February 3, 2020

A woman's place is talking to other women

At the weekend I attended Women’s Liberation 2020, held at UCL Institute of Education 50 years after the first Women’s Liberation conference in Oxford.  Nearly 1000 mostly non-academic women met face-to-face, to discuss matters of common concern from a range of perspectives. Topics included cuts to the women’s sector, race and immigration, domestic violence, prostitution, religion and secularism, women’s history, disability rights, lesbian rights, and intersectionality. Practical workshops focused on how to organise in communities, how to challenge public policy, and how to speak up more confidently in public.  Plenaries from stellar speakers such as Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, Scottish MSP Joan McAlpine, and Julie Bindel of the Centre for Women’s Justice offered alternately inspiring and provocative visions of a rejuvenated feminism for today.

For women to establish mutual associations and to work out their own version of the common good, they have to be able to talk to each other. Yet they rarely get a chance to congregate in large numbers.  Family lives and stretched finances make it difficult, as do internal obstacles such as anxiety. Sporting, religious, political and cultural occasions are all usually shared with men, and it can be difficult for women’s voices to emerge strongly there.

What many women can do these days is chat online. Websites like Netmums and Mumsnet provide for this magnificently. But still, there are limits to online interaction. It’s mostly anonymous, episodic, and often accompanied by a lack of context in which misunderstanding and projection can flourish. Where the medium is the English written word, there’s an obvious deterrent to those for whom either English or literacy is a problem. The “social” in social media is thin gruel compared to the potential richness of interpersonal interaction.

For women unaccustomed to ever being in a space as big as UCL IoE with so many other women - that is, for all of us - the result was manifestly exhilarating. There was no particular demand for conformity, only a call for mutual respect in discussion. Every contribution I heard was informed by expertise, whether that of the specialist in economics, the council worker discussing how to challenge policy, or the parent talking about how ideas of gender identity impact upon her child. It wasn’t perfect but it didn’t need to be. It was real, face-to-face, and properly social, in the richest sense of the word.