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Women’s rights take centre stage

Last weekend hundreds of women gathered to discuss the roots of their oppression, political organising, neoliberalism – and more. LAMIAT SABIN and ROS SITWELL report

LAST weekend, grassroots women’s rights group Woman’s Place UK teamed up with University College London to host an almost 1,000-strong all-day conference featuring plenaries, panels and 30 workshops with over 80 speakers and contributors discussing the future for women’s sex-based rights.

Marxist historian Professor Mary Davis told a panel entitled “How can women campaign for our own interests?” that when considering women’s rights it is important not to confuse the concepts of oppression and discrimination: “Class is central to oppression,” she said, “and capitalism could not be maintained without oppression.”

Women are oppressed by capitalism as capitalist forces seek to divide the working class by two of the most visibly obvious characteristics of working people — sex and race, she said.

The word “feminism” today has currently become very popular and is widely used as part of the mainstream vernacular, “but its foundations are very shaky.”

Davis outlined three versions of feminist thought that are causing problems today: “The first version is corporate feminism, the idea that you can break the glass ceiling if ‘you’re confident’ and you ‘just try hard enough’ — but the problem with reserved spaces and so on is that women pull the ladder up behind them.

“The second version is choice feminism. Under this, men can wear the [feminist] T-shirt too. It is based on individualism.

“The third version is intersectional feminism. This is not just about recognising that the working class is not all white and male. If it was, that would be OK. 

“The problem is that intersectional theory is not class-based and it relegates class to a mere aspect of identity, defining it as a subjective choice rather than a material reality. It is a form of identity politics that separates us all.

“It is socialist feminism that is the basis of collective struggle,” Davis emphasised.

She acknowledged that feminism had become tough terrain to navigate given the widespread disagreements on the left, but said that the Communist Party had adopted a policy in defence of women’s sex-based rights — however, she added wryly, “we had to fight for that.”

At a political workshop, Kay Green of Hastings and Rye Constituency Labour Party urged those in favour of strengthening women’s sex-based rights to build a network of support from other CLPs.

She praised Labour for having won “real victories,” including the manifesto pledge to “ensure that the single-sex-based exemptions contained in the Equality Act 2010 are understood and fully enforced in service provision” — but warned against backsliding.

She said that preparing the ground before initiating discussions at meetings was key as Labour in general “has always been a little bit blokey” and members are taken a “little by surprise if you talk about women’s issues.” 

In a trade-union session, former firefighter of 12 years Lucy Masoud said that soon after she joined the service there was a “privacy for all” campaign that required all fire stations to have spaces for women to sleep, shower, and change — but that she was concerned that the rights female firefighters “fought so hard for are at risk of being thrown away” by proposed changes to allow self-ID.

She described her experience of “casual sexism” and initially being “ostracised” for being gay while in the service before becoming “popular all of a sudden,” even among the more conservative firefighters, after taking on roles of discipline rep, LGBT rep and treasurer in the Fire Brigades Union. 

Dawn Furness of the Green Party spoke about the offline and online conflict she has experienced in calling for the strengthening of women’s sex-based rights within her party and against the policy of backing self-ID without consultation. 

As well as the subject of self-ID, she campaigns against prostitution, pornography and sexual abuse of children — issues that she said are being eclipsed. 

She has previously said that she was “staggered” by the Greens’ delays in adopting safeguarding policies for women and children and that she has submitted motions to conference to address the “glaring oversight.” 

She told workshop attendees that at last year’s spring-time Green conference she was assaulted over her motion, which was in favour of strengthening sex-based rights, by someone who told her “you’re not going to make a complaint against me because I didn’t even hit you that hard.” 

Furness said that when she asked the Greens’ policy and government officer to call the police, the party official said “that person has mental-health problems” and she could “make a complaint that could see him barred from the next conference.”

She added: “That’s how it’s handled. It’s batted off repeatedly. If anything happens to you as a ‘Terf’ — it’s considered your fault. You’re just seen to be whining if someone hits you because apparently everyone wants to hit you.”

Months after the conference, her motion was “ruled out of order” by Green co-leader Sian Berry, she said, adding that the leadership “sneaked” a motion in favour of self-ID into the manifesto as well as the manifesto for under-18s.

Online debates are also hotbeds of conflict. What appear to be relaxed online discussions turn out to be “traps designed to get people off their guard,” Furness claimed. 

“This was used as part of a tactic to not only make formal complaints against people but to use them as a smear campaign in the Green Party executive elections last August. 

“This happened to about six members of the gender-critical group, where people had joined the discussion in good faith. When you read the comments, the discussion is fairly interesting and there is nothing that immediately jumps out as being contentious.

“But if you ignore that bit and ignore that bit and you screengrab that bit … all of a sudden we found that the screengrabs were circulating on internal secret groups of various communities that we didn’t have access to that were then being used as leverage. 

“So just a warning for anyone organising any political groups not to take people at face value and to assume, unless you know otherwise, that everyone is going to try fuck you over. 

“In any kind of debate and in any kind of discussion it’s always worth trying to be as civil as possible, don’t get drawn into any name-calling, don’t get drawn into any personal attacks because it will be used against you — and it’s also the right thing to do.” 

Feminist writer and fellow Green Party activist Beatrix Campbell told a workshop on Women and Neoliberalism that “at the end of the ’70s our movement was just getting space to think” but with the advent of neoliberalism “that space got bombed.” 

“An effect of neoliberalism is to reduce the space for politics and to reduce the space for resistance,” she told attendees. But she cautioned against thinking too simplistically about feminism’s relation to wider politics. 

There is a tendency to think that the women’s movement went into decline with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 — but feminism became “hugely resurgent” in the ’80s, she said, pointing to the campaigning of the Greenham Common women, who began their famous camp outside the RAF air base in 1981.

With the election of the Tory government, “the women’s movement was outside the Establishment but it drove into municipal government. Feminism infused the radical edge of municipalism — and it drove the Tories bonkers.”

It was the campaigning of feminists and others that led to the landmark creation of women’s committees and gay committees in the Greater London Council, she said.

“The impact on institutions was unstable — it was not permanent — but it was effective.”

With discussion opened up to the floor, a number of participants highlighted the importance of international struggles, in particular Latin America, where “feminism is leading the fight against neoliberalism and massive cuts to the public sector,” with another contributor pointing out that African voices have traditionally been very strong.

“African groups are pressing hard but there is a sense they are doing it alone,” she said, lamenting the fact that “there are many great African feminists who are never quoted.” 

In another workshop, socialist historian Louise Raw took her audience on a whistlestop, quip-strewn history of the 19th-century matchwomen, who despite being regarded by the contemporary ruling class as “wild beasts” of London’s East End — mere women, and Irish immigrants to boot — confronted the corporate power of their employers, Bryant and May, and “accidentally” founded the modern British trade-union movement.  

The matchwomen suffered appalling working conditions and the chemicals they worked with in manufacturing matches led to the horrendous condition of “phossy jaw,” which caused the jaw to become deformed and teeth to fall out. But the women refused to put up with this treatment: they walked out of the job in their thousands — and won.

“Bryant and May didn’t like being bested by what they called ‘a rough set of girls’,” Raw said.

“They walked out as scum of the Earth and walked back in as members of the largest trade union of women in the country.”

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