Treading in the footsteps of Sylvia Pankhurst

Alice Robson’s (a member of the East-London based collective Feminist Fightback) speech at the ‘Feminism Past and Present: Screening of Suffragette followed by Q&A’
Text of speech:

This isn’t the first event Feminist Fightback have organised which has been focused on the suffragette movement. We have also spent time in the streets a stone’s throw away from here, treading in the footsteps of Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes, learning about their militant actions for suffrage, their agitation for improved social welfare, their setting up of cost-price restaurants and community nurseries, and their experiences of police violence and prison. We’ve sold reproduced copies of the East London Federation of Suffragette’s newspaper The Women’s Dreadnought to slightly bemused shoppers in Roman Road Market, and acted out Sylvia Pankurst’s evasion of arrest at the inaugural meeting of the People’s Army outside Bow Baths.

End East Radical History Walk (Feminist Fightback)

For those involved in political movements today, representations of past events, including cinematic ones, can be a complex thing. As Laura has said, there is a tendency for past movements like the suffragettes to be presented as museum pieces, deemed suitable for partial reconstruction for a contemporary audience precisely because they are safely situated in the closed-off place that is the past; relics of a past age. The concerns of their protagonists are seen by many to have been dealt with – a militant women’s movement in the UK may have been necessary a century ago, but don’t women have equal rights now? As activists in a period of relatively low struggle, it can also be hard not to fixate on the differences from today. Representations of movements from a historical distance may be presented as coherent and perfectly formed – the tensions and differences within them not deemed interesting viewing.

We didn’t show Suffragette because we think it is a perfect film. And we certainly don’t think that the suffrage movement was a perfect movement. The leadership were dismissive of the contribution to it of working-class women. Imperialist ideology was woven through much of the fabric of the movement, with women in the colonised countries instrumentalised by white feminists who based their claim for the vote in part on the ‘help’ they could provide in Britain’s ‘civilising mission’. Learning from the history of the women’s movement is important, and this involves not only celebrating the successes, but also in looking at its problems, for example, doing some work to think though what the lasting effects of this imperial legacy are on the feminist movement in the UK today.

Sylvia PankhurstOne thing the film does well is to foreground the lives of working-class women, and in doing so complicates the standard narrative that the vote was won by middle and upper-class women. We also see how state repression of the suffragette’s activities was experienced much more sharply by working-class women. But though the film makes class visible, what remains invisible is class struggle: taking collective action against capitalist exploitation. This is a bit surprising given that the East London Federation of Suffragettes, established by Sylvia Pankhurst and other women activists in the east end in 1913, was active in exactly the area where Maud and Violet lived, and doing just this. Their commitment to class-based politics was seen as a threat by Emeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other middle-class suffrage leaders, and it was forced to split from the Women’s Social and Political Union the following year. Whilst working class women like Maud and Violet could be part of the suffrage movement, they could not put forward their distinct interests as working-class women.

Our collective has met in Bethnal Green for most of its 8-year history, and so the history of women’s struggle in the east end has a certain resonance for Feminist Fightback. But beyond this, the reason we have a particular interest in the East London Federation of Suffragettes is because theirs was a feminism which saw the struggle of women as part of, not separate from, class struggle. Sylvia Pankhurst’s politics were marked by a growing commitment to both communism and anti-imperialism. While academia today is keen to theorise ‘social movements’ such as feminism as being in opposition to class politics, the history of the East London Federation of Suffragettes shows us that there has long been a strand of feminism which connected the fight for women’s rights with the struggle of the working class.

Patriarchy, racism, class exploitation and the other sources of oppression that we face are not separate and unconnected – that is just as true today as it was a hundred years ago. And it therefore makes no sense to us to fight them as such. In Feminist Fightback we describe our approach to feminism as ‘intersectional’. What we mean by this is that we see all forms of oppression as interconnected. Solidarity between different struggles for liberation is an essential part of this, but the analysis goes further. The oppressions which all these groups face are structured by each other. Capitalism only works because it is racist and sexist. Our understanding of an intersectional approach is that it requires us to look at capitalism historically, seeing oppression on the basis of gender, race and class as being shaped by the violent transition to capitalism, and re-shaped with capitalism’s periodic restructuring of itself.

Reproductive Justice

Feminist Fightback Pro-Choice Action 9th May 2015 Stratford, London

This perspective underpins our activism and how we approach the issues we work on. One of the main areas of Feminist Fightback’s activity at the moment is resisting anti-choice activists who harass and intimidate women as they go into clinics. We have focused this activity here in east London, against a right-wing Catholic anti-choice organisation who hold regular prayers vigils outside abortion clinics, and deploy so-called ‘pavement counsellors’ to prevent women going inside. A few months ago we blocked the group in the street as they attempted to march from a church to an abortion clinic in Stratford. Whilst taking to the streets for access to abortion is a central part of our activity, we don’t see this in isolation. We try to situate it within the broader perspective of ‘reproductive justice’. As Black feminists, socialist feminists and disabled feminists have identified, a single-issue focus on legal abortion has tended to ignore the fact that there are other issues at play in the decision to have or not have a child. For some women, being poor may reduce the possibility of having children; women from racialised groups have been subjected to sterilisation abuse and used as guinea pigs for unsafe contraceptives. Legal rights to abortion and contraception are vital, but they are not sufficient: we must also take into account the economic, social and health factors that affect women’s ability to make and realise decisions about reproduction. This includes connecting with and participating in struggles around health care, childcare, sex and relationships education, immigration controls and welfare.

In Feminist Fightback, we think it is necessary to take the material realities of women’s lives as a starting point. In this period of austerity for some these realities are particularly harsh. Cuts exacerbate the already-existing inequalities in our society. As Sisters Uncut drew attention to brilliantly last week, cuts to domestic violence services make life more dangerous for women, and Black women in particular, with many specialist services for Black and Minority Ethnicity women the first to go.

Save Our NuseriesClosure of nurseries and children’s centres, reduction in disability benefit and the cutting of free school meals, to name but a few recent government decisions, all have the aim of reducing what we can access in the public realm. The labour required to keep people fed and cared for – what is sometimes referred to as ‘social reproduction’ – is pushed back from the public to the private sphere of the home. In the home, it is usually carried out for free by women, or for low wages by migrant women in particular. We have been involved in struggles locally around some of these cuts: against cuts to nursery provision in Hackney, against housing policies which see people forced to move out of their borough while hundreds of flats lie empty as part of the Focus E15 campaign in Stratford, and against the closure of The Women’s Library just down the road from here in Aldgate East.

It’s hard not to just be on the defensive in this time of huge public sector cuts, and as we join with others in opposing the cuts, we want to try to not just defend our existing, often unsatisfactory, public services, but to use these struggles as a space for thinking about better ways to organise our society and our lives. Our struggles against austerity need to involve a collective imagining of alternatives. At its best, the doing of politics together that being involved in a movement involves can provide tiny glimpses of how we might be together differently in a world beyond capitalism.

What the film shows us is that feminism has always been about the doing of politics, not just an abstract theory. The injustices that we face require us to work collectively to change them. Though our actions may be local, the structures of power that they reveal are global in scale. Challenging the brutality of the capitalist state requires us to be disruptive, to force an interruption of business as usual. This is what we will do on 7th November, when under the banner of Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary, thousands will gather at Yarl’s Wood, an immigration detention centre for women in Bedfordshire, to demand its closure, and the end of the practice of detention. Part of the proceeds from the screening tonight will go towards this, subsidising transport to allow everyone, including asylum seekers made destitute by the state, to travel to the demonstration. Feminist Fightback will be there, and we hope you will too.