other kinds of accounts have emerged that seem to many people scarcely credible. It is alleged that senior politicians and other members of the British establishment attended sex parties where children were not only abused but in some cases actually killed. Following the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as, in the words of the police, a ‘serial sexual predator’, and the conviction of several other media figures on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, there has been a steady stream of fresh reports of so-called ‘historical abuse’ (a term which is contested by survivors, for whom the effects are ongoing, and also because some perpetrators of ‘historical’ abuse may still be abusing in the present). Believing these accounts means accepting that a seemingly extraordinary number of prominent men have committed serious sexual offences. It is one thing to believe that one man, Savile, was able to do this unchallenged for many years, and another to suggest that he was not an isolated case.

We do believe the accounts given by survivors. But we also think it is important to talk about the particular difficulty posed by accounts which are ‘extreme’, either because they report very extreme practices (such as ritual abuse and murder) or because they point to a problem whose sheer scale makes it difficult to take in (as with the current reports of ‘historical’ abuse). That difficulty is easily exploited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the culture of disbelief. But if we look back to the way this was done in the past, there may be lessons we can learn for the present and the future.

The denial of ritual abuse

What is it that makes stories more or less believable? Partly it is the context in which we hear them. When the first accounts of organised abuse, and in particular ritual abuse, emerged, the context in which they were heard was one in which public perceptions were coloured by an earlier controversy about (non-ritual) child abuse in Cleveland, where the professionals who had taken children out of their family homes to protect them from abuse were demonized, portrayed in the media as zealots who saw signs of abuse everywhere. What emerged in this context was a ‘formula story’ about ritual abuse that has been repeated in the media ever since, and appears impervious to any challenge. (Just this year, the BBC gave the journalist David Aaronovitch a slot on Radio 4 to repeat it yet again.) The story is that gullible professionals believed the unbelievable, and created a moral panic about children being abused by groups of adults who believed in some version of Satanism.

Bea Campbell has published several pieces which challenge this account, including a two-part refutation of Aaronovitch’s most recent intervention. She points out that in one case in Nottingham, which is frequently cited as proving the formula story, the adults involved were imprisoned for a total of 150 years; the accounts children gave of ritualised elements were corroborated by three other adults who were not charged. In another case in Orkney, the father of the family involved had already been convicted for what the judge called ‘sadistic and horrific’ abuse.

Purveyors of the formula story are fond of pointing out that no one has ever been convicted of ritual abuse—which is factually accurate since in law there is no such offence—but the adults in the Nottingham and Orkney cases, and others since, have certainly been convicted of child sexual abuse offences in court proceedings where ritual elements were explicitly discussed. Survivors have continued to approach agencies for support, with pretty much every rape crisis centre supporting women whose experiences echo those that began to be discussed in the 1990s. Over two decades, centres have built up an understanding of how best to offer support by working with women who have experienced ritual abuse.

But public disbelief, shored up by the repetition of the formula story, had consequences. By the end of the 1990s it had resulted in the withdrawal of the definition of ritual abuse in child protection guidelines. More recently a different framing has been accepted, but this relates specifically to the abuse of children in minority and migrant communities, where the media have reported cases of ritual abuse and even murder without displaying the incredulity they showed in cases where the perpetrators belonged to the majority ethnic group. The issue was taken up by the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith and Belief, which reported in 2012. Many safeguarding policies now reference this work, without being accused of stirring up moral panic.

Disbelief has also been suspended in the case of reports on the brutal forms of violence practised against women by men in groups like IS and Boko Haram. It seems behaviours deemed ‘incredible’ in the civilized West become credible when those accused belong to a group defined as Other and ‘uncivilised’.

Sexual exploitation

This point is also relevant to another ‘extreme’ case in which initial disbelief and denial has now given way to a measure of acceptance: the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are recruited into a form of organized abuse using emotional manipulation (so-called ‘grooming’), and then controlled using violence, threats, alcohol and drugs. After a series of cases in towns including Rochdale and Oxford, the main story that has emerged about this phenomenon tends to emphasize the ethnicity of those involved, with much of the discussion focusing on the problem of Muslim men exploiting white, non-Muslim girls. Not only is this inaccurate (there have been many child sexual exploitation cases where the perpetrators were not Muslims), it obscures the links between this form of abuse and others which are talked about using a different set of terms.

The accounts which have been circulating for some years now, about prominent men abusing children at sex parties, are in fact stories about what we now call sexual exploitation. Clearly it is not a new phenomenon, nor one confined to certain minority communities. What recently went on in cheap hotels in Oxford was essentially the same thing that is alleged to have gone on decades ago in the upmarket surroundings of the Dolphin Square flat where establishment figures are said to have held their parties. The children who were brought to the parties appear to have been recruited from the same vulnerable population as the Oxford victims (e.g. children in local authority care), and the prominent men involved, like the ‘ordinary’ punters in the Oxford case, were paying other men for access to them.

But these similarities are obscured by the way the stories most often get told. In stories about contemporary sexual exploitation the focus is on the ‘grooming’ process and the ethnicity of the procurers; the media do not typically ask who their paying clients were, and who else facilitated their organized abuse (though in Oxford those arrested included the (white) owner of a bed and breakfast where some of this abuse had taken place). In stories about historical abuse by prominent men, by contrast, what is emphasized is primarily the men’s ‘establishment’ status, and secondarily the possibility that the establishment protected its own by covering up their activities. Questions about who procured their victims and what tactics they used to do it barely feature in the discussion. These appear to be stories about two different things, when really they are stories about the same thing, but located in different times and places and seen from different angles.

The angle from which cases were presented had a similar distorting effect on perceptions of ritual abuse in the 1990s. The stories that circulated were sometimes sensationalised (a tendency amplified in some cases by the involvement of fundamentalist Christians), and there was a preoccupation with questions about the adults’ beliefs and the nature of their rituals (were they really Satanists? Did their networks function as cults?) This made it easier than it might otherwise have been to deny that ritual abuse existed, since it stopped people from noticing the basic resemblance between the ritual abuse which survivors were reporting and other forms of organized abuse whose existence was not in doubt.

