International Women’s Day, Liverpool 2013: women as creative agents for change.

International Women’s Day, Liverpool 2013:

Women as creative agents for change.[1] 

Val Walsh[2]

 keywords: women’s lives, feminist activism, institutionalised misogyny, complicity, the post-Saville world.

Each year at this time, we take stock:

  • we register issues (continuing and/or new) in women’s lives
  • identify obstacles to women’s dignity, equality and progress
  • we highlight and publicise campaigns
  • celebrate achievements and progress
  • take pleasure in women’s existence and company
  • and acknowledge unfinished business.

We take in the changing context (locally, nationally, internationally) of women’s lives and feminist activism; the impact of our efforts to improve women’s life chances and opportunities; as well as public, political and media attention and attitudes.

  • We continue to draw attention to issues of safety, security, opportunity and risk (at home, on the street, in the workplace and in war zones).
  • We document resistance, misrepresentation, distortion and denial with regard to women’s lives, and the impact of gender power relations and gender issues for women’s health and wellbeing; for women’s empowerment and self-determination; for recognition and reward in the public domain, via economic equality and social justice.
  • We track the unsatisfactory status of women in societies, including our own.

The feminist agenda, regarding what is missing, what is wrong and what women want to see changed, can seem like a never-ending, unchanging ‘to do’ list from one year to the next, accompanied by the sense that gender issues, gender inequalities, even Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), have become the normalized, invisible backdrop to everyday lives and politics. So prevalent, so widespread, so embedded within corporate, consumer and political culture and practices, including ‘entertainment’ and ‘comedy’, that their ‘volume’ has become turned down to a whisper: they have almost lost their shock value, lost their power to disturb and outrage, even girls and women themselves.

2012 disrupted this ‘more-of-the-same’ scenario.

Last summer, following a local women’s meeting at the Social Centre about sexism in activism, I found myself reflecting on this issue and tracking the media evidence of misogyny across society over a period of c10 weeks from the end of June. There was no lack of grim evidence, on almost a daily basis. This process culminated in my writing two linked essays.[3]

And then the Saville scandal broke, and took everyone’s breath away. Suddenly, 2012 looked like a breakthrough, as the media was forced to expose a period of sexual abuse and violation that covered the whole of recent history in the UK: from the 1960s to the present (which is still unfolding as criminal investigations continue and arrests are made).

These revelations confirmed the role of institutionalised misogyny and sexism as apparently inherent to hetero-patriarchal masculinity and normative gendered relations: perpetrators and powerful authority figures (those running institutions and organisations) shared a set of values and attitudes that allowed vulnerable children and women, variously corralled within those institutions (the NHS, the BBC, secure residential units), to be sexually abused and exploited, in silence, then ignored and discarded.

The culture of these organisations is at last open to scrutiny, not just the repellent behavior of individual men (mainly white heterosexual men in positions of authority and power). Within these misogynist organisational environments, victims were fodder for celebrity male egos, and those ‘chiefs’ and ‘celebrities’ thought they were fireproof, untouchable. And for too long they were, despite women’s testimony over the years: bearing witness by speaking up; and the activism, research, writing and theory of feminists since the 1970s.

We were too often ridiculed and demonized; accused of being ‘humourless’, ‘ugly’, ‘man-hating lesbians’. But we should be proud of our achievements during these years nonetheless, for these efforts, our knowledge production and campaigning, have had an impact, have changed society and its practices (just not enough). The evidence is now in and irrefutable, and provides society with the motivation and political will to make changes. Experienced and committed feminists are everywhere, and have been setting up organisations and projects to support and improve women’s life chances over many years (usually on a shoestring). There is no going back.

A feminist turning of the tide.

Since the Saville case broke, silence and denial are being exposed and overtaken by the collective voices of victims of historical Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). And every individual voice empowers another woman to speak out, thereby building up the picture of hidden atrocities, and the power wielded by these men within the settings that allowed them to flourish, dominate and abuse, without fear or challenge.

The latest examples of this culture of ‘acceptable sexism’ and gendered dominance are the number of women Lib Dems who have come forward with charges of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the Lib Dem’s former Chief Executive, Lord Rennard, allegations that conjure a pattern of behaviour, occurring over a number of years, which was not previously investigated by the Party. The child abuse claims alleging the serial abuse of boys from the 1970s by the Lib Dem MP, Cyril Smith, similarly demonstrate reluctance/refusal by Lib Dem leaders (including at least one senior woman) to investigate sexual predators and perpetrators within their own ranks. Preserving Party decorum and the reputation of the rich and powerful within the organisation kicked victims’ complaints into the long grass, where victims were expected to lie low; to put up and shut up: forever.

The avalanche of accusations and evidence over the last few months bears out feminist critique of the public domain (by both men and women) since the 1970s, and provides an opportunity at last for a coherent and determined strategy to change the status quo and to dismantle organisational values and cultures that have for too long effectively sanctioned VAWG.

The issues of complicity and cover-up, the role of cultural and organisational power (intimidation, coercion, male dominance, bullying and fear as organisational tools) are now out in the open. The complicity of powerful men (for example, within the BBC, the NHS, the Catholic Church), and vulnerable women (for example, Saville’s mother, other family members, and women staff in Saville’s chosen sites of abuse) are now on record.  And it becomes clear that their complicity with predators and perpetrators has been shaped and condoned by a wider misogynist culture, society itself. This body of evidence widens the debate beyond individuals and individual organisations, providing a basis for understanding and taking action to change these ‘normal’ gendered power relations and practices.

Internalising this reality, the values and behaviours that demean, intimidate, disadvantage, damage and destroy girls and women, has been variously part of every girl and woman’s upbringing, no matter what our age or background. Going public about these issues was always hard, nerve-racking, even taboo: a high risk move that could lose you your job or position, and/or your reputation; as well as court the censure of other, non feminist women. Not forgetting that a misogynist, patriarchal, heterosexist society trains us as girls and women to discipline and attack each other, and to compete for heterosexual men’s attentions and approval. We forge our friendships, love and political alliances across and in spite of these coercive and destructive pressures.

Next steps.

Now there is the opportunity for a better informed, more emboldened feminist conversation to develop amongst women, and between women, men and society’s institutions and organisations. For men have also been disciplined and damaged by these coercive practices, and some men have been changed during these years through their contact with feminist values and critique; and feminists! For example, mothers, colleagues, friends, co-activists.

I suggest that the events and evidence of these few short months are game-changers. They provide a springboard for us to work together as women, across our differences, together with feminist-inspired men, to make sure the tide does not turn back, and that misogyny and heterosexism at last get named and shamed as at the core of women’s disadvantage in society and as obstacles to humane relations between women and men, boys and girls, whatever our sexual preference.

We must make sure that all those historical victims did not suffer in silence in vain. It is up to us, as survivors, to secure a legacy of gender-based social and political change across society, including our city, Liverpool. Together we can do this.

[1] This is the transcript of a speech delivered at The Black-E, Liverpool (09 03 2013) after the IWD march through the city centre.

[2] Val Walsh is an educationalist, study coach and activist; a writer, journalist and poet; and a member of Merseyside Women’s Movement, the Liverpool Women’s Network, Liverpool Friends of the Earth and Liverpool’s Keep Our NHS Public campaign. From 2006-2011, she was Chair of the Duncan Society, Liverpool’s public health and wellbeing debating society.

[3] ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’ [10 10 2012].


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