Introduction: Why march through this book?
In the midst of the Cold War, in a divided country, feminists were about to start a global movement that for decades to come would unite women in symbolic protest against male violence against women. Shortly before midnight on 30 April 1977, small groups of women began gathering in the centre of towns and cities across West Germany: Bochum, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hanau. They were dressed as witches, carried flaming torches and had painted women’s symbols on their faces. The date of their synchronised protest was no accident. They were assembling on that night to mark what is still known across Germany as Walpurgis Night, a superstitious tradition to mark the coming of May; a time when witches and tricksters are believed to roam.
But that year, it was women who took back their streets on that dark night; on the stroke of the witching hour, women roamed freely in riotous processions down avenues and through parks where, on their own, they would have felt unsafe. They danced and laughed in city squares, and they pelted men who got in their way with flour bombs and with water pistols loaded with dye. They sang songs and chanted: we are not pieces of meat; we are not here to be leered at, grabbed at
and abused; we are not cattle to be looked over by male eyes. They were protesting against sexual harassment, loudly voicing their anger against rape and all forms of sexual violence against women; they reclaimed the night to highlight how rarely they could. Men beware, they chorused, now the night belongs to women.
Those women started a movement that night; with the light of their flaming torches they passed on a tradition that has marched all over the world and which is still inspiring and empowering women everywhere to this day. The protest they popularised is called Reclaim the Night (RTN) across Europe and Asia and Take Back the Night in Canada and America. This is a book about the path that protest has taken, about how it has changed from that day to this and what that process means for the contemporary Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). It is a book about feminist activism, specifically feminist activism against male violence against women. It will speak to activists who are involved in the Women’s Movement today; indeed, it will speak to anyone who believes in the urgency of change for women and who wants to think about how we might make that happen.
What is feminism?
This book is in part about history; but it is also a book about our future. Not just a future for women, but also a future for all of us; a future that is more just and equitable, a future full of hope. It is my contention that feminist theory and politics contain answers that can help us get to that destination; I will try to prove this in the chapters to come. In particular, I will be exploring the politics and theory from the time known as the Second Wave of feminism and particularly from influential
American and British theorists. This is the period, from the late 1960s through to the 1980s, when feminism is last considered to have been at its height in the West. It was named the Second Wave because it was seen to follow on from a First Wave of feminism, the previous recognised upsurge of feminist activity during the 1800s and 1900s, most renowned for the activism of the Suffragettes.
It is impossible to begin a book about feminism and feminist activism though without first outlining what feminism even is, what it means and what it means to me. Feminism as a social movement can be defined in a very broad sense as a global, political movement for the liberation of women and society based on equality for all people. However, as any activist reading this will know, perhaps too well, there are probably as many unique definitions of feminism as there are people who identify as feminists. The term means different things to different people, it also freights meaning and it is charged with symbolism, not all of it positive. There is no one, agreed, unifying definition of feminism that I can outline neatly and clearly once and for all. To complicate matters further still, there are several different recognised types, tendencies or schools of feminism within this broad movement itself; each of them are overarching types which themselves contain additional diversification and disagreement. To name just a few of the recognised schools of feminism, there is liberal feminism, socialist feminism, anarcho-feminism, black feminism, womanism, eco-feminism, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, separatist feminism, pro-feminism and revolutionary feminism. I will attempt further explanation later, but throughout this book, I will be focussing mainly on just one of these schools: radical feminism. This is the school of feminism to which I subscribe. It is
also the school of feminism that has arguably contributed most feminist theory on male violence against women, its causes, consequences and what we can do about it. The Reclaim the Night or RTN protest was just one of the ways that feminists did something about it, and, as I will show, it was radical feminists who played an influential role in making this happen and in bringing this protest to the UK.
The above typology of different schools and labels of feminism might not mean much to contemporary feminists or to women’s rights activists who are reading this book today. It might seem like so much divisive division of what should be an all too simple matter; the matter of pursuing equality for women in all spheres, from the workplace, to the streets, to the home. Such a goal should surely be one that nobody could disagree with, much less fight over or create conflicts around. I understand the frustrations with such divisions, and throughout this book, I will explore some of them and uncover what theory and ideas lie behind them. Firstly, on a more positive note and in the spirit of charting our proud history, I will be spending the next chapter taking a look back at where the current UK WLM heralds from and in whose footsteps we are marching today. This history can inform and enrich our present work today and enable us to learn from mistakes and successes. Looking back like this helps us to see how far we have come, but for many in this movement, although much has changed for the better in terms of women’s rights, the struggle will not be finished until patriarchy is overthrown.
What is patriarchy?
