This weekend was UK Feminista’s annual conference. This is not the first time that I have spent a weekend away at a UK Feminista event: in the summer I attended Summer School in Birmingham (www.glasgowfeministnetwork.org.uk/blog/summer-school-take-two/) and I hoped that the conference would be more of the same.
Held in central London the proceedings started with UK Feminista’s founder Kat Banyard giving a rallying opening speech about feminism today, which included urging us to support local occupy movements. Also giving opening remarks was Sandi Toksvig, who followed proudly declaring that she was a feminist by doing a very funny turn on the invisibility of women throughout history and literature. My only small complaint, which I think was shared amongst other conference goers, was the emphasis on pop science to explain the biological differences between women and men. Although sometimes amusing the hints of biological reductivism and old school gender stereotyping sat uncomfortably with a conference full of feminists.
I attended the morning workshop on body image by Endangered. This was a great (and completely packed workshop) on their new campaign ‘Ditch the Dieting’. The workshop was short on campaign details but huge on participation in the form of an audience ‘speak out’ about their own experiences of body image especially in relation to dieting. Most of these stories were similar; some were funny but others were shocking and upsetting, including testimonies from women suffering eating disorders. Most women seemed to feel damaged by the diet industry and the constant negative messages about weight and their looks. It was moving to see what was a slow workshop to begin with become a harmony of outrage at the diet industry and media. The important message from this session was that the negativity we all seemed to have internalised about our bodies is harmful, hateful and needs to be ignored. As a representative from Endangered said this wasn’t some flimsy issue about girl’s magazines this is a serious concern that harms women. Endangered has some great videos and resources on their website and I urge you to have a look: http://www.endangeredspecieswomen.org.uk/
After lunch (of Krispy Kremes – making full use of being in London!) I attended White Ribbon’s session on engaging men in feminism. This was an interesting session although it was short on input from the White Ribbon representative and focused more on (much too large) discussion groups. White Ribbon has an annual day of Activism on the 25th of November. For more information see their website: http://www.whiteribboncampaign.co.uk/
The most overwhelming thing about UK Feminista’s conference, as with their Summer School, is the opportunity to meet so many other feminists. Sometime being a feminist can be isolating as I regularly come into contact with people who subscribe to negative myths and stereotypes. However, this conference has a feeling of a safe space where everyone broadly thinks along similar lines. Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti used this bravely during the panel session by being willing to air her doubts and unanswered questions to push the boundaries of agreement in the room.
The panel session was followed by a London Mayoral hustings (with the notably absence of Boris). As a Scot on my 4th visit to London, who is still confused by where the tube goes never mind the transport policies behind it, I didn’t think I would be too interested in this session. However I stuck around for the big names of Ken, Brian and the impeccable chair Samira Ahmed and found it quite interesting to see political big hitters questioned on important feminist issues. Another interesting experience for me was adventures on twitter (ScotFeminista). I’m a total Twitter novice but it’s fantastically addictive. It was great to see when a comment particularly hit home by the number of re-tweets. For instance ‘The problem with the government isn’t that they’re not women, it’s that they’re Tories” (damn straight Zoe Williams).
UK Feminista’s conference was less practically minded than Summer School which left me with a fantastic tool kit of ideas to take back to Glasgow. Nonetheless, having open and important feminist discussions with 1000 similarly minded women is always worth the train ride!
On October the 1st the Scottish Trade Union Congress will be holding ‘Put people first’ march and rally in Glasgow city centre. This event invites an alliance of ‘trade unions, faith, equality, anti-poverty and campaign organisations’ to march together to demand three key things:
- Redistribute wealth through fair taxes and living wages.
- Protect the hardest hit through decent services and fair benefits.
- Build stronger communities for all.
The key concern for feminists everywhere is that the global climate of recessions and austerity cuts to public spending unfairly and disproportionality effects women.
The Fawcett Society has been a campaign leader on this issue for some time. They rightly highlight that women in the UK already face economic inequality through the persistent pay gap, receiving less money over their life-time through things like pensions and being more likely to work in a low paid sector. Austerity cuts to reduce the UK’s deficit would further entrench women’s economic inequality. According to the Fawcett Society public sector spending cuts have a ‘triple jeopardy’ effect on women: Economic inequality is compounded by more women working in the increasingly underfunded public sector, more women accessing public services and benefits that are being cut and women being more likely to ‘plug the gaps’ left behind by funding cuts, such as informal and unpaid caring responsibilities. Read more about the Fawcett’s Society analysis of public spending cuts here: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=1235
GFN should support and endorse the People First rally as a way to highlight the feminist message that women are being disproportionately hit by the current government’s austerity measures. However we should also be part of a wide alliance of other groups with the larger message that the current government’s policy of spending cuts to public services is unfair and should be challenged.
