The Daughter Challenge.

After thoughts to Liverpool’s What Women Want’s first meeting of four
on whole family approaches to mental health (04 09 2014).

At the meeting I drew attention to the potential problem of gender-neutral language (young people, adults, carers, parents, children, etc.) when dealing with girls’ and women’s experience and health issues. I suggested that ‘daughter’ should be a key informing focus as we start this next phase of enquiry, rather than ‘mother’/ parent / carer, not to diminish these identities and roles, but because, from the outset, we are all daughters.

After the meeting the thought lingered, reminding me of the basics (culture and power relations) underpinning this area of concern. Here I share these after thoughts, in order to clarify and expand on that initial observation and its potential relevance to the group’s process and preoccupations.

• ‘Daughter’ is our primary biological and social identity, the basis for everything that follows, including cultural expectations attached to a range of subsequent roles, such as girl, sister, girlfriend, lover, sexual and domestic partner, aunt, mother, parent (e.g. foster and step), in law, grandmother; as well as friend and colleague; and not forgetting the expanded influence of social / media / commercial pressures in the context of contemporary turbo consumerism, fundamentalism / religions, all busy promoting and normalising patriarchal values and practices across societies, communities, social classes and castes. ‘Daughter’ is not a ‘natural’ category.
• In most (all?) societies, ‘daughter’ is not a gendered equivalent or parallel to ‘son’, being variously a mark of ‘inferiority’, subordination, subjugation, sexual vulnerability, patriarchal exploitation: i.e. generally second class social and economic status, involving social control, coercion, even rejection and murder.
• Unlike ‘son’, the identity ‘daughter’ carries with it no inherent or inherited authority or social value. But it does accrue multiple and complex expectations, responsibilities and duties; as well as attendant risks.
• ‘Daughter’ can therefore be seen as the embodiment of subservience to, acquiescence and collusion with hetero-patriarchal male power and dominance, and its institutions and systems.
• To realize / embody our own agency and creativity, girls and women have to break out of this cage, go beyond these given ‘daughterly’ strictures. This is a lifelong project: a process not a single ‘event’.
• This is, in turn, identified as rebelliousness, insubordination, insurrection (or ‘worse’: instability / mental health issues / ‘perversio); these ‘disobediences’ are intensified by collective action by girls and women, which will of course attract the heavy hand of the state / male power, etc., working to get us back in line. We have learned of and witnessed horrifying examples of all of this recently, not just as we look across to other cultures and societies, but here in the UK. So the idea that these attitudes and behaviours are rare and/or ‘one-offs’, the sole province of heterosexual men who are ‘not normal’ / ‘mad’ not bad, no longer bears scrutiny in wider society, as it once did.
• So from the outset, ‘daughter’ carries with it the norm of obedience, quiescence, docility, “best’ expressed via historically influential religious and fundamentalist values, doctrines and attitudes to women. In the wake of the recent revelations of 16 years of sexual abuse of girls in Rotherham, the NW Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, and the C.P.S’s lead on child sexual abuse, Nazir Afzal, says “it is about male power” (in interview with Amelia Gentleman, 03 09 2014, Society Guardian).

“There is no religious basis for the abuse in Rotherham. . . (And) it is not the abusers’ race that defines them. It is their attitude to women that defines them”(Ibid.).

• This misogynist culture in turn requires girls and women to accept social and sexual coercion and violence as a normal and unavoidable feature of lived ‘femininity’ and heterosexual relationships. Disturbing evidence of this among girls and young women now seems to be on the rise, on social media and beyond.
• Therefore, in attempting to identify the roots of girls’ and women’s social and sexual disadvantage and damage (which also infect and undermine economic and political status and prospects), and in this case in the context of whole family approaches to mental health, acknowledgement of these basic forces is important, if we are to contribute to their unravelling, and not just be left continually picking up the pieces, as in the past, dealing with the consequences of this inheritance and its persistent reproduction through upbringing, culture and social organization.
• Despite the social, cultural and political efforts of feminists during the last 40+ years (for example, as activists, academics, community, social and political agents), as a society we have failed sufficiently to examine these contexts and gendered power dynamics. There has been concerted resistance, as heterosexual men in power have defended their territory and historical ‘rights’. As a consequence of this status quo, it is now clear that we have failed all our children. The rolling evidence of the last three years in particular has made this analysis irrefutable. Action is required, change must be contemplated and worked for, based on this ‘new’ evidence and knowledge, widening human rights and social justice to encompass and support victims, including women and children, and including preventative measures.
• The social, professional and political secrecy and incompetence, the disregard, even contempt for victims (seen as the lowest of the low), together with the unacknowledged and unchallenged misogyny that has allowed child victims to suffer in social isolation, private agony and terror over their young lives and into adulthood, can now be accepted as evidence of the vital role gender analysis has to play in removing obstacles to social agency, health and wellbeing; creating a safer, more just and equal society (locally as well as inter/nationally); and ditching the normative binary, masculinity / femininity, in favour of a healthier, more equal, sustainable option.
• As daughter, before and after abuse (usually by a family member), she is a time bomb.
• The day after the meeting, having drafted the above notes, I found myself travelling by train to a cultural event with one of the fantastic women I have been fortunate to get to know over the years of adulthood. She is a fairly new friend, and as we chatted, she started to recount her story of father abuse, and how her mother and brother maintained denial and hostility as a consequence, as did extended family members even years later. She spoke of the long term psychological consequences for herself: as daughter, sister, partner, mother. Even as friend and colleague.
• I reflected afterwards, that this brave, vibrant, super intelligent, talented, professionally qualified, socially conscientious woman, devoted mother to a son, compassionate and supportive as a friend, responsible as a human being, is evidence that damage may define us, but it does not have to defeat us. (I reckon this applies to most of my women friends actually.)
• And without idealizing women or dismissing men’s capacity for friendship and support, we know that good women-only spaces and feminist-infused relationships are vital to the quality of women’s survival and flourishing. These spaces, relationships (even a quiet corner in a train carriage), and networks, facilitate and nourish our most meaningful exchanges and conversations. Our wildest laughter, our sense of mutuality, and our continuing commitment to the feminist project.