The principle of believing survivors means that feminists cannot just set aside those parts of their stories which seem bizarre and ‘incredible’, but our analysis also needs to make clear that these elements, which can easily become the main or only focus of attention, are not the whole story, or even necessarily the most important part of it. ‘Extreme’ cases have basic features in common with accounts of more ‘ordinary’ and familiar forms of abuse. To put it another way, they represent different points on the same continuum.

‘Historical’ abuse: the backlash

The concept of a continuum of sexual violence, first developed by Liz Kelly, was meant to give feminists a way of connecting the most everyday forms of abuse to the most extreme. In a book she wrote about ritual abuse in 2001, Sara Scott argued that feminists should have used this approach more systematically, connecting this new and seemingly alien set of practices to what was already known about other kinds of sexual abuse. The same applies to the current discussion of ‘historical’ abuse by prominent men.

In this case the question is not whether any prominent men have ever engaged in abuse, but whether their involvement is being overstated, or whether the issue has become entangled in dubious conspiracy theories. Clearly the abuse perpetrated by some prominent men cannot be denied. When investigation revealed the full extent of Jimmy Savile’s crimes, committed in numerous different locations over a period spanning decades, it became impossible to maintain that allegations against celebrities and public figures were simply not credible, and to dismiss anyone who made them automatically as a mischief-maker or a fantasist. At the time this seemed like a momentous and irrevocable shift in public attitudes. But a revisionist backlash has already begun.

This backlash trades on the idea that Savile’s case was unique—a case that is not difficult to make, since in some ways his career as an abuser really was exceptional. Not only was he a particularly dedicated and prolific offender who seems rarely to have passed up any opportunity to abuse, he also had—through the combination of his TV stardom and his charity work—an exceptional level of unmonitored access to powerless and vulnerable victims, from young girls participating in TV recordings to psychiatric patients. Savile has also been characterized in retrospect as ‘hiding in plain sight’—a reference to his overtly ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’ persona, which some commentators suggest should have prompted suspicion at a much earlier stage. (In fact there was no shortage of suspicion: the problem was that Savile was a National Treasure, and therefore regarded as untouchable.)

Emphasizing Savile’s uniqueness as the most extreme of the extreme opens up a space for sceptical responses when allegations are made against other celebrities and public figures. ‘Don’t compare X to Jimmy Savile, he’s [insert description of someone ‘normal’: a married man, a father of two, a dedicated public servant]’. ‘They can’t all have been at it: this is a witch-hunt/a conspiracy’. Or maybe ‘Yes, but those were different times: not everyone who had sex with a 15-year old was a serial predator like Savile’. And of course, ‘the Savile case has brought the crazies/the chancers out of the woodwork, making mad accusations so they can sell their stories to the papers’.

We also hear the argument that the police, embarrassed by their failure to act on Savile, have shifted overnight from a stance of blanket disbelief to one of utter credulity. The person who makes this argument often begins by acknowledging that in the past the police used to turn ‘genuine’ victims away, but then suggests it is equally deplorable that they will now believe whatever anyone chooses to tell them. Flimsy and implausible stories about things that allegedly happened 40 years ago are being used to persecute frail elderly men, or to tarnish the reputations of the dead.

Joining the dots

To counter this revisionism, it may be helpful to focus on what Savile did have in common with other men at the centre of historical abuse allegations, as well as what may have been different about him; and also on what links these cases involving the powerful and prominent with other cases which don’t attract the same attention, or the same incredulity.

One factor that is relevant here is the workings of impunity (a mixture of feeling entitled to engage in certain acts and feeling confident that you will never be held to account for them—they will be missed, ignored or condoned). We know that impunity is one of the things that allows sexual violence to flourish in contexts as apparently different as the private space of the family home, the conflict zones where military personnel engage in mass rape of civilians, and the parts of the world where women and girls are trafficked and sold or killed by criminal gangs (or groups like IS and Boko Haram). It is not unreasonable to extend that insight to the exclusive locations in western capital cities where powerful and wealthy men pay to engage in recreational child abuse.

Impunity may explain why some groups of men—those with the most power, whether it is exercised by force and terror or through money and influence in high places—seem to be over-represented among perpetrators of ‘extreme’ sexual violence and abuse. This is a point that gets overlooked in the ‘they can’t all have been at it’ argument, which implies that there is some sort of conspiracy to bring down the rich and famous. A group of men whose position gives them a strong sense of entitlement, and a belief that they need not fear the consequences of their actions, might be expected to have a higher rate of involvement in the most extreme and risky abusive practices.

In Jimmy Savile’s case the belief that he could act with impunity was well-founded: he was never held to account during his lifetime. If other men are to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrated in the past, it will be important to prevent the revisionist view, which portrays ‘historical’ abuse investigations as campaigns of persecution driven by moral panic or political conspiracy, from gaining the same influence as the formula story about ritual abuse. We can acknowledge that such extreme forms of abuse are uncommon, and that some of the details may be difficult to believe. But what we have to resist is the framing of extreme cases as both vanishingly rare and completely different from more ordinary forms of sexual violence. These are not unrelated phenomena, but points on a continuum. In both our analysis and our activism we must continue to join the dots.

Doing it like a woman 2

In her new book Do It Like A Woman…And Change the World, the journalist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez tells the stories of women around the world who are fighting injustice and pushing against the limits their societies impose on them. In this extract from her book she talks to Meltem Avcil, a Kurdish woman she met at a demonstration protesting against the detention of women who claim asylum in the UK.

It all started for Meltem Avcil when she was four years old. She fled with her family from the village they lived in in Turkey. ‘I remember bits and pieces of village life,’ she says. ‘Women doing their chores; girls bringing tea.’ Her family were Kurds, and they faced persecution as a result. Like many refugees, Meltem and her family first fled to Germany – but they were refused asylum. They arrived in the UK when Meltem was about eight years old, finally being settled in Doncaster as the Home Office reviewed their case. Meltem attended school and dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Officials first arrived to take Meltem and her family from her home when she was eleven. ‘I knew what was happening,’ she tells me. ‘Because I was the only English speaker, so I was always on the phone to the solicitor. I knew what was happening. But, I wasn’t really aware… I was in between.’