Find out more about the October 1st rally here: http://www.peoplefirstoctoberfirst.org/
This week a government memo detailing plans for women-friendly policies was leaked to the media. This document considered plans to make changes to benefits so that women would be the sole receiver in a household of universal credit payments and front-loaded child benefit so that more money is given when children are younger. Other suggestions included banning advertising to children; introducing personal budgets to enable women to choose their own maternity services; criminalising forced marriage and holding a summit for women in business. While some of these suggestions reek of tokenism and others have a disagreeable ideology behind them (shopping around for health services?), the emphasis on women tailored policy is welcome, or at least would be welcome if it wasn’t so blatantly a cynical exercise in vote-chasing.
This memo follows the realisation by the government that recent cutbacks had hit women disproportionately hard as well as a previously leaked memo from the government which called for abolishing maternity payments on the basis that it hindered economic recovery. These have conspired to hit the government where it hurts the most: right in the votes. Recent polls have put support amongst young women for the Conservatives falling from 30% to 18% over the last year.
Although some of these suggested polices are objectively pro-women, the vote-grabbing impetus for them makes me slightly uneasy. I seriously doubt these are well thought out ideas that act against entrenched gender equality but are instead big on rhetoric and short on impact.
Improving the position of women involves a lot more than dis-jointed policies about school holidays and child benefit. Empowering women and making our country a more equal place is an incremental process that involves fundamental changes about who we are as a society.
So, in the spirit of JFK’s “think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” shtick I have graciously offered my services by devising my own list of women-focused polices. In post-devolution Scotland this wish list is better directed at our very own SNP majority government. Please join me in writing an open letter to the Scottish government as to what changes we would like to see change in our country. Answers on a postcard so far:
- Safety: last year a deplorable number of sexual assaults took place in Glasgow city centre. Action is needed to make all city centres safer for everyone. More police, better transport links and lighting could also contribute to this.
- Rape conviction rate: is still lingering around the 3% mark. A lack of reporting, difficulty in prosecution, persistent rape myths affecting perceptions on what rape actually is all contribute to this. Scotland’s record on rape conviction is worse than the UK’s and any other crime which had this low a conviction rape would be an outrage. Changes to the law can move the burden of proof from the victim and an information campaign should challenge rape myths and perceptions which could encourage more reporting.
- Domestic Abuse: one in five women in Scotland will experience domestic abuse. During old firm matches the number of domestic violence incidences can go up by as much as 138%. The Scottish Government should fund women’s refuges and promote the message that domestic abuse is always inexcusable.
- Pay Inequality: Women are paid, on average, 12% less than men. Action could be taken by implementing transparent pay structures, increasing women’s representation in company top management, increasing affordable child care and give families the ability to share maternity leave.
- No recourse to public funds: Women coming to Scotland as asylum seekers, refugees, on student and spousal visas often fall prey to this rule which would deny them support and the ability to escape an abusive relationship. This rule should be overturned or there at least should be a fund of money available to help women in these circumstances.
- Limit lap dancing clubs: Lap dancing clubs contribute to the commercialisation of sex, the perception of women as sexual objects, creates ‘no go’ areas for women in city centres and financially exploit women who work in these clubs. Local councils should be given more powers to reject applications from lap dancing clubs.
- Resist cuts to services, especially for vulnerable groups: Women’s Aid reported in April that 60% of refuges and 72% of out-reach services had no agreed funding. The Women’s Support Project in Glasgow will receive no funding from Glasgow City Council. More women work in the increasingly underfunded public sector. Funding cuts are having a disproportionate effect on women and the Scottish Government should ensure that any cuts to funding do not have a discriminating effect on women.
Presumably you can’t have missed the rumblings from the Houses of Commons about amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill which would impact on abortion policy.
In a nutshell, a socially conservative bank bench Tory MP, one Nadine Dorries, suggested amendments to this bill which would mean that pre-abortion counselling had to be delivered by independent providers as opposed to the charities that provide the procedure on behalf of the NHS. In reality this would mean that counselling women receive before having an abortion would be provided by another organisation which may or not have a religious bent, as it is those organisations that are best placed to step into a funding vacuum. Some of the ‘counselling’ of these religiously minded charities were found in a mystery shopper exercise to include scaremongering tactics, such as claiming that abortion would lead to a higher risk of breast cancer or plain emotive bullying, such as referring to foetus as a ‘baby’ and latterly as ‘the corpse’ (You can read more detail about the research here, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/aug/02/abortion-pregnancy-counselling-found-wanting).
The problems with this amendment were blindingly obvious: the ridiculous idea that abortion providers offer anything less than independent counselling or have a vested money-driven interest in performing abortions; letting organisations provide counselling on contentious issues without vetting or checking that there might be a conflict of interest; Dorries’ claim that such measures could ‘prevent’ 60,000 abortions a year, seeming to imply that women are goaded or tricked into having a procedure that they have no agency to really demand. However, I think perhaps the most frightening thing about this amendment was the way it was designed to sound so innocuous. ‘Women’s health’ and ‘independence’ was the convincing sounding rhetoric that accompanied it. The true result that this amendment would have had was never highlighted. Maybe it’s out of fashion to simply state that you don’t agree with abortion so instead anti-abortion policies get dressed up in the language of empowerment in an underhand insult to the electorate.
