In 2008, I attended the first Feminism in London conference, a day of workshops and consciousness-raising for feminists from across the UK. The event was empowering, enjoyable and engaging for many of the women attending. But for me it was none of those things. I left feeling somewhat distanced. I didn’t fit into the narrow definition of ‘feminism’ prescribed by the organisers.
That 2008 definition contended feminists should be anti-pornography, anti-prostitution and anti-sex work. I was sceptical, not least because the sex-work debate is still one of the biggest divisions in the feminist movement. The conference provided no opportunity to foster an alternative position and I felt the space for debate was muted.
Why then, did I want to go back to Feminism in London 10?
Having spent the past two years becoming increasingly involved in various feminists groups and activities in Manchester – learning from other feminists and becoming progressively more confident in my own views – I felt I could participate more fully in the conference.
Unfortunately, there was still little space for debate.
As I wandered around the stalls, I saw only groups against prostitution and lap dancing such as Object, Anti-Porn London and the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution (FCAP). The English Collective of Prostitutes and Feminist Fightback, two prominent feminist groups with explicitly different attitudes towards sex-work, were not present.
I persevered and, against expectation, found the opening panel immensely inspiring. Focusing on the cuts and the experiences of a range of women in public life, I was glad of a more unifying start to the day. Lindsey Hill, a young mother from West London, was particularly inspiring. She is a living challenge to the negative media image of teenage mothers, and her experiences reaffirmed our need to tackle the sexist stereotypes that pervade our society.
At the Reproductive Health panel, a traditionally-limited feminist focus was broadly discussed, bring new voices into debates. Maternity health was highlighted as a key issue, and we were impassioned to challenge the increasing restrictions and social pressures placed on women’s right to choose how to have their babies. In terms of choosing whether or not to have children, Ann Rossiter led listeners in a rousing summation by enthusiastically detailing her 40-year plight to help Irish women access abortions.
In many ways the conference had improved since 2008. Opening the conference to men created a space for them to join the fight to tackle patriarchy, and the centrality of tackling racism at the conference showed an increasingly intersectional view of feminism. Hopefully, accessibility and ensuring tackling disability prejudice will also be on next year’s agenda. It was also the largest conference of its kind in over 10 years, with 1000 attendees, giving the government and patriarchy (although I suppose they are one in the same) something to worry about.
Yet the space for discussion and debate was still not fully opened up: the anti-porn lobby ran all the sex-work workshops, and I felt too nervous and disempowered to voice my dissenting opinions. So, rather than attend the ’Anti-Porn Slideshow’, I opted for the ’Exploring Our Internalised Prejudices’ workshop. Run by the fantastic FoleHillFields Vision Project, this workshop provided a space to discuss who we are as women, feminists and individuals and how that shapes our outlook on life.
The workshop continued with a panel of black women talking about their experiences of being black women feminists, the oppressions they face and how we in the feminist movement can work to ensure it is more open, progressive and accepting. I learnt a lot. Not least about my own internalised prejudices, but also that we do all experience feminism in different ways.
A word often repeated by speakers was ’voice’. It made me ask, who is it that Feminism in London is speaking for? As individuals we all have our own feminist ideas, ideologies and actions, and essentialising what feminism is, or is not, must play a role in silencing some voices. As it did mine in 2008.
Hopefully, future conference will hold space for discussion as an opportunity, not a threat. That way, our definitions of feminism can become less restrictive, and ensure that the ideology can achieve its full potential as the all-powerful-anti-patriarchal-movement to be reckoned with.