Notes from the swamp–On the WLM in England

Notes from the swamp–On the WLM in England

Henry, Alice

Notes from the Swamp — On the WLM in England

Just a week before the event, I decided to go to Brighton. I had been jittery about going because the conference featured feminists that I and my friends are very wary of. The main complaint against them is intolerance, or closed-mindedness. For example, one friend, who happens to be a painter and decorator, went to a conference in London about lesbian sadomasochism (was that five years ago?) in the days when women with all sorts of points of view ended up in the same room and tried to convince each other about the obvious virtues of their point of view — otherwise known as bloody useless rows. The decorator had been memorably distressed because the women to NOT LISTEN. Isn’t this the epitome of censorship, closed ears? she asked. Why not call them FFCF — Feminists for Censoring Feminists? At that conference, one of my workmates at Women and Manual Trades, very into being against SM, actually tried to pull the plug on the conference — found the main switch, turned off the electricity, and all had to vacate the building. That way, no one could hear anything.

At the time, it seemed silly. These feminists couldn’t repress anyone’s thoughts; in fact, no one can. Someone turned the electricity back on; the arguments continued.

How would the organizers of the Brighton Conference frame the debate? Diana Rusell, one of the organizers of the 1976 Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, held in Belgium, gave a keynote address at the opening session, devoted to describing how that historic event was organized. Twenty years ago, there was a complete lack of funding (this conference had 250,000 pounds funding from at least 26 organizations). There were no keynote addresses in olden times; this year, each day began and ended with four keynote addresses.

Although they were unstintingly worthy, most of these read-out papers tended to bore the 700 to 1,000 women trying to listen. Everyone I asked said they wished the keynotes had been given by women who had some clue as to how to engage a large audience which was prepared to be inspired. Too bad, the liveliest event of the opening session was the performance of the Edinburgh women drummers.

The workshops, networking, and action planning that followed lunch seemed to be the place where grounded practical discussion was most likely to take place. Maybe I was just lucky, because the one I went to on migration and asylum was attended by grassroots feminists from many countries sitting in a circle discussing their particular areas of work. They stuck to talking about how to lobby national governments and get laws changed so women separated from their spouses would still retain rights to asylum. Bare essentials, important stuff.

I tried to count it up — about 426 papers were given, with about 1500 attending during any one day. That should add up to active participation, but the reading of the papers squashed that. As well, a decision had been made by the organizers not to take any questions in the plenary sessions. This had to be about control, even if they said it was to make it so that shy women would not feel sat upon. There have to be a million ways to handle that besides sitting on everyone. Surprisingly, only the Black Women’s Caucus and the Women with Disabilities Caucus seized the microphone at a plenary to complain about being silenced.

But maybe the lack of questions at plenaries was not surprising — no one who has written about the dangers of censorship was invited to speak at this conference. Plenary speakers could attack feminists who were not there with impunity.

Andrea Dworkin, then Catherine Itzin, criticized feminists who are against censorship. Kathleen Barry attacked feminists who distinguish between rape and freely chosen sex. Sheila Jeffreys went for feminist organizations that seek to de-criminalize prostitution. Janice Raymond criticized groups that support prostitutes, naming Coyote (a San Francisco-based group that includes and works for prostitutes), the Global Alliance Against Trafficking of Women, and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (an organization based at Rutgers, with Charlotte Bunch as its founder and director). (See Liz Sayce’s coverage of their speeches.) How could I write normal conference coverage if who was not there, what was not said was as important as what was said?

how do we know what works?

While I’m going on about what was not there, what inhibits productive discussion, I might as well throw in “lack of evaluation” as something that keeps us going in circles.

According to the conference program, the Zero Tolerance campaign was the analytic backbone for this conference. Zero Tolerance may be an effective campaign — or it may not. As far as I know, there has been no evaluation of Zero Tolerance. Presumably the goal is to raise awareness of the existence of violence against women and to increase people’s condemnation of it by sticking up posters with images of battered women. Has anyone asked passers-by what they think of the posters? Do women think yuck, men think yeah? Or what. What else can you do but argue without evaluation?

We have thought for at least 20 years that porn is bad, prostitution not much fun, that rape and violence must be stopped. What we need to know is what works, what are effective ways to campaign. It might help to set up practical goals, like more sex education in schools, rather than focusing on the long term perspective goal of no violence, no sexism.

I know that some of the women who burned sex shops in Leeds during the 1980s have contempt for the women who write about pornography as violence against women. Those who did the actions won’t tell the writers how they organized, how they did it, feeling that their power of the ownership of the actions depends on silence. That is an indication of the divide between theorists and activists, but where does it get us?

