On the Frontline: A personal account of The Feminism in London Conference

On the Frontline: A personal account of The Feminism in London Conference

Yodet Gherez

For a younger Feminist like myself, the stories and accounts from women now in their 50’s and 60’s tell of a time with a vibrant feminist community with several feminist social centres. This is not the case today. The internet and social media has meant that for better or worse, face to face interactions happens less and less, and this is something we must remedy, which was why the prospect of meeting and listening to so many feminists at the 2015 Feminism in London (FIL) Conference was so exciting.

The venue – The Hilton Metropole was perhaps surprising. One attendee shared with me her experience of attending FIL over the years. She said: “The first conference I went to was at Conway Hall in 2008, It felt very intimate and very exciting. Over the years the conference has grown in many ways. At this year’s conference I had very mixed feelings about the venue, in one way it felt so far away from this intimate connected growing movement to a very corporate setting. Then I had a moment of seeing the hotel foyer full of (mostly) men attending a Rugby World Cup gathering, international travellers and this incredible assortment of feminists. That felt good and also reassured me (a little) in regards to the venue; our movement needs more exposure.”

The conference was buzzing with an array of Feminist participants, the high numbers in stark contrasted with the humble beginnings of FIL which started in 2004 as small day workshops organised by the London Feminist Network and then grew to a full day event in 2008 with around 200 attendees. In 2015 the event filled two days and was attended by over 1000.

The steady increase in numbers show there is a demand and interest for feminism. All ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and classes attended. There were many women who said it was their first ever feminist event, and they were there alongside veteran feminist organisers. there were workshops and panels on: Body & Shame, Human Rights in Childbirth, Sexist Language, Children’s Gendered Marketing, Online Misogyny, Forced Marriage, Women’s Unpaid Labour, Non-State Torture, Engaging Men in Feminism, Male Allies, Sexism and Patriarchy and Religious Fundamentalism for example. The cost of a ticket was reduced or waived for those who could not afford it; addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged women widens the reach of feminism.

The talks and workshops were numerous and I struggled to decide which to go to. A crèche was provided throughout the day, workshops and activities catered for 7 to 17 year olds, and there was a Film Room, Networking Room and a Quiet Room. There were 28 stalls with Feminist books, merchandise and information on campaigns, and a space was used to host a powerful group art exhibition organised and curated by Alisa Lockwood to which I contributed a painting. Very importantly the venue had full disability accessible. The first day (Saturday) ended nicely with an evening party with entertainers, poets, musicians, comedians, which kept women up dancing and chatting till the early hours, entrenching new and already existing sisterly bonds…recklessly unperturbed that the following day was to start at 9am prompt!

We heard speeches from well-known figures campaigning for women’s rights such as Bianca Jagger (Human Rights Foundation), Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty), Sophie Walker (Women’s Equality Party) and from the 50/50 campaign Frances Scott. Beatrix Campbell gave a talk on ‘Equality and Austerity’ in the UK, which was followed up by a Greek speaker who spoke about the impact of cuts to public services in Greece. No one in the room was in any doubt that austerity would mean that woman’s and children’s services would be hit the hardest under current Government plans.

Nawal El Saadawi is an esteemed Egyptian Feminist writer and her talk was full of admirers touched by her writing over the past seven decades. She was warm and charming and filled the room with laughter. There was an important talk entitled ‘Multiple Identities, Ordinary Lives’ which featured disabled women on a panel. The panel led a presentation about the challenges of often feeling invisible, and the impact of the UK Government cuts on their lives.

A panel including Maryam Namazie, Houzan Mahmoud, Gita Shagal and Pragna Patel Director of Southall Black Sisters was very well attended. The talk was called ‘Unlikely Allies, Religious Fundamentalism and the State’. Countless attendees spoke afterwards about how powerful it was seeing strong Iranian, Kurdish and Indian women dominating the conversation regarding women’s oppression under religious conservative Islam. The panel on ‘Right to Marry, Forced Marriage’ was also a passionate talk given by two young Muslim women in which they told their personal stories of suffering at the hands of their families’ expectations and how they heroically escaped and found independence.

So Feminism is very much still alive, however, the Feminism of today seems to have stepped far away from that of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. It appears to view oppression as an individual matter and, I feel, has lost the value and power of mass movement building. One thing FIL obviously has in common with the Feminist politics of the past is in the analysis of the sex industry. The conference took a firm stand against the pornography industry and views prostitution as a form of male violence against women. Today it is far from given that in a feminist space such a position would be taken, so FIL is unique in giving a voice to those who share this view.

Capitalism is an unrepentant economic creature and ‘CEO Feminism’ and Post Modern Feminism doesn’t challenge that. The Women’s Liberation Movement (Radical second wave Feminism) was in part a reaction to the shortcomings of Marxist Feminism and Radical Feminism gave the analytical language to describe the Female experience. Post Modern theory tells us we can have Feminist Pornography, fun BDSM and that prostitution is agency, delivered all to us in one neat package of Neoliberalism.

