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‘We wanted women to feel their power’

Last weekend Woman’s Place UK and UCL Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group held a high-profile conference in central London exploring issues of education and women’s rights. IAN McNEE reports

ON THE eve of the pandemic Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) and the UCL Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group (WLSIG) held an ambitious conference, Women’s Liberation 2020, at UCL’s Institute of Education (IOE), recalling the 50th anniversary of the historic British Women’s Liberation Movement conference held at Ruskin College in 1970.

Holly Smith of the WLSIG and a key organiser of both Women’s Liberation 2020 and last Saturday’s Education for Women’s Liberation conference (also at UCL’s IOE) recalls that there was a lot of pressure from some staff and students at UCL to cancel the event in 2020.

Three years later and while the world has changed in many ways and the 2023 conference now has institutional support from UCL, it has not become uncontroversial.

Two academics provoked a flurry of headlines with a statement comparing the decision to allow the conference to go ahead to a past endorsement of eugenics.

Judith Suissa, also of WLSIG, noted the progress and the problems: “The UCL Women’s Liberation SIG thanked UCL very sincerely from the platform of the closing plenary, as sadly it isn’t possible to host a feminist event here without the professionalism of the conference office and security to deal with the threats and disruption of aggressive protesters.

“University College London is now leading the sector in demonstrating a practical commitment to academic freedom by hosting discussions of sex and gender, while other universities seem too fearful to fulfil their public duties in this regard.”

Like 2020, the 2023 conference sold all 900 tickets in advance and, also like 2023, there was a small protest at the venue entrance but as Alice Sullivan (also of WLSIG and organising the conference) noted on Twitter they were very different too.

“In 2020, well-behaved female students..with coordinated pastel banners…smiled for the cameras throughout. They did not hide their faces. Compare and contrast with 2023. Some of these people are students, but some clearly aren’t. Some are much older, and there are far more men than in 2020. Unlike the peaceful 2020 demo, the intent this time was clearly to intimidate and drown out women’s voices.”

The vibrant atmosphere of the opening plenary, however, was clearly unaffected by the nature of the protest as hundreds of women cheered and clapped every single achievement listed by Sullivan in introducing the barrister and Equality and Human Rights Commission commissioner Akua Reindorf.

Reindorf authored the eponymous Reindorf review, published by Essex University in 2021 regarding the suppression of academic freedom and the deplatforming and blacklisting of academics Jo Pheonix and Rosa Freedman for their gender critical views.

She spoke on the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom and how they have been successfully defended in recent case law, like Maya Forstater’s employment tribunal appeal, using the Equality Act 2010 underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Concluding, she stated that in contrast to 2020: “I know for a fact that ‘No debate’ is over,” to loud applause.

Joanna Cherry KC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and chair of the joint committee on human rights, spoke next, recalling the impact of women on the internationally recognised understanding of human rights when in 1948 the Indian politician Hansa Mehta had the wording of Article 1 of the then new Universal Declaration of Human Rights changed from “all men are born free and equal” to “all human beings are born free and equal.” 

She continued on the importance of civic education regarding the universality of human rights and how an apparent lack of understanding on this matter led to the flawed process of consultation over and drafting of the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill, now scuppered by the Secretary of State’s use of S35 of the Scotland Act.

She said that in framing good human rights law, balancing conflicting rights was inevitable and essential and that even if S35 had not been invoked, the GRR Bill would have faced legal challenge on the grounds of human rights enshrined in Scottish law.

There followed five panel discussions with themes from “Teaching about sex and gender in schools” to “Women, education and work” and after lunch over 20 practical workshop sessions covering areas of social policy, activism, combatting male violence, sexual exploitation, the nature of patriarchal oppression and international struggles.

The closing plenary chaired by Holly Smith was addressed first by journalist and author of the book Trans — When Ideology Meets Reality, Helen Joyce, who looked forward to campaigning for women’s rights collectively and on the basis of better social policy so that feminists avoid personal confrontation with trans people and cannot be targeted and isolated as such.

In a wry reference to her own choice and what has been forced on other women, she quoted Maya Forstater: “It is better to have a job than a book deal!”

Julie Bindel, journalist, author and long-time feminist campaigner for women and girls exploited and victimised by prostitution and sex trafficking, followed next.

She identified the tipping point in protecting women’s sex-based rights as the question of prisons: “Care or not care about women in prison, what gives us more of a sense of fear and helplessness is the idea that we are locked inside with a rapist,” and went on to explain that the consequences of patriarchal oppression and misogyny fall hardest on working-class women and girls.

In relation to gender ideology she stated: “The highest rate of referrals to gender identity services is from girls in Blackpool,” which “has the highest suicide rate among young women … of deaths from drugs … and three to four times the number of young people in care” than the UK average.

Ali Ceesay from WPUK and Holly Smith closed the conference, thanking UCL and the many staff and volunteers who made the day possible.

WPUK director Judith Green said after a screening of the film that evening: “We wanted women to feel their power and go away uplifted and ready to change the world — and it felt to me that we succeeded in that. There’s no better feeling than seeing passionate women brought together in defence of their rights.”

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