So what is patriarchy? In its form as a social movement, which we can call the WLM, the purpose of feminism
is to, as the feminist scholar bell hooks summarised so succinctly in 2004: ‘challenge, change and ultimately end patriarchy’ (2004:108). The term ‘patriarchy’ itself is one you will probably read and hear often in feminist circles, on and offline, in academia, in journalism and in blogs. I will use it frequently throughout this book. The term originally comes from the Greek language, and strictly speaking, it means the rule of the father. It is used mainly to describe a male head of household or a father or grandfather who headed up a family. But the term is now more widely and generally used to mean male rule or male dominance; for example, male dominance or male superiority in a whole community, a whole society or a whole world. Feminists use The P Word to refer to male supremacy, to societies where men as a group dominate mainstream positions of power in culture, politics, business, law, military and policing, for example – societies like ours.
Historians, such as Gerda Lerner in her 1986 book on the history of patriarchy, argue persuasively that male supremacy has marked social governance across the globe for a long, long time – for thousands and thousands of years. Lerner mainly argues this on the grounds that no evidence can be found for anything contrary. She contends that no evidence exists of any society or nation characterised by female supremacy; where women as a group have had power and control over men in every sphere of life, including their personal affairs such as reproduction and sexuality. Such a society, marked by female supremacy and male inferiority, would be termed a matriarchy; it would be a mirror image of patriarchy, just as unequal, but with women in charge instead of men. It is unlikely such a situation has ever existed and hopefully it never will. It is important to understand that this is not the destination that feminism is aiming for, contrary to many of the popular myths about feminism.
Feminism is a movement for change, not a changing of the guard. By this, I mean that we are not working for a world unchanged apart from the leadership. Ours is a revolutionary movement, thus it is about a different type of world altogether, one not marked by extremes of poverty and wealth, or by war and exploitation. Neither has our movement been struggling for centuries simply for equality with unequal men. In this book, I will address such myths and misunderstandings that surround feminism and its aims. This is an important task, because setting the record straight will give contemporary activists the opportunity to make up their own mind about one of the oldest and most powerful social justice movements the world has ever known – their own.
Too often, the lies that are told about feminism alienate people from this movement, particularly younger women. Some contemporary forms of activism also seek to define themselves against an imagined feminist past and in doing so they sometimes write off Second Wave politics as outdated, redundant, tired and second-hand. This perspective continues to flourish and thrive, even in the face of much evidence to the contrary. But when most of this evidence is offline, in archives and collections which are hardly easy access, it is not surprising that misconceptions about feminism are allowed to gather pace, growing stronger whenever the movement peaks again. If we are to avoid recycling lies, circulating incorrect received wisdom, reinventing wheels and spiralling down familiar debates then we have to escape a tradition of historical amnesia and reclaim what our retro feminist theory and activism has to offer us.
This feminism of the Second Wave is often called history, yet it is as relevant today as it ever was. It contains much of value to current feminist activists and to all people concerned with social justice. Many progressive
women and men today are hungry for their history, or herstory, are curious to know where the contemporary manifestation of feminism began, what shaped its journey and how it differs from forms of activism today. This interest is partly because feminism is enjoying another peak today. Here in the UK a resurgence of feminism has been sweeping our shores since the early 2000s, and despite much efforts, it seems unstoppable. Whether we term this a new wave of feminism or not, whether we give it a number or whatever we call this new observable upsurge of feminist voices and feminist activism, it has the potential to leave a changed world in its wake; indeed, it is already doing so.
This new generation of feminist activists are stirring up a new women’s movement; they are also active in struggles for social justice more generally. They can be found organising, supporting and leading in movements against cuts to welfare rights and in organisations against war and imperialism for example. This is admirable and urgent because it is not an easy time to be pursuing social justice, not for feminists or any other activists; we are facing a seemingly relentless rising tide of neo-liberalism. By this, I mean the not-so-new approach to the world that applies market rule to every area of life, not just in finance and business, but also in healthcare, education and welfare for example. These are all essential services, yet increasingly around the world, including in the UK, they are being privatised and treated as profit-making opportunities rather than as human rights. With this move comes decreasing access to such essentials, especially for poor and marginalised people. As competition generally increases, wealthy countries step up their military and economic might and wrestle for control over natural resources they can exploit for profit. The scholar Lisa Duggan has written about this process in
her excellent book The Twilight of Equality
(2004), which also provides a good history and background to just what this concept, neo-liberalism, actually means and where it comes from.
Alongside this shift, and not unrelated to it, individualism has increased and collective social movements have taken a battering. The new generation of activists, the likes of whom I have met and introduce in this book, is also a generation that has grown up being taught that they can be whoever and whatever they wish to be and that the only thing standing in their way is themselves and their own will and ambition. This myth of meritocracy and equal opportunities encourages individualism over collective action, because when people believe this myth, they obviously see no need for protest movements around particular classes or identities, such as the Women’s Movement or the Civil Rights Movement. If things do not go well for people in the workplace, education or in their personal lives, they are more likely to blame themselves, rather than sexism, racism, class oppression or homophobia; concepts which in current society are often seen as out of date. This type of blame even applies to experiences of actual violence or harassment, with too many people believing that it is their fault if they are sexually harassed in the workplace or at school, abused by a partner or are a victim to sexual violence. Our society encourages this view, and in turn that keeps people isolated and alone, rather than providing them the opportunity to get involved in collective struggles against such common experiences. These are common experiences which are symptoms of an unequal, sexist world; they are not symptoms of what clothes someone chose to wear, who they dated, where they worked, what time of night they were walking home or what alcohol they
had been drinking; nor are they caused by a lack of independence or willpower. This symptomatic violence is just one issue that feminism has long been tackling, and is one area where today’s feminism is making a difference: on the life and death issue of male violence against women.
