Two weeks ago, a few SFN members attended UK Feminista’s Summer School 2011 at Birmingham, where 500 feminists of all genders attended to learn more about feminist activism and issues surrounding UK feminism. It was heartening to see so many passionate feminists at this event, most of whom asked intelligent questions and provided some interesting anecdotes and advice of their own.
First we attended an introductory talk held by the organisers, closely followed by Feminist Resistance: the past, present, and future of activism. Speaker Rosalind Miles was fantastic, providing the perfect response to the question “Why are you a feminist?” – “Why aren’t you?”
Next, there was a lunch break, during which time we attended The Colour of Beauty: race, gender and the beauty industry. Personally, I was very disappointed that this workshop was on during lunch, as I felt it was too important an issue not to be placed in a more sociable time slot; plus, this was my favourite workshop of the day! The facilitators Sandhya Sharma and Chitra Nagarajan divided the room into groups of around 8, gave each group one or two mainstream beauty magazines, and asked us to tear out every image of a person of colour, and tack it to the wall on our left. The resulting wall of images took us by surprise – the people of colour found in the pages were usually either celebrities whose lives were being picked apart by the likes of Heat magazine (e.g. Whitney Houston’s daughter’s drug habit), or they were fashion models featured in ads where their race was stereotyped (in adverts such as this).
After the morning talks, we had to choose between the numerous workshops on during the afternoon, a decision that proved to be very difficult given the interesting topics on offer! Our first choice was The Role of Nonviolent Direct Action in Feminism, which featured many inspiring and passionate speakers including activist and London Feminist Network founder Finn Mackay, and Tamsin Omond from Climate Rush. Tamsin’s speech was particularly inspiring, providing us with plenty of pithy quotes that we shared via Twitter using the hashtag #femschool, including the suffragette slogan “deeds not words”. Alison Dear, coordinator of OBJECT’s Feminist Fridays, showed us a video of OBJECT’s Feminist Friday action at Tesco, which encouraged us to be much louder at SFN’s next Feminist Friday!
After lunch, we attended a lovely workshop run by Emma Moore of Pink Stinks, where she discussed their work and future campaigns. What was particularly interesting about her speech was the discovery that Pink Stinks, an organisation that has been featured extensively in mainstream press, is run by only two women, both working mothers! It was saddening to hear the amount of criticism and vitriolic comments they have received for their work, including claims that they are bad parents (one need only read the Daily Mail’s coverage of the campaign to get an understanding of the kind of backlash encountered).
A discussion on women living in the Arab Spring, led by Nesrine Malik, closed the day’s workshops. Afterwards, the organisers led the attendees outside, where we all stood in the courtyard spelling out the words “FEMINISM IS BACK”. An aerial photograph was taken of this; we’re all very excited to see it!
That evening Birmingham Fems held an after-party at a local bar, where they laid on a vegan-friendly buffet, played awesome feminist music, and held a feminist pub quiz (SFN’s team name was “This is What a Drunk Feminist Looks Like”!). It was a lovely atmosphere, very relaxed and cosy, and we got a chance to mingle with some of the other attendees.
The following day, we dragged our slightly-hungover selves to the opening workshop, which perked us up and got us back into our angry-militant-feminist moods: Defending Women’s Reproductive Rights. The speakers, Darinka Aleksic from Abortion Rights and former MP Dr. Evan Harris, were great. It was frightening to learn how the government has increased its efforts to restrict women’s access to abortions, handing reproductive health advisory services over to religious, anti-choice organisations. Aleksic informed us of the lies that such organisations spread to pregnant women seeking abortions when they seek counselling, e.g. that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and that they would birth the aborted “child” at home a few days after the procedure. Another shocking discovery was learning of the arrival of American Christian pro-life groups in the UK, and their extreme tactics used to restrict abortion access. (It’s impossible to condense such a dense topic in one paragraph; for more info, check out the Abortion Rights website. Adele from SFN also wrote a great blog post on this topic here).
After a break, we attended Mobilising Men: Engaging Men in Feminist Activism. This workshop was met with very mixed reviews, and was arguably the most widely-criticised of the whole weekend. Some rightly criticized speaker Matt McCormack Evans’ use of the phrase “both genders” rather than “all genders”, and his inability to acknowledge anyone outside the gender binary. Others argued that Matt McCormack Evans came across as condescending when urging us to include men in our activism; as blogger Madam J-Mo noted, “it was troublesome to have a man stand up and tell women what to do (never mind clap his hands to silence us at one point)”. Others argued that his comments that “men experience sexism too” were offensive. I would also add that the workshop seemed rushed and poorly structured, as if the facilitator had thrown it together at the last minute – it didn’t seem to provide us with anything we didn’t already know, and relied too heavily on audience input. The workshop was derailed for a good 15 minutes by a discussion on whether we ought to rename “feminism”. At a feminist conference, this seemed like a complete waste of time, and only served to convince most of us that shying away from the F word will do us no favours, and only serves to distract us from more pressing issues.
After lunch, we attended Not For Sale: Resisting the Sex Industry, led by Anna van Heeswijk from OBJECT. The weekend was brought to a close for us with Everyday Activism: Promoting Feminism in Everyday Life, a fairly disappointing talk which also relied too heavily on audience input, and suffered a derailment by those who insisted on discussing the merits of the word “feminism”.
My main criticism was the lack of intersectionality at this event – there was a strong black presence, and a few great workshops on race, but little to no representation from transgendered, LGBTQ, or disabled women. There was also no discussion of class issues, and no presence on any of the panels from sex-positive feminists. This may well have been due to the lack of women available to run workshops on the aforementioned issues, but I feel that a bigger effort perhaps needed to be made to make sure that these groups were better represented at such a large-scale event. Furthermore, as many have pointed out, it seemed fairly incongruous to hold a workshop on the inclusion of men in feminist activism, but nothing on the inclusion of LGBTQ or disabled women. Surely our first priority as feminists is to mobilise women from all social groups, before moving onto men?
Another minor criticism, from a more personal stance, was that the “getting to know each other” aspect of the weekend could’ve been a little more structured, so that we could all participate, rather than just trying to talk to the people sat around us when we could find some time between talks.
Despite its problems, the weekend was a success, as it proved to be well organised, informative, and inspiring. Good job, UK Feminista, and thank you for providing us with such a lovely space for us feminists to get together and meet – we’ll see you next year!
Other interesting blog posts on this event:
(written by Cath Elms, media officer of SFN)