By the time of their second detention when Meltem was 13, she wasn’t in between any more. She was fully aware and knew enough about the system to want to act as her mother’s translator. ‘The translators are… for some reason, I didn’t trust them. And I could translate properly, because I was sharing my mum’s pain.’ The pain of being blindfolded by Turkish police and being beaten until her ear bled and her eardrum burst, of being taken away from her home by soldiers at six in the morning and driven to a forest, of the ‘unsuitable stuff ’, the ‘ugly things’ that were done to her in this forest. I ask her about taking on this role when she herself was still so young. Meltem hesitates. ‘What else would I do in Yarl’s Wood? Go and play badminton? And pretend like everything’s OK when I’m locked up? I chose to be in it.’ She’s fiery now. ‘I chose to take my psychology and my mum’s psychology on me, so that I could be sure that something good would happen in the end.’

But despite Meltem’s translation of their story, they were not believed. They were collected at three in the morning from their cells. ‘That’s when they pushed my mum onto the ground,’ she continues. ‘They hit her face with the handcuff, they forced her up the aeroplane steps. They kicked her, they punched her. They kicked me, they punched me, they pinched me, and all the time, the immigration officer was saying to me and, keep in mind I was thirteen, “If you resist, if you shout, if you scream, we will tie your hands and legs, and no one will know.” He said this to me five times.’ Meltem pauses. ‘They handcuffed my mum and they put a towel over the handcuffs, because it’s not right to handcuff anyone who hasn’t done anything, right? And they kept on blackmailing me all the way [to the airport]. And a female officer said to me, “Oh you have your GCSEs this year, don’t you?” And then she started laughing.’

I ask her how she felt. Her answer sounds like calm panic. ‘I just had one thing on my mind: what can I do about this? I let them speak, I let them speak into my ear, so many mean things on the way, and I didn’t say anything. Because I was busy thinking of what to do, how not to go back to a country I’ve not grown up in and don’t know. I had so many questions going round my head: tomorrow, where am I going to be? What’s going to happen?’

As Meltem screamed for help, saying the guards were twisting her hands, her fellow passengers began to record the incident. The pilot stopped the plane and ordered the guards to remove Meltem and her mother, who were taken to the hospital. They were visited by the Children’s Commissioner and moved to Newcastle. A new home, a new school. More waiting, more whirling questions.

For six years Meltem was moved unceremoniously around the country, taken in and out of detention. She had to register with the police every week and each time was made to wait. ‘For them, it might be that they’re short on staff and they need someone to just bring out the paper and say, “OK, sign.” But for you, it’s a different thing. All the time you’re thinking, what’s going on, are they going to take me, are they going to deport me…’

Eventually, Meltem and her mother were granted indefinite leave to stay, but she is still haunted by her experience. ‘You know, I’m still in fear,’ she says. ‘When someone bangs on the door very hard, I will just shake.’ Meltem has a British passport but, she says, ‘I still think, can they take it away from me? Can they lock me up again?’ She tells me about a morning not long after they received leave to remain. ‘The door knocked really hard, really really hard and I jumped up, and I said, “Mum, is it them.”’ I can’t help noticing it’s not a question.

A culture of disbelief

Disbelief is not only a common theme in these women’s stories – it’s a common theme in the statistics too. Report after report finds a virulent strain of cynicism within the UK Border Agency (UKBA) that manifests as a ‘culture of disbelief ’. Things are so bad that an investigation was carried out by Asylum Aid specifically into the quality of decisions made by the Home Office on women asylum seekers. The report found that, on average, 28% of all initial Home Office decisions that went against asylum seekers were ultimately overturned on appeal; when it came to women asylum seekers, this figure shot up to 50%. Clearly, something isn’t working. Assessments of the credibility of the women whose applications are initially being turned down are repeatedly found to be inaccurate and ill informed. Put baldly, the UKBA officials don’t believe these women – and the ignorance and callousness displayed in the illustrative cases are shocking.

One case worker had never heard of the term ‘female circumcision’. Another decided on the basis of ‘an article from the American gossip website www.gawker.com’ that a lesbian from Uganda did not have any reason to fear the death penalty if she were returned. A woman who was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen, and who was abused by her father when she tried to return to her family home, was refused on the basis that she had remained in the marriage for thirteen years. This apparently proved that she was not at risk. A victim of sexual assault was asked if she had tried to stop a man from raping her. As if she had asked for it if she couldn’t physically prove that she didn’t want it. An Amnesty report found that photos of scars were not being accepted as evidence of torture. What price evidence in the face of this solid entity, ‘disbelief’?

Some of the decisions seem to move beyond ignorance to outright deceptive manipulation: one woman who feared ‘honour’ killing if she were returned to Iraq was refused asylum on the basis of a report that detailed the support available from local police. The very same report also detailed the danger of sexual assault such women faced from the police themselves if they approached them for help. Somehow, that factor was not considered relevant to the case.

Home Office officials have been told to get rid of 70% of these pesky asylum seekers, and these targets are backed up with the reward of shopping vouchers or the threat of being presented with a ‘grant monkey’, the toy gorilla that is put on the desk of any UKBA official who allows a claim. It is attitudes like these that have led Frances Webber, an immigration barrister, to damningly conclude, ‘UKBA officials sometimes give the impression that their purpose is to catch asylum seekers out – they seem to work from the premise that most asylum seekers are opportunistic liars, an attitude strongly fostered by the media and sometimes by government ministers, although it is very far from the truth.’ As one female asylum seeker explains, ‘They don’t believe you. They ask you five hundred questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.’

That doesn’t explain why the burden of being disbelieved is falling so disproportionately on the shoulders of women. For the answer to that, we have to look further back, to the wording of another one-size-fits-all solution: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II by well-meaning men. The intentions were noble, even beautiful. A person had a right to claim asylum if he or she had a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. It’s not enough to be persecuted – it has to be for these specific reasons. And we can already see that there is a glaring omission in this list, because a woman may well be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or indeed any of the reasons for which men are persecuted. But she is most likely to be persecuted for the simple fact that she is a woman.

It is the fact that she is a woman that means her body is most likely to be used as a weapon of war. It is the fact that she is a woman that means that her sexuality is deemed to be dangerous and sinful, and that therefore her genitals, or those of her daughter, must be cut off and sewn up. It is the fact that she is a woman that means she is likely to be raped, beaten, murdered to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family if she commits the crime of behaving in any way that approximates the behaviour of a free man – and it is the fact that she is a woman that means if she reports this to the police, she is as likely to be attacked again as she is to be protected.