Radical Feminism, like many political movements, initially lacked an adequate appreciation of other intersecting systems of oppression such as class and race. This is not uncommon and many movements lack an understanding of patriarchy, class, and race. I would argue that radical feminism has taken on an intersectional perspective. Many radical feminists are anti-capitalist, and many are involved in anti-racist activism as independent systems of oppressions. Radical feminists also recognise that it is women of colour in poverty who suffer most under patriarchy. Of course when many of the more prominent radical feminist voices are white women or women from economically privileged backgrounds it is important to make sure this aspect of radical feminist analysis is not forgotten. Also Radical Feminism are made up of both lesbians and Heterosexual women with a radical feminist analysis and it looks to me to be growing.

The tokenistic well intentioned but ignorant, tripe slogan ‘we are all one race’ denies the reality of the racism struggle black people face as a result of racist colonial rule. And to Radical Feminists, Females have too been colonised on a global scale for centuries. Biological determinism is one of the most common misunderstandings about radical feminism. Radical feminism holds precisely the opposite position, that gender is not innate but socially constructed in a hierarchical fashion with hyper masculinity reigning on top. The socialisation of gender is what Radical Feminists have been working toward trying abolish for decades now. There are political strands which take the position that women hold some privilege when conforming to hyper femininity. In contrast the Radical Feminist position is that gender is based on a socially manufactured fallacy which is damaging and something women in particular need to liberate ourselves from.

There are so many different interpretations of Feminism in the contemporary sense. I don’t believe ‘feminism is for everybody’ because when you challenge power it will be met with resistance by those who gain privilege from it. Therefore, in the context of patriarchy most men will not welcome such uncomfortable change. We have to agree that the culture of Patriarchy treats everything as a resource to be exploited. Done in an effective way we can apply feminist analysis by exposing Patriarchy, including through encompassing environmental causes which then extends to animal welfare and pushing for ethics in the meat Industry. There are strong parallels for example between the sexual politics of the dairy trade and the exploitation of women’s bodies (see the piece by Carol Adams in this issue). Radical Feminist and environmentalist author Lierre Keith also has an important perspective regarding the sustainability and the health of ourselves and our planet.

Radical feminism gave the analytical language to describe the oppression of the female biological experience as a ‘sex caste’ where our function in society has been relegated to gratify male sexual entitlement, providing free labour, being subject to deadly cultural practices and exhausting our female reproductive system. This to me is what I see as Radical Feminist priorities. And as we move forward in this quagmire of Feminism, urgent respectful dialogue is much needed because Government cuts are having devastating effects on the most defenceless in society.

At FIL there was a panel on lesbian feminism, led by a separatist and this offered a discussion of lesbian feminism and lesbian separatism. This perspective and politics is often overlooked and misrepresented in the political sphere and in histories of the women’s movement, which contributes to a misunderstanding by many including younger feminists, who often know little of the history of the movement.

A fine example of the continued legacy of the women’s liberation movement was the session, which included women who had been formerly in prostitution, with Rachael Moran and Rebecca Mott, entitled ‘Abolition’. The abolition panel was reported to be excellent and a speech by Megan Walker obliterated the thin veil of credibility worn by the pro-decriminalisation lobby. It exposed the idea for what it is; apologism for abuse. Another session was the documentary showing of ‘Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation’ by American based film maker Jennifer Hall Lee which was very educational and expressed the fundamental importance of not losing touch with Feminist foremothers who paved the way in the U.S. Among many things, the documentary exposed that the voices of Black women were always involved and an instrumental part of the women’s movement, a fact often denied by critics of Radical Feminism in particular.

In the closing session we were reminded that the global subjugation of women is at the heart of patriarchy. The panel began with a touching short film showing women giving their personal accounts of overcoming societally imposed body shame. Then the highlight for me was Finn Mackay giving us a powerful emotionally charged speech that left us all energised. I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s in store for FIL Conference 2017!

Further information from:
The Circled ASouthall Black SistersNon State TortureThe FeministahoodSisters of FridaMeghan Murphy ‘Being and Being Bought: An interview with Kajsa Ekis Ekman‘; Feminist Current Rebecca MottJoyce HackelAfter seven years in the Dublin sex trade, Rachel Moran says prostitution is always abuse’; Public Radio International


Yodet Gherez is an artist and feminist who has been involved in Anti-Fascist and Anarchist/Socialist activism since 2007. She runs and hosts a radio show called ‘The Circled A’ on Resonance FM which promotes egalitarianism. She has been to the last three FIL Conferences and frequently helps to organise Feminist events and gatherings around the principle of consciousness-raising.

Image credit: The Fawcett Society