To me there is something deeply perverse about a group of people, a massively homogenous group of people, with only 142 women amongst them, making crucial and life changing decisions on what is, by definition, a women’s issue. It offends me greatly that the difficult decision to have an abortion is something that will never cross the minds of the vast majority of these ‘representatives’ and yet there the ones that get to decide on how you can access this crucial service.
Last week this amendment was voted down after a screeching U-turn by the government as the Prime Minister and key Cabinet members had previously backed the proposal.
Worryingly, after the vote the health minister said that she would see that a consultation in the ‘spirit’ of the suggested amendments would take place in view of new legislation. Under the last government a vote to reduce the abortion time limit from 24 weeks to either 22 or 20 weeks was defeated. There appears to be incessant pressure on entrenched abortion rights which I would expect to see continue from this government (or at least one very specific side of this government). Abortion is always a contentious issue and not all feminists may be on a pro-choice side of the debate. However, those of us that are should be vigil of abortion rights we’ve had for the last 40 years or we may see them gradually and relentlessly eroded.
Members are important to any social movement. The more people, the more voices and the more weight and the easier it is to tip the scales in our favour. So on Thursday, if you’re free and you’d like to help Glasgow Feminist Network recruit some new members, then come along to MONO at 7.30pm. MONO is that vegan café come venue come record shop in King’s Court in the Trongate area. (They also have awesome food by the way: Vegan Caesar dressing, who knew?). You may even introduce the idea of a being a feminst activist to a total newbie.
This will be a nice informal planning session in how we’re going to get the word out in Fresher’s Week.
We have promo material made up (there little business cards; flyers are just so obvious) and a new brand in terms of the logo and colours. There are three fresher’s weeks in Glasgow in September: Glasgow Caledonian begins on Thursday the 8th; Glasgow Uni’s begins on Monday the 12th and Strathclyde’s starts on the 19th of September.
We’ll be focusing on the logistics: who’s going to be where when. We’ll also try to work in teams and be sharing contact info.
If you have any time to spare at all in the next three weeks you’ll be doing Glasgow Feminist Network a massive favour! Hope to see you Thursday.
There were many fantastic things about UK Feminista Summer School but my personal favourite was feeling like a student, but only this time at the world’s best University. Between rushing to a workshop on running campaigns whilst cramming a sandwich in my face, getting lost on campus, taking illegible notes, playing ridiculous drinking games in student halls, mainlining coffee, introducing myself to absolutely everyone, requesting early 90’s CHOONS in an old man’s pub and using monster munch as a hangover cure and then trying not to chunder in a seminar, it was like the good part of being at University, right before the bit you had to go move into the library and do some proper work.Student nostalgia aside, UK Feminista Summer School will probably be the most valuable thing I do all year.
The best way to describe Summer School is activist training. Basically, ‘How to be a better feminist’ in two short days. Workshops included: running a feminist organisation, effective campaigning, consensus making, how to influence MPs, using the media and taking non-violent direct action. Alongside the workshops were seminars on current feminist issues such as Women’s role in the Arab spring, abortion rights, the sex industry and how the public spending cuts affect Women. These seminars uniformly ended with a section on ‘what to do next’ or ‘how to take action’. The tone of these workshops and seminars is always an active one with the emphasis on concrete, completely achievable ideas of what we could, or should, be doing as feminists who want to influence the world around us.
Empowering: that’s how would I sum up Feminist Fantasy University- Here’s what the problem is and here is how to we can try and solve it. The amount of ideas that was presented to me as something which GFN could feasibly, easily infact, be doing was unbelievable. Add in knowing that perhaps everyone else in the room felt they were also champing at the activist bit made for a very powerful feeling.Sometimes, it can be difficult being an ‘ardent feminist’ (as I was introduced as earlier this weekend). Feminism is a label that some women still shy away from, or some people don’t get (‘ahhh you hate MEN’) and feeling like you’re the only person aware of blindingly obvious sexism is an advert or TV show that everyone else perceives as perfectly benign, can feel isolating. Summer School was like the antithesis of this feeling. The social event on a Saturday was like feminist respite. Taking over an old man’s pub with a feminist disco (mostly Blondie), finding someone else to discuss Bikini Kill vs. L7 with, and feeling like everyone was ready to be your friend instead of the competition was in a word: awesome. More feminist discos says I. See one of my co-students blogs what on socialising without a male objectifying gaze is like: http://petitefeministe.wordpress.com/2011/08/18/you-oughta-know/
Will I be back next year? So much so I’ve written to ask if Glasgow Feminist Network could host Summer School next year. I am sometimes aware that organisations use the label ‘UK’ but are in fact quite Anglo-centric. So I told them to come up to Glasgow, if they think their hard enough