A Women for Refugee Women report found that the number one reason female asylum seekers gave for their persecution was ‘because I am a woman’. But only since 1999 has the UK accepted that women can be considered to belong to ‘a particular social group’, or, sometimes, to hold a ‘political opinion’, if they have chosen to defy the social norms that restrict so many women’s lives. Previously, women did not constitute a social group, and nor did rebelling against limiting female social norms reflect a political opinion. Nevertheless, although we’ve taken our time to get there, the precedent has finally been set. But most women who claim asylum don’t realise that this is the case – and staff at the UKBA seem to be in no hurry to inform them.

It is for the women who are still detained, who are still suffering behind barbed wire and eight metal doors, that Meltem continues to fight. This is why she started the petition that had us all gathered outside the Home Office on a February night. At the time of writing, the petition contains 48,000 signatures. I ask her what she thinks her chances are of succeeding. ‘I have no idea. All I’m doing is just hoping for people to understand more about detention centres and what it is like. I just want them to understand that the detention centre is a prison and no one deserves to be locked up in there’.

Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like A Woman: … And Change the World is published by Portobello Books.

Find more information on the ‘Set her free’ campaign (and the online petition Meltem Avcil started) here.

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.


Let’s have a heated debate! 5

As the General Election looms, Debbie Cameron wishes people would stop talking nonsense about women doing politics differently.

Last Wednesday on The World at One, the BBC’s Martha Kearney interviewed two politicians about their parties’ newly-launched manifestos. The first interview was a bit of a gladiatorial contest, with the participants competing to set the agenda. Though Kearney cut in frequently in an attempt to stem the flow, she was often defeated by the time-honoured tactics of the experienced politician—raising the pitch and volume of your voice and continuing to say what you came to say, whether or not it’s an answer to the question you were asked. There was a lot of simultaneous speech, and at times it got quite heated. But the interviewee stayed on-message, and ultimately in control.

The second interview was different. It began as a polite, almost stilted exchange, with none of the overlap that is normal in conversation. The interviewee allowed Kearney to direct the proceedings, waiting for her to finish each question before starting to speak, and sticking to the terms of the question. At times the answers were rather halting, but Kearney showed no impatience. A few minutes in, though, she asked a question which elicited some obvious waffle. At that point she did interrupt: her guest tried to keep going, and the exchange turned into something more like the first interview, with both speakers raising their voices and talking over each other. The interviewee became increasingly flustered, and struggled to respond to Kearney’s challenges. If you judged it as a contest, then Kearney won on points.

If I asked a random sample of people to tell me who they imagined these interviewees were, most would probably say that they imagined the first one as a man and the second as a woman. If I asked them to explain their reasoning, they might point out that men are generally more assertive and less intimidated by adversarial situations; they tend to take up more speaking time, and they frequently interrupt and talk over other people, especially when those people are women. Women, by contrast, are less assertive and more supportive, more respectful of others’ speaking rights and more attentive to their contributions. They don’t typically enjoy verbal duelling, and may not perform well in situations that demand it.

These differences between men and women have been a recurring theme in the 2015 election campaign. The campaign has been a multi-party affair: neither of the main parties is expected to win the election outright, so more attention than usual has been given to the smaller parties they may have to rely on for support. Three of those parties are led by women: the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. Their profiles have been raised by their appearance in televised debates, and it is widely agreed that they have performed well. Many positive comments have focused on their style of debating. ‘Look’, people say approvingly, ‘these women are showing us that political debates don’t have to be competitive shouting matches. They’re listening to their opponents rather than constantly interrupting them. They’re not just hurling insults or trying to score points, they’re engaging constructively with the arguments. How civilized! What a refreshing change! Let’s have more women in politics!’

For some of us this is déjà vu all over again. In 1997, when the landslide Labour victory brought a record 119 women into Westminster, we were told that their civilizing influence was going to change the culture of politics and make the House of Commons ‘less of a bear-garden’. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, declared that female politicians were a good thing because ‘democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. Over in Swindon South, her colleague Julia Drown opined that ‘women are more co-operative: they’re not so into scoring points and more interested in hearing different points of view’.

As a feminist I am broadly in favour of female politicians. But these observations about their more co-operative, more ‘civilized’ style of speaking make me want to bang my head against a wall. Why? First, because they’re factually wrong; second, because they’re patronising; and third, because the thinking behind them is sexist to the core.

Women in the debates: how did they really speak?

I have struggled to reconcile my own observations of the female party leaders with the comments made by other people on their behaviour. The suggestion that these women’s approach is less adversarial than the men’s—that they don’t compete for the floor or talk over other speakers or try to score points off their opponents—is so inaccurate, I can only understand it as a case of what scientists call ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to pay attention to things that match our expectations while overlooking things that conflict with them. We expect women to be different from men, so we look for differences and pass over similarities. We think certain behaviours are typical of women, so examples of those behaviours—even if there are very few—get noticed and remembered in a way the counter-examples don’t.

Consider, for instance, one of the most memorable moments in the first TV debate that featured seven party leaders. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage made some racist, scaremongering remarks about immigrants with HIV, and Leanne Wood told him—to applause from the studio audience—that he should be ashamed of himself. This was a highly adversarial move. Wood jumped in to deliver, in tones of unmistakable disgust, a highly effective put-down. Her behaviour contrasted starkly with that of the three male politicians, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, who were conspicuously silent. She deserved the applause for her guts and her presence of mind. But how can anyone who watched this intervention maintain that women ‘aren’t into point-scoring’? What did her comment to Farage have to do with being constructive or preferring consensus to conflict?

Nicola Sturgeon is seriously into point-scoring. The most experienced of the three women, and for many people the most impressive, she is also the one with the most consistently adversarial debating style. In the second, ‘challengers’ debate (involving five opposition party leaders, but not the leaders of the governing coalition parties), she provided one of the night’s main talking points when she confronted Ed Miliband about his unwillingness to work with the Scottish Nationalists. In this section of the debate it was Sturgeon who took the initiative, forcing Miliband onto the defensive. She did it by issuing a series of challenges, putting him on the spot with a direct command or request (‘tell me, Ed…’ ‘so are you saying…?’). Rather than listening politely to his responses, she rarely allowed him to finish his turn uninterrupted. She repeatedly talked over him, and refused to stop speaking when he did the same to her.

