This was a first for me. I’d never been to any kind of political meeting before. But this is a cause that not only can I get fully behind, it’s a cause I can’t not get fully behind. After all the work done by our sisters in the past, including the Suffragettes, women’s legal rights are at risk of being taken from us. If I didn’t get behind that, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. And if our rights are stripped – which is looking increasingly likely – I would never be able to forgive myself if I hadn’t spoken up and said, ‘Not without a fucking fight.’
For several weeks, friends had been asking whether I was going to the WPUK (A Woman’s Place UK) Women’s Liberation Conference in February, but I had come off Twitter back in September (much to the relief of my kung fu instructor, who could see what it was doing to my state of mind), and I didn’t know how to get tickets.
By the time we did get details, the first batch had already sold out. Shit. Not a massive surprise. More went on sale the following week, but again, by the time I got there, they’d all gone. I had more or less resigned myself to the fact we weren’t going and started making provisional plans to meet friends in the pub after the event. Then that Friday, a friend gave me another link. The final batch would be going on sale in the morning. But – damn it! I was going training tomorrow, as I do practically every Saturday. And there is very little that will stop me from going training. (I am proudly obstinate. A family trait. And besides which, if I didn’t go because I was trying to get tickets for something that had nothing to do with martial arts, my instructor would be having words… It’s OK. It’s what he’s there for, and it keeps me honest.)
So I tasked my significant other, known throughout the Twitterverse and beyond as Altered Squid, or just Squid, to get tickets if he possibly could. While I was training, I heard my phone bleep, and between classes, I checked. There was a message that said he could only get one, so he’d got it for me (because Squid is a star). But I’d not been able to look while I was training so I saw all the messages at once, and in the meantime, lo and behold! Yes! He’d managed to get two! WE WERE GOING!!!
I must confess to feeling a little apprehensive, despite my excitement. When WPUK held a meeting in Brighton back in September, the protest outside was so vicious that women were having panic attacks once inside, or were unable to get in at all, having insults screamed in their ears (do these idiots not know that this can cause an eardrum to burst, or do they just not care because we’re ‘terfs’?), while the local coppers stood around with their arms crossed and did nothing as some of them banged and kicked on the windows throughout the event.
The nearby residents eventually got so pissed off with the incessant racket that they began slinging buckets of water over the trans rights protesters (who later blamed the ‘terfs’ for it). There was a lot at stake, and I was wondering if, for the first time since I had begun training more than a decade ago, I’d actually have to use my kung fu in self defence (which I have a legal right to do). Linda Bellos once said that if she were ever attacked, she would defend herself, and she was subsequently taken to court for threatening behaviour. As if she doesn’t have a legal right to defend herself if attacked.
However, those who know me well know that I am not one to let others tell me what to do, and I’m damned if I’ll let a group of people who apparently can’t tell men from women stop me from going to a women’s rights event.
But we found out there may now be a snag. Because Squid had secured both tickets, and you could only buy one ticket at a time, they were both in his name. And WPUK had sent out an email saying that we’d need ID that matched the name on the ticket (for security reasons – see above). But it was sorted when another email arrived with Squid saying that if one of the tickets was for someone else to please tell them, otherwise they would refund the money. He duly gave them my name and my email address.
Phew! I got my own ticket through, with my name on it, the same day.
I said a moment ago that there is very little that will stop me from going training, and this is true, but this conference was being held on a Saturday – and it would be going on all day. So I told my instructor what was happening and went training on Thursday instead. I can’t not train, but I also couldn’t pass up this chance to be present at what has since already turned out to be something of a historic event.
Squid has written about the day here:
However, some of you may have noticed that Squid is a man, and I am a woman. (Although I know it’s hard, as you can’t always tell, these days.) As a consequence, our experiences were, naturally, slightly different.
Despite the early start (I don’t do mornings), by the time we reached the station and saw some of our friends there, I was ready to go. I waved maniacally at them as we reached the ticket machines and then we went over to greet everyone.
None of us really knew where the venue was, but as we approached, it became obvious, as we could hear the chants of the protesters three streets away. In fact, their presence made things very easy for us to figure out where we were supposed to go. Ah, we thought. It must be in here. Thanks, protesters! You were a big help, there.