What is male violence against women?
The current resurgence of feminism is taking on in new ways some of the oldest and most pressing injustices against women, and male violence is a unifying concern. This is also of course the key focus of global RTN marches. But what exactly do feminists mean when they refer to ‘male violence against women’, and how can this term make sense when violence is sometimes committed by women, including against other women, and when men are victims of violence too? The term applies to rape, domestic abuse, forced marriage, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, stalking, sexual exploitation in prostitution and trafficking for prostitution, female genital mutilation and so-called ‘honour crimes’. It is estimated that up to three million women every year in the UK are affected by these crimes and male violence against women remains one of the biggest human rights challenges across the globe. The crimes listed above constitute, though by no means exhaustively, what I mean by the term ‘male violence against women’. More formal, official definitions can be found in policy documents such as those from the United Nations, where it is often referred to, just to confuse my efforts at clarity, as ‘gender-based violence’. For example, in the snappily titled 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women
and in the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW), violence against women is defined as physical, sexual or psychological violence against women because of their sex alone or where such violence affects women disproportionately.
The precursor term ‘male’, which I am using here and throughout this book, is often missing from these policy and legal documents on violence against women. They often refer euphemistically to just ‘violence against women’ or to the supposedly neutral ‘gender-based violence’. Such phrasing is significant – I suggest that it is not accidental either; and it is profoundly political. Language matters, and this type of language suggests parity, it suggests gender neutrality; because the terminology is not sexed, it is therefore both and neither male nor female. By referring to gender-based violence, the sexed facts and reality of sexual violence and intimate partner and family violence for example, are hidden and obscured in plain sight. The focus is stealthily shifted away from the brutal fact that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of such crimes and that women are overwhelmingly the victims.
But why does it matter what we call it, as long as there is concerted action to respond to and prevent such crimes? It matters because if we really want to fix something that is broken, if we want to heal these fractures in our society, then we need to understand their causes. If we do not, then we will forever continue to place giant sticking plasters over the wounds left by this violence, trying to bandage over losses that can never be replaced. As long as this violence continues, it is obviously the case that we do have to address the symptoms, but my argument is that we must also address the causes if we want a long-term reduction or even, perhaps, the eventual eradication of male violence against women. To
this end, it is important to acknowledge that this type of violence is not a natural phenomenon, like bad weather. It does not just happen, it is not a fact of life; it is a fact of inequality. It has a perpetrator and a victim, it has a cause and likewise, it has a cure. The most important and relevant lesson feminism has taught us is that male violence against women is not biological, it is political. And if it is made, then it can be un-made; if it is learnt, it can be un-learnt. This is just one of the positive and inspiring messages from feminism that I will be covering in this book.
Feminism is not afraid to name the perpetrators of violence against women or gender-based violence by referring to these crimes specifically as male violence against women. This terminology is emphasised in many explicitly feminist approaches, but is particularly present in the theory found in radical feminism. This school of feminism defines male violence against women as both a cause and a consequence of male supremacy and female inferiority; and as a symptom of patriarchy. What this definition means is that while male violence is indeed a blunt and bloody symptom of patriarchy, it is also, at the same time, a foundation which props up patriarchy. If this definition is accepted, then it is vital to address and challenge patriarchy as part of the struggle to end all forms of male violence against women. Contrary to anti-feminist myths, feminism has promised that this is possible; feminism promotes the belief that all of us can change, that men are not naturally violent or abusive. This is an important facet of feminist theory to grasp, because it goes against that most well-known lie about feminism, the lie that our movement hates men and defines and reduces all men to rapists and abusers. Feminism actually does not let men off the hook in this way.
The theory and politics from feminism is far removed from what is called biological determinism or essentialism. This means that feminism does not believe that there is anything in men’s biology that makes them violent, nor does feminism believe that there is some essential truth or essence to men that makes them inherently violent. It is in nobody’s interests to write our futures in stone like this, or rather, to write off our futures. We understand that most men do not rape or abuse the women and children they know and love; we posit that this means there is no excuse for the men who choose to do so. Radical feminist theory in particular, identifies male violence against women as a form of social control. This perspective highlights that when they do happen, these widespread and targeted acts of violence affect all women, whether we personally are lucky enough to have avoided them or not. They affect all women by restricting women’s freedom, liberty and personhood. All women, in all our diversity, know what it is to live with the fear or reality of male violence. I will be discussing this perspective in much more detail later in this book, and exploring further the reasons behind such epidemic levels of male violence against women and wha...