Sturgeon wins points not only because her arguments are good, but also because she doesn’t shy away from attacking her opponents, and she doesn’t give ground when they attack her. She is not only a skilful exponent of the adversarial style, she is also a highly competitive one: there’s no doubt she’s in it to win it. In fact, I would say she’s a more competitive debater than either Miliband or Farage (who comes across as combative because the substance of what he says is often inflammatory, but whose discourse style is actually not particularly adversarial).

Some commentators have pointed out that the women have been very supportive to one anotherBRITAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-TELEVISION—agreeing with each other’s points, not challenging each other, and engaging in a group hug at the end of the second debate. All that is true, but I think it has more to do with party politics than female solidarity. The women have nothing to gain by challenging one another, because their parties are not in competition for the same votes. The two nationalist parties are only contesting seats in Wales and Scotland respectively, and the Greens are not a serious rival in either territory. On the other hand, they do have something to gain by supporting one another, because the main platform on which all of them are fighting this election is opposition to austerity. So, it makes sense for them to amplify that message by maintaining a united front, and it would equally make sense if they didn’t all happen to be women. Would they show the same supportiveness to women who were not their political allies? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t: if UKIP were led by a British Marine Le Pen, I don’t think she’d have been invited to join in the group hug.

But we don’t have to speculate here. I’ve already described an extremely adversarial encounter between one of the three female leaders and another woman. Contrary to what you may have assumed, the first of Martha Kearney’s two interviewees, the one who dominated their exchange and resisted Kearney’s attempts to take control, was not a male politician. It was, in fact, Nicola Sturgeon.

You’re all individuals

The second interviewee, the one who initially deferred to Kearney’s authority but then got flustered and defensive when she challenged his waffling answers, was a male politician: he was UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. And if your reaction to that is ‘Who?’, you’ve anticipated my next point. It’s always a mistake to treat individual men and women as generic representatives of their gender, and to assume that any difference between them must be a gender difference. In the case of O’Flynn and Sturgeon I think it’s pretty clear that gender is a red herring. The key difference here is experience: Sturgeon has done far more political interviews than O’Flynn, and is therefore a much more confident and skilful performer.

The point that individuals are not generic men and women isn’t just something to bear in mind when making cross-sex comparisons. One reason why it is problematic to talk about a female style of speaking is that female speakers aren’t all the same. Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I’ve been discussing there are clear individual differences.

There is a particularly striking contrast between the most experienced of the three, Nicola Sturgeon, and the least experienced, Natalie Bennett. Bennett is more reticent, more formal and less spontaneous; she’s much less inclined to challenge others directly or to take the initiative in the way Sturgeon did with Miliband (or Wood did with Farage). Apart from the difference in experience, the two women have different personalities and are differently positioned in terms of political influence (it’s a big advantage to Sturgeon that everyone expects her party to be a serious force in Westminster after the election; Bennett has no such leverage). The cumulative effect of these differences is large: you would no more confuse their debating styles than you would confuse their hairstyles, or their accents.

But the problem isn’t just that commentators make sweeping generalizations about women. The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?

The burdens of civilization

Telling women they’re different, and that in some ways their difference makes them superior to men, has always been one way of consoling them for their inequality and powerlessness. It has also served as a convenient excuse for perpetuating that inequality: women demanding entry to some male-dominated institution can be told that they’re unsuited to it, or too good for it. The latter was a popular argument with Victorian anti-suffragists, who were fond of asking why the angel of the house would want to dabble her pristine wings in the sewer of politics.

At a certain point, when the angel’s demands can no longer be denied entirely, the argument changes tack: women can be allowed in after all, but not simply because they, like men, are people. Rather, because women’s distinctive qualities and ways of doing things are needed to civilize the institution. Like wives putting up curtains in their husbands’ sheds, women in politics, or business, or the Church, will use their feminine touch to smooth off the male rough edges, and everyone—men as well as women—will benefit.

This is exactly what was said about the women MPs who went to Westminster in 1997. Evidently their civilizing mission was not successful: eighteen years later, here we are again. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: you can’t be expected to change an institution’s culture if your position within the institution is one of structural powerlessness. And the women MPs (or ‘Blair’s Babes’, as the Labour ones were different-but-equally called) were in exactly that position.

It wasn’t just that they were heavily outnumbered, though they were. The linguist Sylvia Shaw, who did research in the House of Commons a few years after the 1997 election, found that the men did not treat their female colleagues as equals, they treated them as interlopers. The women were subjected to sexist barracking when they rose to speak, and sanctioned for breaking the arcane rules of Parliamentary debate while men were allowed to break the same rules with impunity. As a result the women got less speaking time and had less influence in debates. They didn’t struggle with the adversarial debating style of the House of Commons; what they struggled with was the sexism of the men in the House of Commons.

This is another reason why I get angry when people say that women don’t shine as public speakers because the adversarial style doesn’t suit them: they aren’t into point-scoring, they’re not interested in power, they’re natural consensus-seekers who shy away from conflict. This implies that women are unequal in public life because they’re different, when really it’s the other way round. If women aren’t allowed to participate on equal terms, any differences we see are more likely to be effects of sexism than of sex. We can’t know what difference their sex makes until we see how they behave in conditions of sex equality.

That’s what makes the election debates so interesting. They’ve offered a rare opportunity to watch politicians performing in conditions of near equality (in one debate there were four men and three women, in the other three women and two men; all participants had the same status as party leaders; they were all bound by the same rules and had an equal number of pre-allocated turns). And under those conditions what I think we saw was not a male-female stylistic divide. There were differences between individuals, but no clear division by sex.

You might be thinking: but surely there are good feminist arguments for a less adversarial style of political discourse? I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that some of the conventions and rituals of Westminster have little to contribute to modern democratic debate (the cheer-and-jeerfest that is Prime Minister’s Questions comes to mind). But I have never bought the argument that adversarial discourse itself is a ‘male’ thing, and serves only as a vehicle for macho posturing.