And they weren’t scary. My heart started to race a little, because I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t hammering. After Jo had hugged me and welcomed me – as she appeared to have been doing to many of the women who arrived – we went inside and my heart stopped fluttering.
I immediately felt invigorated. Surrounded by so many women, some of whom were our friends, others we’d seen in WPUK videos on YouTube, and hundreds of others:
In all, there were around 900 people, of which no more than maybe a dozen were men. (Squid reckoned about twenty. I swear I didn’t see that many.) We met other friends there, and we knew many of those who would later be giving talks or running workshops, none of which we attended. I really was spoilt for choice and I had one of those moments when my head goes a bit funny and I find it impossible to make a decision. It may be my age (don’t say a fucking word) or it may simply have been that there were so many people there that I couldn’t think straight. Either way, we didn’t go to any of them. And in any case, we were mainly there to hear the talks, mix with women, make connections and just be there.
That was it. You always hear these tales of historic events, important movements, and I wanted, for once, simply to be able to say that I’d been there. I wanted not just to have witnessed the fight for women’s rights, envious of other women who were at these meetings but unable to do much, as I saw it, myself. I wanted to have been an active part of that fight. To be able to get to my old age (hopefully) and say, ‘Yep. I was there.’
One of the first people I spotted was Linda Bellos. I did ask for a photo, as well as a hug, but she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being put on a pedestal, which I completely respect. I never did get the photo, but when she said she would be happy to hug me as a sister, I did what I am very good at and she returned the hug with genuine sisterly warmth.
I was looking around while Squid was in the loo (and for an event with so many women present, it was notable that there were NO QUEUES for the ladies’ – women who weren’t there may find this hard to believe, but it’s true) and there on one of the chairs was one of the most amazing women anyone could ever hope to meet – Hibo Wardere, who wrote the book Cut and who travels the country and indeed the world teaching people about the horrors of FGM. We’d been in touch for a while and had swapped numbers before I left Twitter, so I went over, told her who I was and gave her the biggest, warmest hug. She is a true legend. When Squid came round the corner and spotted who I was with, a huge grin appeared on his face. We hung out with Hibo for some time. She really is the loveliest woman.
We spotted Julie Bindel (who I later half-hugged across a table full of sandwiches), Maya Forstater, Allison Bailey, Selina Todd, Nicola Williams… SO MANY POWERFUL WOMEN! The femaleness of the place was unbelievable, and I said to Squid that for perhaps the first time in my adult life, in a room full of strangers, something odd had happened. My guard, which is usually up all the time when I’m out, was down. I felt safe. And I never feel safe when I’m out, except under certain circumstances (such as when I’m training – I don’t just go to learn kung fu…). Hundreds upon hundreds of people, most of whom I didn’t know and had never met, and I felt as safe as I ever had. It was weird, and it was wondrous.
(To clarify: I don’t mean that I feel constantly in danger and under threat when I’m out. I mean that I don’t know what it’s like to leave the house, close the door behind me and feel a hundred per cent safe. Women, if not men, will know the difference.)
Although the morning speeches were introduced by a man, Brad Blitz, of the UCL Institute of Education, he wasn’t part of the conference itself. A few women were miffed that it felt as if the first speaker at a women’s event was a man, but he wasn’t involved in the event, he was simply introducing it. He welcomed us into his institution, made clear that free speech was as important to him as it was to us, and left us to get on with it. The speeches were – I’m going to use a word I’ve never used before, I think, ever – rousing. Both the morning and afternoon speeches gave me hope that all was not lost in the fight for women’s rights.
Around the edges of the hall where the sandwiches had been laid on, along with tea, coffee, fruit juice, biscuits, bananas, etc., there were several stalls run by various campaign groups. I spotted some little tins wrapped with bits of white cotton on which had been printed THOU SHALT NOT SUFFER A WITCH TO LIVE, but sadly these were not for sale, or I definitely would have bought one. What I did buy were little pin badges of the female symbol (I’d seen women wearing them and had been eyeing them all morning) – for me and for my mum, whose birthday it had been a couple of days before – and some notebooks, as well as picking up various leaflets and postcards and things. I wish I could have bought more stuff (I was particularly drawn to cotton patches and badges with uterus designs), but with restricted finances, I had to make strategic choices.
