Rightfield interview on being an activist and still paying the bills

‘Being an activist takes hard work, determination and an awful lot of skills’.
14th May 2010

read it here on Rightfield – the careers site for lefties!

Finn Mackay on making activism work

Political activism is sometimes disparagingly chalked up as another rite of studentdom, a pursuit that is left behind at graduation when the ruthless world of work insists that values are sacrificed at the alter of your career. There is nothing naive about Finn Mackay’s commitment to the women’s movement, however. She has been committed to fighting for women’s rights from a young age and while this has led her to avoid entering mainstream politics, she has consistently worked in the public sector whilst industriously organising and invigorating the UK’s feminist scene in her spare time. She has been repeatedly featured in the media on account of her work and as a direct result of this activism, recently secured a funded place to study for a PHD at Bristol University’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research.

She completed her masters in Gender Studies, at Goldsmiths College, ten years ago, having achieved a first in her BA in Women’s Studies. She always imagined that she would return to academia but unable to self-fund her study, went to work first as a youth worker off the back of her experience of volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau. This and the opportunities that followed enabled her to develop a wide range of skills and significant expertise: “I don’t believe in being poverty stricken for a cause. I think activists like me do really important work, I think we have wonderful skills and I don’t think it is too much to ask that we get paid!”

Before she returned to academia she was the Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator for a borough education authority, managing the Domestic Violence prevention project that she had previously developed and writing their anti-bullying education policy. “There are good jobs, within which you can do good things for people and try to improve people’s circumstances, in local government, in advice work, in careers, in further education, in teaching english, in youth work, in prisons etc,” Finn stated, “I really enjoyed doing the training for professionals on domestic violence and child protection, that is something I may like to follow up in the future.”

Somehow, whilst constantly working in increasingly demanding full time jobs Finn found the time to found the London Feminist Network and reinstate Reclaim the Night marches that started off in the 1970s. These annual marches are organised to protest against rape and male violence. She has facilitated the growth of the number of activist feminists in London, despite the intense criticism that feminists are sometimes subjected to. Finn is philosophical about warding off those attacks: “I think that Feminism presents a huge threat to the status quo so it is reacted against. Ultimately the extent of the backlash is a testimony to the power of Feminism and to how much of a threat we posed and still do. If we weren’t a force to be reckoned with the system wouldn’t bother trying to kick us down! “

There is much Finn would like to see changed for women, but given the opportunity to change just one policy she advocates that it would be to guard against poverty as women are the poorest of the poor: “Obviously I’d like to end male violence against women, but I don’t think one policy could do that! A start would be realistic sentences for rape, increasing the conviction rate above 5%, imposing the maximum life sentence on rapists, advertising campaigns aimed at men, harsher sentences and convictions for domestic violence perpetrators, state funding for refuges, also criminalising the purchase of sex so that women are no longer viewed as being a class for sale in prostitution”. One of her research interests is looking at whether the movement can be more than just reactivists: “I think often our campaigns are reactivist, we always know what we’re against, it is a cliche but true in some ways, we often don’t publicise or think about what we are for! But also I think a lot of young women, in fact most, are motivated by hope, they do have an idea of how things could be different, even if it is often manifested in knowing what they don’t like.”

Her fervent commitment to the cause has been a defining factor in her life since she was a very young. Overhearing politically motivated friends of her parents the seeds of curiosity were sown. Finn found out about Greenham Common when two of her neighbours came back from there, and became obsessed. As soon as she was old enough she left home to live at a peace camp in Yorkshire; she was dropped off at the station having only been on a train once before. “It was Menwith Hill Women’s Peace Camp, outside the Menwith Hill US military base in the Yorkshire Dales, 7 miles West of Harrogate. It is run by the National Security Agency (NSA) of America. It is the biggest listening base in the world,” Finn explained. “Living there was very empowering. It really showed me what women can do. We ran everything, from our court cases, to direct actions, to newsletters, to chopping wood and building shelters and living outside in all weathers. It felt really good to see other women doing everything, so I knew we could do anything and that we were powerful and strong.” An extraordinary experience, she does not sign up to the idea that activists necessarily must live in such extreme circumstances: “I don’t see why I shouldn’t get paid and be able to live without worry about paying the bills, affording Xmas presents, putting the heating on. I have lived like that and I found it draining, which then took energy away from my activism anyway. ”

It seems only fitting that she has been taken on by the team at Bristol to document the progress that has been made over the past ten years thanks to her vision and lots of women’s hard work. That is not to imply that this is a happy ending to Finn’s story but rather a reassuring testament to the consistent hard work at the coal face of the women’s liberation movement. Constantly challenging herself, learning new skills and building on previous experience, speaking at the London Feminist Network’s annual event last November, her considered words were obviously those of a gifted thinker; an inspiration to us all. She reminds us that the job is not done: “The 7 demands of the 70’s women’s liberation movement have not been met. Though we have achieved a great deal, we aren’t finished yet!”

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