Since conflict is an integral part of politics, I think adversarial discourse will always have a place in it. It’s not the only game in town—deliberation and negotiation are also important—but I can’t imagine a political movement or a democratic assembly that wouldn’t require its members to engage in debate. Saying that women are too civilized to get involved in the adversarial stuff is like saying that angels shouldn’t dabble in sewers. It’s saying that women can’t do politics at all. And if that’s a feminist argument, I’m a banana.

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

Classic Review: Surviving Sexual Violence 1

Ever since it began publishing in 1983, T&S has included an occasional ‘classic review’ feature in which a contemporary feminist re-reads an important text from the past. The latest addition to the series features Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence. Revisiting it in 2015, Alison Boydell finds it as relevant as ever.

I first read Surviving Sexual Violence (SSV) in the 1990s for a postgraduate Women’s Studies dissertation about abusive men who murder their current/ex-partners. Today my understanding is informed by both reading and experience of working with survivors: I am involved in providing front line services to survivors of sexual violence, and will be shortly working in the domestic violence sector. I’m also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Advocacy for Victims of Sexual Violence: SSV is on my reading list. Since it’s now more than a quarter of a century since it was first published, this is surely a testament to Liz Kelly’s work.

In the 1970s, feminists had analysed rape as an act of male power, raised awareness about its prevalence and deconstructed the myths that surrounded it. However, it was only later that literature about other forms of male sexual violence began to emerge. SSV focused on a wide range of manifestations: it was one of two ground-breaking books published in 1988 which forced childhood sexual abuse onto the public agenda (the other was an American self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal).

The word ‘surviving’ in Kelly’s title was significant. As she observed, ‘the term victim…makes invisible the other side of women’s victimization: the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope and survive’ (p.163). This resistance figures among the book’s main themes, which are summarized at the beginning (p.1):

• most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives;
• there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as abusive;
• sexual violence occurs in the context of men’s power and women’s resistance.

Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’

Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that

most men and many women do not want to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence in, and its impact on women’s lives. It is still illegitimate for us to refer to it as being of “epidemic” proportions, threatening women’s “basic human rights” (p ix).

The research reported in the book is instructive about the true extent of the problem. As well as asking her 60 research participants about their own experiences of sexual violence, Liz Kelly asked them about their female friends’ experiences. A total number of 435 women known to the participants had experienced rape, incest or domestic violence; only 6 [10%] did not know any women who had experienced these forms of sexual violence (p. 95). There was a considerable range of experience of sexual violence within the group, which was also diverse in ‘age, class of origin, marital status, work experience and sexual identity’ (p. 11).

Yet the statement that most people do not want to acknowledge this is as true today as it was 25 years ago. We still frequently hear and read that acts of male violence (including fatal ones) are ‘isolated incidents’; recently, Julie Bindel wrote about the perils of single case campaigns and petitions which obscure structural and endemic male violence.

Researching sexual violence: feminist research practice

The research SSV is based on was innovative, reflecting Kelly’s view that ‘we should shift our attention from discussions of “feminist methods” to what I now call “feminist research practice”’ (p. 7). She argued that the originality of feminist research did not lie in the methods it used so much as ‘the questions we have asked, [and] the way we locate ourselves within those questions’.

Sixty women drawn from a wide range of women’s groups took part in Kelly’s research. Her design rejected previous methodologies predicated on ‘analytic definitions into which women’s experiences are slotted’: rather, ‘an important principle of this project’s methodology that women define their own experience’ (p. 140). The questions were carefully worded to avoid presuming a shared understanding of sexual violence, and to respect women’s own understandings. In the book women are quoted directly rather than paraphrased. This allows the reader to communicate directly with them and has a powerful impact. As someone who works directly with survivors, I feel it is important not to put women’s experiences into a third person narrative which is itself disempowering.

Creating an alternative to the dominant patriarchal discourse is critical to feminist analysis. To reflect the range of women’s experiences, Kelly created new terms to describe women’s own perceptions and definitions. She deliberately created a ‘continuum of non-consensual sex’ (p. 109): the term ‘pressurized sex’ was used for what previous studies called ‘altruistic’ or ‘compliant’ sex, and ‘coercive sex’ was introduced to cover experiences women described as being ‘like rape’. This ‘continuum within a continuum’ may seem contentious in a climate where there are apologists wishing to minimize rape by renaming it ‘non-consensual sex’. However, the dominant narrative of rape as an act perpetrated by a stranger wielding a weapon, leaping out of the dark in a public place, exerted and continues to exert enormous influence on the public’s understanding of sexual violence. Given that reality, Kelly’s approach was the most effective way of capturing the range of women’s actual experiences, most of which do not match the dominant narrative. Some sexual experiences were defined by some women as neither rape nor consensual. It is worth noting here that language is also very important in the Rape Crisis counselling context: counsellors are guided by the clients’/survivors’ choice of language and would never use terms such as ‘rape’ or ‘abuse’ without the client/survivor being able to deal with that language.

Women’s definitions of sexual violence altered a number of times following an assault. At different stages of the research, they went through a process of ‘redefinition’, remembering more incidents of sexual violence between the first and second interviews. This is an indication of how carefully constructed research can be a consciousness raising process.

Defining sexual violence: ‘a range of male behaviour’

Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is both cause and effect of sexual inequality and manifests structurally and institutionally. As Kelly states, ‘feminist analysis sees all forms of sexual violence as involving the exercise of power, functioning as a form of social control by denying women freedom and autonomy’ (p. 41). The definition of sexual violence she uses in SSV

. . . includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact (p 41).

This was the first time that a comprehensive woman-centred definition of sexual violence focused on its impact rather than the behaviours and acts involved. What is also especially prescient here is the qualifier ‘or later’. Today we are witnessing unprecedented reporting of ‘historic’ abuse.

Kelly says her definition is ‘rather lengthy’; yet it is comprehensive and enduring. A quarter of a century on it continues to be used in academia as well as in the training of front line service providers supporting women survivors. I continue to engage with it in both arenas, having completed the Rape Crisis National Training Programme a year ago and now embarking on the new academic journey I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A number of us on my course have discussed the continuum in our presentations. Three separate training programmes I have in been involved with in the past year, two in sexual violence and one in domestic abuse, have quoted Kelly’s definition.