I felt a sisterly vibe, overwhelmingly and gloriously female, and realised it is this feeling that certain men resent. They may want this, they may try to get it, but they can’t have it, because they are not female. They can experience a version of it if they get access to spaces where there are many more women than men, but they can never fully belong to it, because they are not women. Something fundamental is missing. And they hate us for it.
As I have got older, certain things are falling into place for me. I have realised that far from being afraid of old age, I shall welcome it – because it’s better to reach old age than not reach it. I shall let my hair go grey and leave it long and go about showing it off, because I am proud of it. Women with silver hair are gorgeous and I will never be ashamed of that or try to hide it. If my face shows more lines as I grow older, they will be lines caused by much laughter in my life – I laugh a lot and I laugh loud, like any self-respecting witch should.
There were many women at the conference who were my age or older, others who were younger. I felt an affinity with all of them, because we are all female and we have a range of shared experiences. Not being able to talk about this openly without fear of social death (because we no longer put witches and heretics to actual death) is a symptom of a sickness in our society. It is probably down to women to cure – partly because many of us are witches and partly because it’s always down to women to fix things like this. And will we get any thanks, when this all dies down (as it surely must)? We shall see. But I doubt it.
While others were at their various panels and workshops, I had an idea to go to Gower Street, where you can procure remaindered books at decent prices, so with the help of Squid’s phone, we found our way there and had a nosey around. And yes, of course we came out with some books. Don’t tell me you thought even for a moment that we came out empty-handed? We’re skint, sure, but cheap books are cheap books and the temptation is hard to resist.
We made sure to return to UCL in plenty of time for the closing plenary, found a couple of seats and settled in.
During the last few minutes, as things started to wrap up, a clipboard was passed round, which contained sheets of paper that we could fill in with our details. On the back were some of the questions in the Scottish GRA consultation, and the good people at WPUK had answered the relevant ones for us in advance. You don’t have to live in Scotland to fill it in. You can find details here. As the writers of this document have said they especially want to hear from trans people and trans allies, with no mention of wanting to hear from women, I encourage you to do your bit.
The last words of Kiri Tunks’ speech have stayed with me, and will likely stay with me forever: “This is a movement. We are the movement. Let’s move.”
As we were leaving, I spotted Kiri and gave her a hug, told her that it had been a fabulous day and thanked her for organising it.
To paraphrase a David Bowie lyric: I hugged a lot of women, that day.
Actually, the feelings evoked in that song really sum up how I felt at the conference. So here it is:
We came away awash with love for women and with renewed determination that women’s rights will not be taken from us without a fight. We will fight with words rather than weapons, but words are powerful, and should be used with care. It’s easy – too easy – to yell and swear at idiots on social media. But all that gets us is stress, and (if we really piss off the wokebros and TRAs) a place on several block lists. (I think I had made it onto 40-odd such lists before I deleted my Twitter account. It’s something of which I’m very proud.)
What we need to do is connect, in person as well as online. Make plans. Talk to people, whether people we know or people we don’t. Myself, I’ve been talking to people who know me well enough to realise that there may just be something to what I’m telling them. That it isn’t just a load of pissed-off, hormonal women with nothing to do but moan about men, but something much deeper and much more dangerous, and even sinister. Because make no mistake – women’s rights are in peril. And the Labour Party have since proved that they are no friends to women, either. At least, not to women like us.
For we are the troublesome women. The women who aren’t afraid to say, ‘Now hang on a minute!’ The women who won’t comply. The women who dare to set boundaries (and woe betide any man who crosses them).
We are the women who, when faced with a group of people trying to take away our legal rights, will stand up and say, in the words of our friend Jane Clare Jones:
I’ve never been a dissident before. It’s quite exciting.
But it’s also frightening. I am frightened. Because it seems the moment women started speaking up about what happens to us daily at the hands of men, the backlash started. Feminism isn’t feminism, we’re told, if we don’t include transwomen. What a load of old tripe!
Transwomen are male, and adult human males have been known across the world and across the millennia, in every language that has ever been spoken, as men.
Women need to be afraid of men.
But we must not be afraid to say no. We must not be so afraid that we capitulate to the demands of a few at our own expense. And remember, sisters, that we are more than half the population of the planet.
They cannot, and will not, silence us all.
So speak up.