Burning the sex shops may have reduced the amount of pornography around. Even in 1996 Leeds city councilors did not approve licensing another sex shop, perhaps fearing more burns by Angry Women. Too bad that all the chain newsagent-booksellers now stock porn on the lower shelves. If one wanted to be cynical, one could ask if school children in Leeds are more sussed about non-violence and how pornography degrades women than children in other cities. Would it help to remove the porn from the newsagents?

but still a chance to see feminists, lots of them

I wanted to go to the conference because I still love feminism, even if every strand is dripping with bad tempered women. The same weekend as the “violence” conference, socialist feminists in Radical Philosophy put on a conference (must have been purposefully timed) in London called “Torn Halves: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Feminism”. It drew some 300 participants, with about the same proportion of women as Brighton (almost all women). Our critical feminist on the spot in London couldn’t help noting out loud, towards the end, how few Black and women of color were there. She was met with silence, that ever effective English conference tactic that signals, “Shut up. Go away. You are a worthless piece of shit.” Our correspondent blew her cool. “It’s all fucked,” she cried out. (There were many more Black women and women of color at Brighton, about 20 – 30 percent of attendees.)

Yes, the WLM (Women’s Liberation Movement) is fucked, dead and gone, no forwarding address, at least in England. A national conference in this country would be daft, no one in their right mind has done anything but laugh bitterly at the idea for the past eighteen years. Organizers would have to be anonymous, and even so would expect it to be their last political act. Anyway, who could bear to watch women tearing each other to pieces? Maybe this conference was put on to prove it could be done, if you just invited the right people to speak. The feminists who are against censorship, the feminists who investigate and debate and support use of some reproductive technologies, feminists I know and am friends with, were not invited. The organizers even called some of these women to get addresses of feminists in other countries. No one they could predict would say boo was invited.

WLM dead and gone

Feminists are hanging out in the swamps, and some will emerge into plain view for a conference. The bit that made it possible for me to go meet my fellow swamped feminists was an offer from a friend with a similar viewpoint that I could go and hang out with her. After all, most women in the swamp know nothing about FINRRAGE (a European-based feminist group that opposes many reproductive technologies as dangerous and oppressive) and the anti-porn wars. Many of the women in my London — based discussion group had no idea why I felt queasy about going to the conference.

Sturdy feminists at One World Action had put money into the conference, sponsoring the attendance of some women from India and Latin America. For development agencies (said Helen O’Connell of One World Action), violence against women has only been “on the agenda” for ten years, and look at the progress they have made. The sessions run by activist groups from Asia, Africa, and Latin America at the United Nations Decade of Women conference at Nairobi in 19885 put it on the agenda; those groups would be at the Brighton conference, and I’d like to see them again and again.

Forget national, this was primarily an international conference, somewhat in the tradition started in 1976 with the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, held in Belgium. That conference, like this one, was run close to and as a feminist response to a United Nations conference.

I only attended two days of this conference, so I have no conclusion, little to report. I did not run into any tension or rowing. I fantasized about the feminists from “Torn Halves” crashing the party, but no such luck.

I suppose it was as good as it gets these days. A stirring call to arms was issued. What makes me laugh is another friend’s expression: “Well, back to the swamp,” leaving me with the question of which fellow denizens will talk to me in public after this public walk on cobbles, in the moonlight, next to the sea.

Footnote on history

A Chronology of the Women’s Movement in Britain: organizations, conferences, journals, and events, with a focus on Leeds and Bradford, 1969 — 1979, has been drafted by Elizabeth Arledge Ross and Miriam L. Bearse, edited by Karen E. Boyle with the Oral History Project Advisory Group, and published by the Feminist Archive, Bradford, 21 Clarement, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD7 1DP. 7.50 pounds ($11), includes postage.

It’s agonizing, seeing on paper the names of all the groups formed, the campaigns, the conferences. Take 1978, the year of the last National WLM conference. “The difficulties we have talking to each other, sharing experiences, analysing ideas, and discussing our polarization and hostilities were horribly lit up at the Birmingham Conference — it is clear that the polarization and hostilities that emerged left many women feeling outsiders, and demoralized.” (Catcall Collective, 1979:2)

In that year, there were six regional conferences, four socialist feminist conferences, two conferences on sexuality and sexual politics, nine conferences on violence against women, nine on workplace issues, five on reproductive rights and abortion, and 21 other conferences. Twenty-five organizations and campaigns started up. Thirteen new publications started.

The other side, the dates of demise for all these groups and publications, is not yet done. For the moment, there are now no national feminist monthly periodicals. Spare Rib (born 1972) last published in January 1993. Outwrite began in 1982 and last published in 1988. Everywoman began last (1985) and finished last, after the July 1996 issue.

Two remaining publications publish three times a year, Trouble and Strife and Feminist Review. Without a national newsjournal, how can new, or old, feminists know what is going on? How can there be women’s liberation movements?

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jan 1997

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