Bristol Reclaim the Night 2017

Bristol Reclaim the Night. Bristol. Saturday 25th November 2017.

Thank you for inviting me to your march here tonight and it is an honour to march with you in my own city on the United Nations International Day to End Violence Against Women, here on Bristol’s Reclaim the Night march 2017. Thank you.

This is actually a very special date. We actually mark the 40th anniversary of Reclaim the Night in the UK. It first began in 1977, when it was established by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, inspired by the actions of feminists across West Germany who organised what they called there a Take Back the Night earlier in that year.

The crime of rape, experience, threat and survival of rape had been on the agenda that year within the Women’s Liberation Movement here in the UK. It was the theme of various conferences and special issues of journals and periodicals and discussed in new feminist theory, consciousness raising and action groups against rape which formed that year and the year before, materialising in, and partly inspired by, the new Rape Crisis Centre that had opened in London in 1976. So, taking to the streets of town and city centres, actually mobilising around this issue appealed, as a practical thing that women could do, building on all the CR work that had been going on.

Now of course many of you will know that there was also another reason why women going out at night as a group and taking over their city centre to protest against male violence, held such special resonance for women in Leeds at that time, in the 1970s. It was of course because of the actions of Britain’s most notorious serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, a man whom the press dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered thirteen women between 1975 and 1980.

The police response to these murders was to advise women not to go out after dark, and better still not to go out on their own at all. This advice was of course impractical. It was impractical for women who worked shifts, for women who were carers, and not least for those women involved in prostitution who may have had no choice about whether they went out at night or not and who indeed were the women first targeted by this serial killer. Being as they so often are, so often around the world, a barometer of societal attitudes to women in general and so often, and so often unreported, bearing the brunt of the sheer scale of misogyny that is unleashed at night, in the shadows on a group of people that society, with criminal and shameful abandon, leaves vulnerable and stigmatised to a marketised demand that we are told to accept is inevitable.

And thus feminists organising at the time were angered by the police reaction, that it was so slow and at its lacklustre and hate filled response to the murders of women involved in the prostitution industry. They were angry at the official advice, which they experienced and described as a curfew on women. They felt that women were being punished for men’s crimes, that women were having to take responsibility for men’s crimes, as is so often the case and is an attitude that has not gone away. Also, this is Britain, in the winter it can get dark at about half past three in the afternoon, and I’m assuming that employers up and down the land were not operating a special going home time for all their women staff while the police man-hunt was ongoing. So far, so impractical and so wide of the mark.

Therefore, taking back town and city centres at this time with candles, and flares and placards reading ‘a curfew on men’, ‘take back the night’ and ‘no means no’ was an inspiring, symbolic and exciting form of direct action for the Women’s Liberation Movement.

It became an enduring one too, as Reclaim the Night marches spread around the world and continue to this day. A sign of resistance, but also, perhaps, of how far we still have to go.

Because here we are today. Still marching. And what a time too. What a moment to be hosting a Reclaim the Night march. What a time to be holding this gathering while the global MeToo phenomena unfolds before us and a powerful ocean of women’s voices give testimony to the epidemic levels of everyday sexual harassment and assault which are endured in workplaces and homes, in private and in public.

A window has opened, a window of opportunity in which, for once, these voices actually have a better chance than usual of being heard. And before this window closes, which it inevitably will, we have to try to use this opportunity to bring into this slightly more receptive space, feminist theory on the roots of patriarchy and the construction of masculinity. Because the problem is not ‘toxic masculinity’, because the abiding problem stalking this debate is actually the problem of masculinity itself, and in that sense there are no ‘non-toxic men’.

As you know, this is not a problem of monsters and bad apples and one-offs, nor a time for only tweaking workplace equality policies here and there and adding some office hours to someone designated to report abuses. The lid is being lifted on the symptoms of patriarchy. Symptoms that yesterday, today and tomorrow women have just endured, toughening up, getting on with it, because, so we are told, so we are taught, so we believe, we all know ‘how men are’, we all learn early on that we have to take care and negotiate the inevitable.

So we take different routes home. We save up hard earned money, in a time when the gender pay gap is estimated at taking 100 years to close, we save up our money for taxis where yet we are still at risk. We note ID numbers. We look over our shoulder. We pretend to be on the phone. We pretend to listen to music. We hold keys in our hands. We walk over underpasses and around covered bridges. We get off trains at different stations and buses at different stops. We sit near the driver. We sit in the light. We try to be seen and not seen. We try to be big and at the same time invisible. This is what is called by Professor Liz Kelly of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit “safety work” a form of emotional and physical labour which takes a psychic and physical toll.

This is why the use of public space is political. This is why women’s engagement with the night time economy is political. This is why women’s citizenship is political because when women’s freedom and liberty is restricted in this way we cannot speak of freedom, we cannot speak of citizenship and, as we approach the sixteen days of action leading to global Human Rights Day we can ask how we can even speak of women’s human rights. And this is why Reclaim the Night is political and still so relevant.

Here we are then, in this moment, in this metoo moment of international solidarity where once again we realise the glue of feminism, the experience of resistance that we all share in all our diversity. The threat and reality of male violence, and our negotiation of and resistance to the same. And yet we persist don’t we. We achieve. Indeed, we are constantly awed by the Amazon successes of women in spite of and perhaps to spite all the hostility we face, from the overt to the covert, from the daily cumulative effects of the banter and comments to the overt attacks and the crimes some men choose to commit. Yes, it is amazing how far we have come and what we have achieved. But do you know what? I’m a feminist because I would like to see what we could achieve if we didn’t have to put up with all this. And in that positive vision is the promise of feminism. No wonder so much effort is put in to keeping us down.

But in this promise is a promise for everyone, it is the promise of change and learning and progress. Because what we were taught about how men are is a lie. The problem we have here is not even so much that we believe it – that’s not surprising, that’s what we’re taught and we have reason to believe the threats –  but that they believe it too. And every time we watch the news and shrug and say, why was she there at that time, what did she expect, that’s just banter, you have to watch yourself, that’s the real world, well we all know “what men are like” and “boys will be boys” and “what’s an ordinary man to do these days”.

As if ordinary men have a birthright to women. As if ordinary men are entitled to women. As if ordinary men are better than women. Well yes, society tells them they do and they will and they are. Written in stone. Innate. The challenge we have to work with is that society is built on and enshrines these lies. So much so that women’s slow progress towards any kind of equality feels like an attack to many men. Judge for yourselves in the panicked responses to women’s testimonies of abuse, turned on its head so that women’s actual stories of being attacked by men come to be framed as a symbolic attack on men. Any real change then, will involve giving up the perks of patriarchy, the subconscious knowledge that when it comes to the socially constructed fractures that run like veins through our globe, on the sex binary at least, all men are winners.

Feminism has always maintained that the problem is not individual men, but masculinity and how power is constructed in that image, as something to use over others, and that when you can you do, and if you’re bigger you do, and thus the law of the bully becomes our model of respected leadership style. Changing this is a monumental task, and it can feel overwhelming. But we have to remember that while it has strong roots, patriarchy is not a natural phenomenon like the weather. It’s roots are here and here.

And thus it can be changed, it can be unlearned, through changing hearts and minds, mountains can be moved, humanity can grow to be humane and it is never too late to plant those seeds. For women, for children, for men, for all life. Feminism has some of the answers we need.

Thank you for putting your feet on the streets today. Thank you for what you do for women. Maybe next year, we won’t need to be here. Never give up.


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