report from the struggle continues… women’s liberation 40 years on

In 1970, 560 women came together at Ruskin College, Oxford for the first UK women’s liberation conference. The activist network Feminist Fightback met in London on 2nd May to look at how far we have come 40 years on, inviting all genders to “consider what feminism looks like today, how the struggle continues, and put the battles women fight today in the context of the history of the women’s movement.”

To aid comparisons of the women’s movement then and now the programme included two films: A Woman’s Place (Journeyman Pictures, 1970) and an episode of the BBC series on women, Activists (broadcast, March, 2010). Post introductions, the Feminist Fightback meeting continued with screening the 1970 film, which included footage of the Ruskin conference and The International Women’s Day March held in London in 1971.

A great sense of urgency surrounded the Ruskin conference. Many more women than the organisers expected showed up for the event. Whilst women across the class spectrum were enlivened by each other’s speeches and debate men were presiding over a crèche in the wings. Even long dead men honourably remembered by other men with head and shoulder busts in their image were not privy, women having covered them with shawls and scarves.

All aspects of women’s lives were considered in the context of British society in 1970 – Women in prison, trade unions, housework, childrearing, for instances. One woman spoke of the need for “our children to be liberated from us”, implying a suffocating atmosphere presided over family living, women isolated and confined by the mother role. Women questioned whether the so-called “maternal instinct” was a real or imposed thing. They talked of possible alternative family structures where other adults and not the mother alone have childcare responsibilities such as communes. One middle-aged working class woman, wholly unused to speaking before a large audience, grew in confidence as she spoke of her life as a housewife and mother of four children as a life of missed opportunities. Another woman said she would like not to be thought a freak because she had no interest in children whatsoever. Women discussed the thorough injustice of their economic dependence on men, their work as mothers going unacknowledged and unpaid and the political implications of that – reproducing a workforce for capitalism whilst simultaneously being disenfranchised by that system.

[callout title=The conference ended with the women agreeing on four basic demands:]

1. Equal Pay
2. Equal Educational and Job Opportunities
3. Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand
4. Free 24 hour Nurseries [/callout]

Some months later 4,000 women took to the streets of London for the International Women’s Day March with placards and banners demanding these basic rights. They presented their petition in writing to 10 Downing Street. The seriousness of their demands to tackle the inequalities imposed on them by virtue of their biology did not stop these women’s enjoyment of the march. There was a carnival atmosphere. A needlework dummy bound to a crucifix was held aloft by some women while others dance-exercised ironically to Eddie Cantor’s ‘Keep young and beautiful, its your duty to be beautiful’. One woman mocked beauty pageants, her sash reading, ‘Ms Stress’. Clearly the Ruskin conference had been a resounding success, women politicised and adamantly seeking immediate changes to an unjust system.

So how are things looking in 2010?

The sad answer is, not very good at all. In spite of the Equal Pay Act implemented in 1970 and the various adjustments made to it since women are still lagging behind men in financial status. They are far more likely than men to work in part-time employment as they are more usually the primary carers of either children and/or disabled or elderly relatives. Part-time work such as care-work or cleaning is given low status and is extremely poorly paid. The model of ‘superwoman’ is held as the ideal. Women are urged ‘to have it all’ – both the children and the career. This can effectively mean that you either pay – usually another woman – a low wage for childcare, or if lowly paid yourself, childcare will take up a disproportionate amount of your income.

Feminist Fightback are currently involved in a campaign to save Hackney nurseries, “cuts … being handed out in a piecemeal fashion, with no warning to nurseries all over Hackney.” Thus nursery fees go up and living standards go down making rubbish of Labour’s insistence that they were fighting to reduce child poverty. And Britain with a Tory prime minister is sure to make matters far worse, a part of the Tory/Liberal pact being to immediately put into operation Tory’s plans to severely cut funds to all public services so to appease the IMF (America’s chief say-so).

And so to the BBC4 documentary, where the feminist activists concentrated on made all these social conditions notable by not mentioning any of them. Finn Mackay is the founder of the London Feminist Network and Co-founder of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution and it was these movements that the documentary wholly centred around. Mackay is described on her blog, “She is a well-practiced public speaker with particular emphasis on violence against women, prostitution and feminism in the UK.” Indeed, she appeared a charismatic leader in the film as with a raised fist she delivered her speech at The London Feminist Network’s Conference to an all women audience, many of whom were in floods of tears.

The interviewer asked woman after woman what her chief concerns were regarding feminism. Cited were just these: male violence against women, prostitution, pornography and sexual objectification. There was much belittling of these women by the programme makers. They were mostly young, middle-class women living at home with their parents. Parents were also interviewed and rather geed along when showing prejudice against their daughter’s activism, one mother saying she could not understand her daughter’s penchant for dressing up while protesting against objectification.

Feminist Fightback rightly cut a huge swathe from this film that concentrated on food preparation for the LFN conference – veganism read as joyless Puritanism by the film-maker, and the viewer impelled to think likewise. Campaigns by LFN include Reclaim The Night, ‘Bin the Bunny’ (referring to the cynical use of the Playboy bunny emblazoned across children’s clothes etc.) One woman spoke of the horrific event that had made her become an activist in the movement: recounting that after her daughter’s friend had been gang raped, the police later made charges against her saying that she had perverted the course of justice, citing mobile phone footage her attackers had filmed. They eventually succeeded in getting the charges dropped but were further shocked to learn that there were no rape crisis centres in the whole of London.

There was some extremely disturbing footage of women from the LFN shouting “shame, shame” at people entering a lap-dancing club. They were shouting this as much at the female employees as at the male audience, creating divisions between those women and themselves.

After the film showings the mostly women crowd present at the Feminist Fightback event came together to discuss the films, make comparisons and consider the feminist movement today. In the lively discussion, personal experiences were used as much as the historical perspectives raised by the films.

Much noted was the absolute absence of considerations surrounding class or indeed any other political analysis in the BBC4 film. Women spoke of their concerns about others considering feminism an outmoded if not dirty word. There was consensus that we should openly and unashamedly say that we are feminists to other women and men. How this consciousness raising is exercised was another problem discussed – not wanting to come across preachy, for instance.

We discussed the issue of objectification so concentrated upon by the women from LFN. Participants articulated the belief that the media perpetuated women’s concern with their bodies by constantly documenting this apparent all consuming concern, anorexia, for instance, being a favourite topic of documentary makers. We discussed society placing such high value on being in a couple. One woman quoted a bride’s speech, “I was nothing till I met you”, “now I am complete”. People expressed concern over feeling that you had to do your best to feign interest in wedding preparations – cooing over the dress for instance, women feeling that they would otherwise endanger friendships, though they are not allowed the space to say, “this is shit”.

Many considered that LFN’s demand to have porn banned by the state was not a progressive argument, and indeed a simplification of matters, particularly demeaning porn being a symptom that needs to be attacked via its root causes and likewise the LFN’s attitude to prostitution; Feminist Fightback are demanding that sex-workers be decriminalised.

There was consensus that the BBC4 programme was horribly malicious and a farcical comparison with the 1970 Journeyman film. And what of women’s own sexuality and their enjoyment of sex, should this not be talked about?

Many other subjects were touched upon at this meeting. In fact all of the grass-root feminist concerns the women from the 1970 Ruskin conference were talking about then are still very much the concern of Feminist Fightback now. It is a terrible shame that the media present body image and objectification issues above all else as grass-roots feminism, when you only need to watch A Woman’s Place to know that that is absolutely not the case. Feminism must be bound with political activism.

by Sharon Borthwick