An appeal to the Sisterhood

How do we talk feminism and raise Women’s issues in the Labour movement?Guest post by Paula Boulton

I spent this evening in Wellingboro at WACA (Wellingboro African Caribbean Centre) where the Independent Socialists had organised a Mayday celebration event for the 3rd year in a row. I went because “Banner Theatre”, a political theatre group I used to be part of, was performing and I wanted to catch up. I have attended several events there and always feel at home and I usually bump into a core of left wing comrades, people who go back 50 years to my childhood, who knew my Dad, a Labour Councillor and son of a founder member of CPGB. So this is home territory to me.

The theme of the evening was

“A better world is possible”

First awkward moment was bumping into the organisor who I know from joint work with the Northants Rights and Equality Council for many years. Last time we met, the “Me Too” movement was hitting the headlines. Knowing that I was very involved in running a Women’s Centre he gave me a hug and said “sensitive” and “appropriate” things.

So when I sent him a Fairplay for Women leaflet during GRA consultation asking him if he was up to date on this “Women’s Rights Campaign” I was saddened by his immediate response:

“Trans women are women too. I am saddened by this sectarian and divisive attitude by some feminists.”

I chose to stick to my point and not get sidetracked:

“Not sure whether this was meant for me. I sent you a flyer about the impact on women and girls of current proposals being consulted on. Legislation needs to be effective. This is flawed. Have you examined it?”

Got no response and haven’t seen or heard from him since

Until I arrive tonight and to my friendly greeting I got a tight “hello” noticed by the woman with me who remarked on him being unfriendly.

The first part of the evening had a series of speakers – all very good.

  • Lee, a trade unionist from Midlands TUC spoke about the need for solidarity but never once mentioned Women or Women’s rights.
  • Then Heather from the National Education Union spoke. Issues for her were around the imbalance in knife crime, and criminalisation and school exclusion rates of black boys and men. The need to be in a Trade Union especially as a minority, ie BAME, and to try to build resilience.
  • Mel, a talented poet from Montserrat spoke of a woman she admired in history on her island who had realised that her “Gender” would have precluded her from being elected and who had instead been the “King Maker”
  • Oliver spoke about Extinction Rebellion which he was involved in over the last two weeks. In talking about the history of NVDA and its recent uses he stuck with King and Ghandi and didn’t mention Greenham or the Women’s Peace Movement.

Then Rachel spoke of international campaigns and acknowledged the match girls and their strike which fuelled the trade union movement.

All these points needed making. Three of the five speakers were Women. Two were Black Women. The second man was only added at the last minute due to having just returned from Extinction Rebellion and because of the urgency of the issue.

So what did I find so uncomfortable?

I felt invisible and like an alien in a world where I used to belong. I’m trying to understand what has changed.

As a working class woman I understand that class and economic security are the big issues. Race too. But in a week where Stonewall does a presentation which omits “sex” as one of the identifiers of who we are at a workplace conference I worry at the non acknowledgement of our sex as a separate oppressive force within capitalism.

My activism at the moment is about the erasure of Women in general and Lesbians in particular – and in my world misogyny, heterosexism, anti-lesbianism, homophobia, ageism and attitudes to neuro diversity ALL impact on me all the time…I felt a bit left out of this “new and better world” we are fighting for.

How do other feminists within the left assert their perspective when there is not any hook to hang it on?

One of the speakers spoke of drawing on her radical anti-racist political perspectives.

I tried to imagine being a speaker at that table and saying that my perspective drew on my feminist politics. Imagined bringing to my “fellow” comrade’s attention the other layers of oppression some of us struggle with….and I found it impossible to know where to start.

And yet in 1986 I spoke unashamedly about Women’s issues as the token woman at a Mayday Rally at Corby Trades and Labour Club I focussed on Rape, DV and access for Women with children in pushchairs – I had been told I couldn’t enter the building, which my Dad had founded, because I had a child in a pushchair with me! “You can’t bring that in here,” the doorman said.