The continuum she identifies encapsulates the myriad different forms of sexual violence as follows: threat of violence; sexual harassment (includes street harassment, workplace harassment and harassment in other public spaces); pressure to have sex; sexual assault (ranging from any unwanted physical contact to attempted rape); obscene phone calls; coercive sex; domestic violence; sexual abuse; flashing; rape and incest. Threat of violence and harassment were the most common forms of sexual violence; a glance at the Everyday Sexism project’s website shows that this is still the case today.

The placement of each behaviour on the continuum does not indicate its seriousness, but its incidence, i.e. the most prevalent forms that women are most likely to experience on multiple occasions. Kelly stresses that ‘with the exception of sexual violence which results in death, the degree of impact cannot be simply inferred from the form of sexual violence women experience or its place within the continuum. What is fundamental is that these behaviours are not discrete; they blend into one another. Men use a variety of coercive and abusive methods to control women.

Kelly’s careful avoidance of a hierarchy of abusive behaviours has been criticised. Writing in 1990, Lynne Segal suggested that SSV renders all men guilty, and fails to acknowledge that there are ‘different types of violent men’ or to discuss how violent men differ from their non-violent counterparts. Another kind of criticism was made in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution, which noted that while Kelly ‘includes a particularly wide range of abusive male practices within her continuum of sexual violence, [she] does not mention the violence of prostitution’ (p. 247).  Reviewing Jeffreys’s book, Liz Kelly responded: ‘Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included in the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so’. I would argue that although it is not explicitly included within the continuum, it is implicit in Kelly’s definition of ‘sexual violence’. Jeffreys herself states that ‘there is nothing… about Kelly’s definition that that would exclude the abuse of prostitutes, and much that would seem to relate to it’.

Criticisms have been made regarding so called ‘honour based violence’. Kelly addresses this herself in the preface of The Handbook of Sexual Violence (2012) which revisits the continuum in a series of multi-disciplinary essays written by researchers and practitioners. One of the concerns that many feminist activists have tried to address is that certain forms of sexual violence should not be ‘othered’: this is something that Southall Black Sisters, for example, have campaigned about for years.

Resisting sexual violence: ‘men’s power and women’s resistance’

Feminists who work to expose the widespread nature of male sexual violence against women are often criticised for making all women into victims. Kelly argues that this is a lack of understanding of the avoidance strategies that women employ. She questions the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ that was popular at the time, since her research indicated that women’s resistance increased before leaving. (p. 181)

Drawing on Black feminist critique, Kelly stresses that coping with sexual violence is an active process (p. 185) and that women had varied forms of resistance and survival strategies (pp. 183-184). Minimising was found to be a common coping strategy: women expressed it in forms like ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘it wasn’t that bad’. This can control the impact by mitigating the pressure to take action and/or respond in a certain way. Furthermore, women were reluctant to be ascribed ‘victim status’ given the pervasiveness of the image of a pathetic and downtrodden woman. They indicated that they had not accessed specialist women’s services as they felt that others were in greater need. In my experience of working on a specialist helpline for women, this is not an atypical response.

Kelly sees links between women’s experiences, feminism, collective action and resistance. She ends with the powerful message ‘No matter how effective our services and support networks, no matter how much change in policy and practice is achieved, without a mass movement of women committed to resisting sexual violence in all its forms there will continue to be casualties in the “shadow war” and women’s and girl’s lives will continue to be circumscribed by the reality of sexual violence’ (p. 238). This, I totally agree with: we must go beyond being service providers.

New times and new challenges

Some things have changed the book’s publication. Our language has evolved: for example, terms such as ‘battered women’ are no longer used as this is a barrier to abused women recognising the coercive control that can occur in the absence of physical abuse.

Sadly, societal attitudes have changed little. Myths, stereotypes and dominant media narratives are still barriers to survivors identifying and naming their experiences of sexual violence. One of Kelly’s conclusions was to call for further research to inform social policy. Today we also need to use this research to bring about cultural change.

Kelly noted ‘how many women had experienced more than one form of sexual violence, yet these forms were separated from one another in service provision’ (p. 2). That continues to be the case. At the same time, specialist women’s services have had their funding slashed and some have disappeared altogether due to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Many organizations have also been forced into providing a unisex service. This weakens the feminist model of empowerment used by women’s services to support survivors. It is also unnecessary, since sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men (and boys) against women and girls, as reflected in Kelly’s definition.

It is critical that we keep up the momentum. As Kelly writes about Savile and Assange in 50 Shades of Feminism, published a quarter of a century after SSV:

Yet again sexual violence sits at the heart of a crisis that rocks institutions. I am left wondering whether we have made more change that we recognize. Have there ever been more feminist and survivor voices – in the mainstream media and social media – refusing to be belittled or silenced? (p. 137)

We witnessed this very recently with the Ched Evans case, where a veritable chorus of feminist and survivor voices rang out in mainstream and social media.

A few months ago I gave a presentation for my course, where I argued that Kelly’s continuum should inform our practice as Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs); we should never assume the impact of any form of sexual violence or treat them separately. This is the very antithesis of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sentencing guidelines (2014) and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (2012).

If Surviving Sexual Violence were to be updated, it would need to include the forms of abuse made possible by new media, mobile phones and the Internet. We also, as Kelly says, need to explore how incidences of sexual violence correlate with individual and collective attempts at resistance via feminist activism. We are currently experiencing a misogynistic backlash against the gains feminists have made in the last few decades. We must continue to challenge sexual violence both individually and collectively. For me, revisiting Surviving Sexual Violence has been a consciousness raising exercise in itself.


Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds) Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago 2013)
Jennifer M Brown and Sandra L Walklate (eds) Handbook of Sexual Violence (Routledge 2012)
Sheila Jeffreys The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex 1997)
Lynne Segal Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men (Virago 1990)

Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence was published by Polity Press in 1988, and is still available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Alison Boydell works with survivors of sexual violence and is one of the organizers of JURIES, a campaign for jurors to receive mandatory briefings on the myths and realities of sexual violence. Find the campaign here, and follow it on Twitter @UnderstandingSV.


A Rock and a Hard Place 19

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Delilah Campbell has more questions than answers.   

