FILIA Conference 2017. Closing Speech.

Thank you. Thank you to all the organisers of this wonderful conference, the largest feminist conference in the UK. Thank you to the whole team, to Kate, Julian, Charlotte, all the volunteers, every one; and of course the Amazon Lisa-Marie. It is truly humbling to see what you have achieved thank you.

Well, it’s been a tough year for feminists hasn’t it?! It seems that every day we see violent men getting rewarded for their toxic masculinity. Even while, even while of course, as we see in the news this week – Even while every so often, one piece of this trashy jigsaw puzzle will rise to the surface, buoyed by the powerful voices of women’s daily truth.

We always knew that the patriarchal model of power looked like this; that it was male, that it was White, that it stood tall on unfounded promises of grandeur and a deep-seated sense of entitlement. The world’s mistake, is believing those lies. Believing that this model is strong, that it offers good leadership, that it will defend anyone but itself. Because the very opposite is true, as America is starting to realise of course, as the global superpower and the country of cool becomes a laughing stock.

But of course it is not at all funny that men like this hold so much power. It is not funny that Trump has become President, because this public reward and recognition for this very particular brand of backward, destructive and narrow-minded masculinity has emboldened all those who bemoaned its decline. For all those people who felt that slow progress on equality laws was a direct attack on their privilege – the American presidency has given them a voice. It is a voice that is not only heard there, of course, but over here too. Following the Brexit referendum we too have seen a celebration of anti-intellectual, shoot-first style politics, a type of politics that cleverly presents itself as innocent common-sense, while in fact being a committed campaign against progressive and democratic visions.

As you have been discussing this weekend, it seems that we are in a pivotal time. One thing you will have noticed is that patriarchy is rearing its head, it is speaking as itself and for itself. It is not implicit between the lines or shrouding itself in nods towards political correctness, it has perhaps ‘come out’. Vitriolic, angry and violent with a rage that it cries is righteous; as it always is. Oh dear, well aren’t men oh so emotional, don’t they come out weeping and wailing to defend their unmerited superiority. Perhaps all of this then is important for us to consider as feminists, because, does this mean that patriarchy feels under threat? That we are on the edge of possibly momentous social change? It certainly means something, and if patriarchy is indeed going through one of its flexes and contortions, trying to bend itself again into power on a new global stage, then we must be ready to ensure that this change tips in the right direction.

In this moment then, one of the biggest challenges we as Feminists face and must turn ourselves towards with rigour and without hesitation is the resurgence of racism and right-wing nationalism that is gripping Europe. This is a state of emergency. This is a Feminist issue. It is also an area where Feminism has a valuable and unmissable contribution to make, because what is so often missing is a gendered lens on world problems. And the fact of this absence only proves how rigid patriarchy still manages to remain in so many areas, and what a struggle we still face to even get these credible arguments heard. The sort of visionary and enlightening theories and tactics that you have heard about over this conference.

Because, as long as ignorant White supremacists are flag waving in our cities supposedly to protect us women from sexually violent refugees – refugees, people fleeing war and torture; or using the name of women’s rights to intimidate minority communities; spitting on people in the street, graffiti-ing their homes; or selling out the victims of child sexual abuse to misdirect attention to their anti-Muslim agenda: Then it is up to us to set the record straight, to say this to those who would threaten this so fragile and fractious peace – do not dare to use our name in your racist agenda, you do NOT care about women and you do not speak for us.

Because, given the recent news over the Summer of course, it is worth pointing out again, and indeed again, and again, that when it comes to sexual violence and the rape and sexual abuse of children, we do not in fact have a so-called “Muslim problem” – we have a man problem. Just as we have always had; just as we have always maintained; just as we have never yet seen seriously addressed.

We can see out there in the world, that a lot of people though are angry and are prepared to invest time in positive change. In many cases this is because they have to, because ideological tory cuts and the tories long-planned destruction of our proud welfare state has left whole communities without essential support, so they have been left with nothing to lose, so they protest, so they build community themselves. As usual, feminists are shouldering a lot of this social justice work, housing women seeking access to abortion, sheltering refugee women, blocking flights to stop the removal of lesbian asylum seekers. And we must be visible, and we must be proud that our motivations are feminist, that we do these things not just because they are the right thing to do, but because they are the feminist thing to do.

Therefore, in these times we need a strong and robust feminism, and so we must guard against the watering down of our movement that we are seeing so often at the moment. Every day it seems there is a new diet drink or a new make-up that can “empower” us. A few weeks ago someone sent me a link to a feminist gift box, costing around £50, that contained all a feminist apparently needed for activisting and pampering! The name of our movement is printed on costly tee-shirts and scented candles and used to sell everything under the sun, and in this process its meaning is emptied out and it is branded meaningless. Feminism is not so simplistically and reductively about choice like this, it is not about equality, it is not about the singular individual. It is a lie that we can pursue individual empowerment and equality in such a fundamentally unequal world, and anyway, as the Second Wave mantra went: ‘women who aim to be equal with men lack ambition’.

Now, that’s of course a funny way of saying that men are oppressed too; that we know this. And that we don’t want equality with men; we don’t want equality with that. Not as long as young Black men are being suffocated to death on our streets by ‘our’ police, not so far away from here in fact. That we don’t want equality with men who make up three quarters of the national suicide statistics, and incidentally, gender constraints and conditioning are likely not insignificant in those statistics. That we don’t want equality with the 82,000 men currently languishing in our overcrowded prisons, poor men, men denied an education, care leavers, often childhood victims themselves and failed by institutions who should have protected them. What model is this? What model is this to follow? This masculinist hierarchy in which we all attempt to survive is no blueprint for any sort of future at all, not for us, not for the planet, not for all species. Because this competition for power at any cost, costs us all dearly and in the end nobody wins. WE can do better can’t we? We can do better; and that’s the beautiful promise of Feminism.

I want to end this conference with a quote –

It is also possible that women now represent a very crucial element capable of swinging the national mood, poised at this moment between the alternatives of progress or political repression, toward meaningful change. As the largest alienated element in our society, and because of their numbers, passion, and length of oppression, this largest revolutionary base, women might come to play a leadership part in social revolution, quite unknown before in history”. [End quote]

So said Kate Millett in 1970. Kate Millett who sadly passed away last month, a feminist hero. Never forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants, who knew then what we must remember now; that nothing lasts forever and that change is inevitable. Never give up. Thank you all for what you do for women.




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