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Women’s liberation bursts back onto the scene

Almost 1,000 women packed out University College London at the weekend to discuss their sex-based rights as part of a rejuvenated and growing movement. LYNNE WALSH reports

IT’S been a long time since this country has really witnessed the phenomenon known as the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Glance at a timeline helpfully provided by the British Library, and you’ll see the launch of the contraceptive pill in 1961, real liberation made possible by the hard slog of campaigners, as was the Abortion Act of 1967. A year later, the Ford factory workers at Dagenham won equal pay. 

Those burning issues, plus demands for equal job opportunities and free 24-hour nurseries, formed the agenda for the first meeting of the WLM in 1970, at Ruskin College, Oxford. More than 600 women attended: a few men ran the creche.

Subsequent years saw a flurry of historic victories and campaigns which improved women’s lives in fundamental ways. 

In 1971, the first women’s refuge opened. In 1973, Britain’s first rape-crisis centre was set up. Two years later came the Sex Discrimination Act. In 1970, the renowned Southall Black Sisters started campaigning.

There’s a hiccup in the heroism of sisterhood in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became the country’s first female prime minister. 

In spite, rather than because of that, the movement surged on, and the prevailing vibe of the 1980s could be summed up as anti-Thatcherism. The woman at the top was no sister of ours.

In 1981, a group of women marched from Wales to a little-known RAF base at Greenham Common, where they stayed to protest, scale fences to dance atop the silos and ululate through the night, unnerving squaddies guarding the base.

1984 saw Women Against Pit Closures holding together their communities, feeding thousands, and often joining violent picket lines when their miner menfolk had been arrested.

In 1987 Diane Abbott became the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons.

The British Library’s helpful timeline ends in 1988. The years between then and now have been harsh, with cuts to the public and third sectors. Women are bearing the brunt of so-called austerity, refuges and rape-crisis centres have closed, and childcare has fallen victim to privatisation.

Women’s informal discussions invariably cite one big topic: exhaustion. Those who struggle to work, to care both for children and elderly relatives, and to battle on with their activism in political parties and unions are more knackered than most.

Yet on Saturday, at a central London university, there was precious little fatigue as delegates arrived for the Women’s Liberation 2020 conference. 

Nearly 1,000 women, and a few men, packed out University College London, for a day of inspiring speakers, practical sessions and a vast amount of shared expertise and experience.

The very fact that the event happened at all is phenomenal. Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) know better than most how challenging it can be, simply being able to gather together to discuss women’s rights. Many of their meetings have suffered intimidation, threats of violence, even a bomb scare.

A group of around 30 protesters did make a brief appearance as delegates arrived, claiming that the organisers were trans-exclusionary. 

One of the young women protesting held a placard proclaiming: “There is no cis in team” which baffled and bemused onlookers.

In the packed hall, Pragna Patel, co-founder of Southall Black Sisters, helped kick-start the day, telling the crowd: “What a hopeful moment in history we have reached as feminists — and I know you’re thinking ‘what is she talking about’?”

Her optimism sprung, she went on, “from the fact that, all over the world, women are leading an unmistakably secular resistance against tyranny, misogyny and oppression. There is a new kind of feminism stirring in the air … women are on the rise, demanding a new kind of feminist citizenship, based not on identity but political values. 

“It is exciting because it feels different … waves of ordinary, marginalised and poor women are rising up to demand economic equality and justice, and to prevent their leaders from ripping up well-crafted constitutions born out of long and painful struggles for freedom.”

On the minus side, said Patel, “we haven’t yet found a way of getting rid of the cul-de-sac of identity politics [which] muzzles voices of dissent from within. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves sliding towards regressive politics, that reinvigorates patriarchy and inequality whilst appearing to be progressive.”

Joanna Cherry, QC and SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, praised “the bravery of people at UCL in holding this conference — though it is ludicrous that it requires bravery.”

She spoke movingly about being united against Section 28 [banning the so-called promotion of homosexuality in school education], and in supporting many gay men in the ’80s and ’90s, suffering as a result of the Aids crisis.

She expressed “sadness about the way in which the LGBT+ movement has become fragmented over a resistance to talking about the true meaning of equal rights.

“I really believe that women’s rights are human rights, and I strongly believe in equal rights for everyone, and of course that includes trans people. But it has never before been part of the movement for equal rights that one group’s trumps another’s.”

Maya Forstater, who lost her job at a think tank after tweeting about the difference between sex and gender identity, said: “My mother’s generation found the words to talk about the unfairness between the way that men and women are treated in society. 

“But our daughters are being told that it is unkind and exclusionary to even state the material reality that women are female, that being a woman is not a feeling, that being a woman is not a costume; it is not something you can identify out of, or identify into. 

“We are being denied the language to talk about the condition of being female, and that means being denied the language to talk about women’s rights.”

Her former employer, she said, was only one of many organisations to “have rolled over and abandoned their values of evidence, open debate and integrity when faced with ‘offence-taking.’ They’ve retreated into silence and mind-numbing, simplistic slogans.

“This is about the integrity of organisations, because if you can make people lie about something, you can make them lie about anything.”

Journalist and campaigner Julie Bindel addressed particularly younger women at the event, “for whom things are hellish right now, but also full of possibilities.

“There are some lessons we can take from the past, but we must not hark back to the past. We must move on, as any political movement must.”

This was not a revival per se, she said: “We have always had a women’s movement. But we’ve seen that, in the past couple of decades, young women who would describe themselves as feminists got dragged into the neoliberal politics of the individual, where they dismiss any necessity of collectivism, where they would not have it that focusing on ridiculous, meaningless identities would get them absolutely nowhere. 

“Identity politics, without the politics, is what we’ve got now.”

Closing the conference was WPUK co-founder Kiri Tunks, paying tribute to staff at UCL, “for demonstrating a commitment to academic debate and women’s rights.” 

WPUK had been formed fairly recently, she said, “and we know that there are many groups and many individuals who have been campaigning for far longer than us, and we want to thank you for what you have done and what you continue to do. 

“This conference is not the first word, or the last word, or the only word. Think back to wins of the late ’60 and ’70s, the dramatic changes to women’s education, economic independence, aspirations for our lives and our relationships. These things are now just not under threat, many have already been rolled back. We are alert to these threats and we ready to step up to defend what has been won and to fight for more.

“We are going to need all your strength and fire in the days to come. It’s down to all of us. This is the movement; we are the movement — let’s move.”

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