Feminism in London Conference 2015 closing speech
Thank you and congratulations to all the organisers of this conference on what you have achieved and what you have done for women. Please join me in a round of applause showing our generosity and awe.
This year has been marked for many of us by the passing of another one of our Amazon sisters, another woman gone too soon. A feminist who has spoken here at our own Feminism in London conference many times. Denise Marshall, the founder of Eaves Housing for Women and so many other amazing projects for the most marginalised women in our country, women whose voices Denise ensured were heard. A proud legacy that will live on.
It is customary in some circles to suggest a minute’s silence for those we have lost, but I wouldn’t suggest a minute’s silence for this Amazon. More fitting would be a minute of noise, two minutes of speaking out, ten minutes of taking back, an hour of righteous rage, days of activism, a life of resistance. Just as Denise lived.
Too many of our feminist pioneers leave this world too soon and we can honour them in no greater way than by continuing their work and continuing to win for women. Those of you inspired by what you have heard and learned here today can join us again, here in London on Saturday the 28th November for the national women’s Reclaim the Night march against rape, sexual harassment and all forms of male violence against women. The revived protest has been marching annually now for ten years. And every year, women still get in touch to say that Reclaim the Night is the only time they feel they can walk safely through their city, that it is the only time they can shout and express all the things they wanted to say at every individual incidence of harassment or threat but did not feel able to do so alone. This is the anger that can be expressed collectively, where it can become restorative and constructive when it is used in its natural conclusion and that is the Women’s Liberation Movement.
It has been another important year for our Movement, another year of very visible feminist commentary and debate as well as public protest and specific feminist actions against the ideological Tory cuts that the media like to refer to as ‘austerity’. The anti-state, anti-society and anti-social ideology of the Conservatives threatens us all, and their policies always push out the most marginalised first. This is a feminist issue.
It is a feminist issue when none of our brave legacy of Rape Crisis Centres have secure funding beyond March next year. It is a feminist issue when there is an estimated 30% shortfall in necessary spaces in women’s refuges for those fleeing abuse. At a time when calls to these services have never been higher. It is a feminist issue that this Government proposes up to a further 45% of cuts in adult education, stopping mainly women returners and mothers and carers from accessing education at all. This is a feminist issue. It is a feminist issue when our Prime Minister says we have no room for refugees fleeing war in their countries, wars, incidentally in which our own involvement is somewhat suspect, while welcoming with open arms, the international arms dealers to the Defence and Security Equipment International Conference here in the Docklands in London, just last month, the world’s largest arms fair. This is a feminist issue. It is a feminist issue when women are forced out of low paid caring work and into caring work for no pay in the home, because our state welfare services which women rely on disproportionately are being decimated, because the removal of tax credits will turn what was often already poor pay, into poverty pay.
This is what David Cameron means when he talks of the ‘Big Society’. He doesn’t mean lively communities supporting one another or a healthy and just society because, like Thatcher before him, he doesn’t believe in society. He believes in isolated individuals looking after themselves, whatever the cost in lives lost or faltered, just as long as there is no bill to the state.
These are feminist issues and it is right and proper that feminists are making up the backbone of the rising anti-austerity movements, we need to make sure that women are also at the front of those movements, and not solely, as they so often are, making up the most numbers in supportive roles behind the scenes. Let men support women’s leadership for a change, let our brothers promote women as media spokespeople and press officers because our resistance is surely one place where we should indeed be: all in it together.
All Social Movements go through stages, and movements that have been around long enough often repeat different phases and stages; ours is no exception. In the past our Movement went through a period of introspection, it went through phases where it turned inwards, where the positive and necessary process of self-reflection and self-critique became something closer to self-destruction. Yes, our Movement is one of, if not the most, self-critical of Social Justice Movements and we need to work out a way of maintaining that progressive and healthy tradition, while not consuming ourselves in the process. Because another known stage in the movement of Social Movements is burn out, burn out of individual activists or whole groups and networks and that benefits nothing but the stagnant status-quo. If we are to change things, we have to keep moving forward and we can only do that together. Because the clue is in the name, we are a social Movement. The Women’s Liberation Movement is collective, it should build and sustain solidarity, a Movement is not a movement of one or two individuals, it is not won by isolated success for one or two individuals, it is a movement of many.
But we are in a tricky position, like all social movements, because we do not exist in a vacuum. We are socialised into and affected by the very prejudices and oppressions that our Movement exists to challenge. And we know of course, that we do not just need to challenge such oppressions out there in the wider world, we also need to challenge them here, inside our own movement. And we also know, of course, that the first step in this process is always challenging those prejudices inside ourselves. But the process of this reflection has to have a purpose, and that purpose is to ensure that we don’t do to others what has been done to us, so that we can grow our Movement. That we don’t stereotype others as we have been stereotyped, so that we can grow our Movement. That we don’t exclude others as we have been excluded, so that we can grow our Movement.
Because the personal is political was never meant to mean our personal differences becoming our sole politics. Our differences were never meant to become dividing lines of battle between us. Intersectionality was never meant to mean dissection of ourselves or our Sisters or our Movement.
It is a fact that some women are affected more harshly by patriarchy than others, it is a fact that oppression is not equal opportunities. Each woman has a different vantage point on the workings of patriarchy. This means that collectively, together, between us we have a bigger picture, we have the whole picture when we are whole. When we are whole we have the knowledge necessary to take patriarchy apart piece by piece, starting where it is most needed, starting where there are inroads, starting where change has already got a foothold and breaking in where it has not, starting where there are cracks and leaving no woman behind.
This is our challenge remember, this is what we are about. Women’s Liberation is serious, it is revolutionary, we are not tinkering around the edges here, we are not interested in leaving a brutal and backward system intact, we don’t want equality with inequality.
One of the ways we get there is through our own activism and through our activism together as women, is through women-only space. Because we are not our own worst enemy, because we are not each other’s enemies, because it is a lie that women cannot work together, one of the many lies told to hold us back. But we are not fools, we look through the herstory of our Movement and we know that women-only space is a tried and tested method of activism from which great ideas have grown. From small meetings in kitchens and playgroups and community centres sprung Women’s Aid, sprung Rape Crisis, and came the political theory which our Movement was built upon and still rests.
This conference grew out of London Feminist Network and the first tiny conference we had in 2004, a day to reflect on women’s rights in London. We were in a small community centre near Kings Cross with displays on my old television and a VHS player, believe it or not. We had a discussion groups with speakers from the National Assembly Against Racism, from Abortion Rights, from CND and the Women’s Peace Movement, we had workshops on benefits advice. From those beginnings of about 20 women, we now have this. The largest feminist conference since the 1996 International conference in Brighton on women’s citizenship and one of the largest to be held in the country since the days of the national Women’s Liberation Conferences in the 1970s. Who said that women could not work together. The good news is that our Movement is on the rise. Look around you and know that we are already winning.
Every group that you are involved in, every petition you sign, every book you share, every event you organise, every march you take part in, every time you speak out in your other liberation groups or take a lead in your Trade Union or political organisation. These are the acts that revolutions are made of.
See you at Reclaim the Night.