Imagine that three women, wearing face-masks and armed with automatic weapons, went into the office of a leading pornographic magazine and shot several pornographers dead. Imagine that as they left they were heard to shout ‘men are scum’ and ‘we have avenged the women’. Imagine, in other words, a version of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris where the perpetrators were feminists, and the offence to which they were responding was not the circulation of cartoons depicting the Prophet, but the circulation of images depicting the violent sexual degradation of women.

I do not believe I know a single feminist who would defend such an action. Even committed feminist anti-porn campaigners would deny that violence and killing are legitimate responses to the harm they believe pornography does. ‘Not in my name’, they would say. ‘Feminism is a non-violent political movement, and we condemn these brutal killings’.

But in other ways the feminist response would be different from the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I don’t think we’d be carrying placards saying ‘I am Hustler’, or tweeting messages of support adorned with that hashtag. I don’t think we’d be exalting the freedom of men to make and use pornography as one of the defining features of a civilized society. I don’t think we’d be sharing pornographic images as a tribute to the victims.

I also don’t think we’d be saying, as some people have said about the cartoons that provoked the attack in Paris, ‘they’re only pictures, FFS’. I don’t think we’d be saying that even if the attack had targeted men whose products were not photographs of actual women, but—for instance—the pornographic drawings of girls which are a subgenre of Japanese manga (and are explicit enough to be illegal under the UK’s child pornography laws). Most feminists who oppose pornography do not think its harm is limited to the women actually depicted in it. We think it harms all women, because it influences the way they are looked at, thought about and treated by those who use it.

I am using this imaginary scenario to explain why I have found it difficult to frame a response to the events in Paris. My view on the killings themselves is unambiguous: there is no possible justification for what the killers did. I am also absolutely clear about my opposition to Islamism and other forms of modern religious fundamentalism. These are right-wing political movements and the submission of women to patriarchal authority is a central tenet of all of them. On these points I’m not conflicted, nor at odds with the prevailing view. But my difficulty begins when the conversation turns to the more general issue of freedom of expression.

Before this week I’d never looked at what Charlie Hebdo published, but when I saw the cartoons that were reproduced in the wake of the killings, I found them even more offensive than I’d imagined they would be. I know they belong to a French tradition of overtly and deliberately crude caricature, but even so I was struck, looking at recent covers depicting Muslims, by how much they reminded me of some of the iconography of the Nazis. Take away the turbans, and these malevolent hook-nosed figures could have come from the pages of an anti-semitic pamphlet in 1930s Germany.

Many commentators have made the point that Charlie Hebdo was even-handed in its offence-giving: there was, in fact, one cover in the montage I saw featuring a Jewish subject, and there were also some grotesque depictions of non-Semites, from the Pope to the leaders of the fascist National Front. But the problem with this argument—‘it’s OK because they treated everyone with equal contempt’—should be obvious: the context in which these images circulate is one in which everyone is not, in fact, equal. In France, where Muslims are the main targets of racism and religious bigotry, racist representations of Muslims are not ‘the same thing’ as stereotypical representations of white politicians or Catholic priests. They reinforce a view of the group that contributes to the real social injustice suffered by members of that group. You might as well say that pornography is even-handed because it depicts men as well as women in gross and objectionable ways, or because some of the men who work in the industry have suffered abuse or been coerced. The point remains that in the world at large, pornography does not affect men in the same way it affects women.

Although I think pornography is harmful, I have never supported campaigns for outright censorship, because I think the dangers are on balance greater than any benefits more restriction would bring (I say ‘more’ because it is nonsense to suggest that there is no censorship in western democracies at all). There are particular reasons for feminists to be wary of restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech. This is a time when any statement deemed offensive by a vocal minority can cause the feminist who made it to be ‘no platformed’, or deluged with rape and death threats: we know these are effective ways of silencing dissent.

But none of this means I feel impelled to join in with the chorus of ‘we must defend freedom of expression at all costs!’ Of course I don’t want to live in an authoritarian state where I could be arrested and imprisoned for saying anything the government disapproved of. But still, the rhetorical celebration of free speech in capitalist democracies can feel a bit naive and self-satisfied. Catharine MacKinnon once remarked that what free speech often comes down to in practice is the freedom of the wealthy and powerful, who have privileged access to public platforms, to drown out all other voices. Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Times, the Sun, Fox News, etc., has the freedom to broadcast his views to millions of people every day; in theory I have exactly the same freedom to broadcast mine, but since I don’t have my own global media empire, that does not make me an equal player in what liberals refer to as the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

For feminism that marketplace is a particularly unequal one. The idea that women are commodities for men’s use is one of the oldest and most entrenched ideas there is; it is also one of the most profitable. It will inevitably dominate the most powerful forums in which the right to free speech (or in many cases, ‘paid for speech’) is exercised.

Charlie Hebdo is not a global media empire, but in the pictures that were published of the contributors who died, it looked a lot like the (white, male) French establishment it lampooned. It may be irreverent, but it’s closer to the centre than the margins of French society, and that has given it a license to provoke the powerful which might not be extended to more radically dissenting voices. If disgruntled Muslims had made what liberals consider the ‘proper’ response to offensive speech—set up their own magazine with liberal secularism as their target—they would probably not have had to wait very long for a visit from the security services, who would have taxed them with aiding and abetting terrorism, and banned their publication as an incitement.

Of course that doesn’t mean that my imaginary Islamist cartoonists, or feminist anti-porn crusaders, are entitled to take up arms and kill people. But it might help to explain where the rage comes from. Nothing is more conducive to rage than being constantly told that you live in an equal, tolerant society, a society in which you suffer no structural oppression, no systematic social disadvantage, no unreasonable constraints on your freedom or irrational prejudice from others, when your entire life experience screams otherwise. And when you know that however reasonably you present your grievances, you will not be listened to by anyone who counts.

Being told we’re not oppressed as women, and being ignored or pilloried when we try to draw attention to injustice, is a common experience for feminists too. It is fortunate for the world that we do generally reject violence as a political strategy, and that we do not belong to the sex which is socialized to see it as a solution to both political and personal problems.

So, although I condemn the actions (and the motives) of the men who killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to glorify the symbolic violence that may be committed in the name of free expression, or under the illusion that it actually exists.