I said, “Either we both come in or you have one less speaker – and by the way – that happens to be the grandson of the founder of this club.”

It went down like a lead balloon. I know it made many of my brothers uncomfortable and they have seen me since as the woman they have to remember not to be sexist around, and who will hold them to account if they are.

Hands across Britain

At “Hands across Britain” the next day one woman congratulated me on my speech and said “They won’t ask you again though. It is all too threatening.” She was right.

Now I know everything has its moment. Last year there was a historical context which made it possible to talk about Women’s rights – in fact at times it felt almost obligatory to mention equal representation of Women. There was much virtue signalling. But if you tried to make a connection between honouring the Women who fought for the Vote and who were pilloried at the time and those of us still fighting today, then that awful silence descended. Another social faux pas.

I remember wanting to enjoy an event held in Northampton on 6th February last year for what it was – a celebration of the battle for Women’s Suffrage. Liz Kendall made a cracking speech. But all I could think of was how the audience would respond if I said “these hard won Women’s rights are under threat”.

So prohibitive and self congratulatory did it all feel that I opted on that occasion to write a note to Liz Kendall on a serviette about the erasure of Women and the AWS and silencing and the fact that I had written to various Labour people without any replies for 5 months. I congratulated her on her excellent speech and then asked her to please ring me to discuss the issues in my note. We never got to talk. I received one answer phone message from her office and never had any further replies to attempts to follow up.

I tried unsuccessfully for a year to get a discussion going within our CLP via the Women’s Forum. In the end I organised a talk myself about Women’s Rights 100 years on. Over a year later, and the forum have failed to hold any such event. No discussion takes place. When we had to choose priorities for Women’s Conference what I witnessed was women looking at the issues as if they happened to others. Women on the forum who were teachers spoke passionately about the importance of good child care provision. The “Gender” pay gap is always a safe one. But the issue being chosen was one that would affect “Women” not US, the women in the room.

Clearly the personal is not political in this forum.

Various women have said how annoying it is when men talk over them at meetings and a few assertive women agreed to point out sexist behaviour in meetings.

But I see no-one acknowledging their own vulnerability as a woman in a sexist society.

Many of the women even disagreed with AWS. “Should be the right person for the job! Not giving women an unfair advantage.” When you start to point out that there is not a level playing field that strange vibe happens. They start looking at you as if you are an alien. And I can hear all those women who used the Women’s Centre or who worked as volunteers who would say, “I’m not a feminist.” “Why are you a man hater?”

At least some of the lack of awareness of sexism is the clever “invisibling” society does every time we make any gains. Heard anyone mention #MeToo or Rape Culture recently? Gone awfully quiet. Has that “Had its moment”?

But on a personal level in my working class community the women are often the matriarchs, the resilient ones, the providers who take the knocks, the blows, the hammerings and get up and get on. They are survivors – not victims. And they often are the ones holding the purse strings and “handling” their menfolk.

So to have to think of themselves as oppressed causes cognitive dissonance.

Nor does it serve patriarchy to explain the mechanics of oppression.

Sexism and Misogyny are so normalised they are invisible. People find it impossible to imagine a world without it, so they don’t see it as a thing.

Social Media

Recently Facebook offers to clean up its act by removing offensive material which may promote suicide or self harm or radicalisation. If people can make the link between what is being shown and how it affects people then surely all sexist, misogynist content should be removed as well? Try saying that! Go on – just try.

The words crumble as they come out of your mouth. They need air to breath and exist in – and patriarchy has sucked up all the air.

Meanwhile for the vast majority compulsory heterosexuality dictates the finding of a mate, the keeping hold of one once found and the creation and raising of children.

The rhythms and rituals of births, deaths and marriages imposed by heterosexism on society are again so normalised and time consuming that to discuss or critique at all is like removing the mortar from between the bricks.

The whole thing would come crumbling down and then what would be left????

So – my question is:

How do you bring your feminist perspective into the labour movement?

Does anyone else struggle with this???




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