I am writing this in the aftermath of the murder of Sarah Everard, and as Reclaim the Streets is changing the focus from what women should do to stay safe to the focus being on men. It made me remember ‘Reclaim the Night’ in the 70s, the first Reclaim the Night march being held in Leeds in 1977. Peter Sutcliffe, known as the Yorkshire Ripper, was murdering women in Yorkshire and the police advice to women was to stay at home after dark. Then as now, 44 years later, women were angry at being told to stay off the streets. Despite the advances made, some things remain the same.
I was a young woman and a feminist in 1970s and 80s, a time of great change. The Women’s Movement began to uncover the depth of inequality and different life experiences that women face. It put the need to end sexism on the agenda.
This year the International Women’s Day (IWD) campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge, based on an idea of inclusive and collective action to celebrate women and to challenge gender bias and inequality. This reminded me of the slogan from my younger times “the personal is political”. The idea that what was happening in my personal life, and the lives of every woman, such as who did the housework; the day-to-day relationships; violence and the threat of violence; sex and sexuality; how I was expected to look and behave, all that had universal significance. In a year where we have been limited in what we do and where we can go has had a particularly strong impact on many women, in many ways.
In the month we celebrate International Women’s Day, a date to celebrate how far women have come, while the political roots of the day continue to raise awareness of continued inequality, this blog celebrates the activity of women in Leeds during the 70s and 80s.
Leeds had an active Women’s Movement and many of the women involved in the 70s and 80s are still living in Leeds; women like Frances Bernstein.
Frances was the Women’s Officer at Leeds City Council in the 80s, responsible for IWD grants to women’s groups to celebrate the day:
“International Women’s Day wasn’t a thing, it was something a few fringe feminists paid heed to“.
The idea of the International Women’s Day celebrations was to allow a blossoming of community activities by and from women from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities.
“I’ve just been sorting stuff out of a box and have found the papers of a Women’s Committee meeting from January 1989. It has a list of grants given for international Women’s Day and a list of all the groups. This includes Muslim Women’s Group, Leeds Barbados Women’s Group, The Rose Hill User Group, the Harehills Women’s Group, and lots more. It was incredibly diverse. We produced a big programme of events. There were so many things being celebrated and there were lots of different groups of women with over 300 women from a variety of countries“.
Outside of work, Frances had been involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement since the 70s, including being involved in one of the first women’s refuges, a squat in Manchester. This was before Women’s Aid and the women’s refuge movement.
She was also a guitarist in a women’s liberation rock band.
“I played in a band called The Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band, which mainly performed at women’s liberation movement conferences. We went down a storm. I played the guitar. I was quite shy and tried to hide behind it, but we were unique – I don’t think anyone else was doing what we were doing then“.
For Frances, the Women’s Movement was about action.
“We just got out there and for IWD we encouraged groups to celebrate the lives and struggles of women from other countries and celebrate the lives of women in Leeds. There was so much to do, and a lot felt possible“.
Susan Phillips, a Leeds Older People’s Forum trustee, recalls her memories of the time:
“What I do remember is that prior to the Clause 28 campaign in 1988, a lot of Leeds lesbians were active in the feminist movement and we were heavily involved in local Women’s Aid groups and in challenging the way domestic abuse was perceived. In the 70s and early 80s we expended a lot of energy trying to improve the lives and experiences of heterosexual women. We were involved in campaigns for childcare and better maternity care, for example. IWD was always a highlight of the year with women-only events and Reclaim the Night marches“.
Corrina Lawrence, an LOPF Trustee and CEO of Feel Good Factor says she doesn’t celebrate IWD.
“I think that every day is a day for women. It’s about the acknowledgement of women. I do acknowledge how far women have come and their rights. I rejoice in that, but we still have a lot of women who are suffering like with domestic violence. I see older women teaching younger women. They do crafts like sewing and crocheting. They have a voice in the organisation. I’m Caribbean origin and we revere our elders. Leeds Older People’s Forum campaign around ageism wouldn’t exist back home because we respect and revere our elders. At the Feel Good Factor, we bring women together sharing and laughing, sharing cultural things and that cohesion is great to see“.
For Corrina, it is all about equity:
“Being a black woman that’s how I identify. It’s not just about being a black woman it’s about understanding the diversity. You can only get equity of service when you understand the communities that you’re dealing with, like the realisation people might not want to take the vaccine. You know some women who are pregnant have a lot of fears about the vaccine. We have to understand how to help people with those fears“.
Writing this blog about International Women’s Day has made me appreciate the women and men who have worked to highlight where sexism has limited women’s lives. When the world changes for women everyone benefits. This year’s theme ‘Challenge’ calls for all of us to speak out and challenge, where we are divided from each other. The 70s and 80s, which is where I started, was building on the progress that had been made with the suffragettes, the campaign for Votes for Women, and many other advances. The story goes on and I love the opportunity to listen to young women and what they are concerned about.
Our choices shouldn’t be based on whether were born female or male.
Here is a small but powerful story of a friend of mine when she gave birth to one of her sons in 1980s. You know how we expect the first thing the midwife says when the baby is born is “it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!” This time the midwife decided not to say what the gender of the baby was. So, for a few moments the baby was just a baby, without any preformed expectations of what is a boy or what is a girl. This has remained a special moment for my friend and her son.
The personal is political.