In addition to the local and national work of Nazir Afzal over a number of years, the former Director of Public Prosecutions (2008-2013), Sir Keir Starmer, QC, when in office, started to effect changes relevant to the treatment and experience of victims, and is currently advising the Labour Party on developing the first ever Victims’ Law, which a Labour government would promote in
2015. Keir Starmer has also put himself forward to stand at the next election as a Labour candidate. This is double good news!

Meanwhile, the UK Labour Party has created a new post, appointing Seema Malhotra as Shadow Minister for preventing violence against women (09 09 2014, interview with Emine Saner, ‘Sex education should start at Key Stage 1’. G2 Guardian). The role means she will be working alongside the police and crime commissioner, Vera Baird (LP), and the trade unionist, Diana Holland, on Labour’s women’s safety commission, “to make sure the prevention of violence against women is on the agenda across multiple departments” (ibid.). I don’t know anything about Malhotra, beyond this interview, but Vera Baird (PCC in Cumbria) and Diane Holland are substantial political figures with good track records, and long-term feminist activists. This has to be more good news!

The ground is shifting nationally, and we must take heart and help it shift locally.

val walsh / 10 09 2014


Reflections on ‘A Rebel Rant: Owen Jones on PEOPLE POWER.’

  • Political heritage
  • Stories: telling and sharing
  • Fragmentation, disconnection, defeat.

Journalist Owen Jones came to Liverpool’s WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival to present WOW’s annual Rebel Rant (15 05 2014), at which a speaker is invited to talk on issues of serious contemporary interest and concern, and in a way that informs, stimulates and challenges the audience. Owen had previously spoken at the WOW Festival in 2011, to mark the publication of his book, CHAVS: The Demonization of the Working Class. The initial title for his Rebel Rant was: ‘What we’re up against and what can we do about it?’ The necessarily shorter title for the programme was: ‘People Power’.

Political heritage.
After establishing his credentials and status as someone northern, with ancestors/family who derive from Liverpool city region (always helpful if you look like an outsider for some reason), he started by going back in time to make the case for his initial theme that social change and improvements in people’s lives, workplaces and society had never been a ‘donation’ from those in power, but always conceded in the face of articulated and organized dissent, anger, aspiration, etc., by those with the least apparent power: whether economic / industrial, and / or social assets, and/or cultural capital; those who discern and/or experience disadvantage consequent upon inequity, inequality, social injustice.

Owen’s history lesson spanned events over several hundred years, as he highlighted how these historical challenges and achievements have always been a result of collective effort, and that today “we stand on the shoulders of those who were part of that heritage”.

I suggest the evidence also shows that the identities, ‘victims’ and visionaries (whatever their social class), were/are both separate and overlapping categories in these historical processes of challenge and change, and that co-ordinated action and political solidarity have habitually crossed social class and ethnic differences, perhaps increasingly in C20 and C21 campaigns and movements in the UK.

Owen’s introductory exposition was a timely and valuable contextualization of the crisis we now face in the UK, four years into the most vindictive, rightwing, aggressive Tory government ever, and its vital ‘human’ shield, the Lib Dems. It was a reminder of what we, the people, have already contributed to history, to social formations and institutions in our society: and the values that have driven so much of that social and political change over time, including C20 and C21 uprisings.[i] As such, I suspect his words induced political pride and personal hope!

In 2014 we are struggling in the face of acute government-induced personal suffering, social dislocation, environmental disarray, and political despair, specifically orchestrated to demolish the achievements and consequential social security put in place by post 1945 Labour governments. The ambitious Tory goal since 2010 has been twofold: first, the speedy fragmentation and privatization of the public sector (e.g. the NHS, education, social care, probation, prisons, the fire service, child social services, transport), expanding opportunities for personal profit, in particular for the already very wealthy; second, to set ‘different’ groups and constituencies, not just in opposition to each other, but to engender hostility, even hatred, thereby destroying any basis for mutuality, social compassion and political solidarity.

Owen’s audience of several hundred people gathered at The Black-E in Liverpool that evening, was no doubt comprised mainly, if not exclusively, of those most acutely aware of the severity of the current crisis, and desperate for forging a way out of what feels like imposed social and political demise, experienced as the deterioration and slow death of individuals, families, communities and democracy itself.

Stories: telling and sharing.
Owen’s historical panorama thus served to bind us together in the moment; to both acknowledge and perhaps mitigate the sense of injury and injustice, the frustration and anger this Tory world has stoked up. His implicit recognition of the significance of differences and divisions on the Left (the historical record of sectarianism, internal strife, personal animosity and ruthless competitiveness), prefaced a caution and a warning. But first, he developed a second key theme, that of narrative: the importance of our stories, of who gets to speak and who gets to be heard.

Hard data (statistics, tables and graphs) is of course important, and can be used to construct and present ‘facts’ about society, organisations, institutions, populations and governance. Such material can be compelling,[ii] and help make visible both the big picture and corners within the bigger picture. For example, Danny Dorling, previously Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, now at Oxford University, has built up a body of work, “deftly taking apart seemingly impenetrable statistics and using them to shine a light on some of the starkest wealth and health disparities round the UK and globally”.[iii]

Owen Jones contrasted the political strategies adopted by politicians and media on the Right and Left: the latter put out the stats, hoping the power of the numbers, the ‘facts’, will convince people about issues of inequality, injustice, inhumanity, etc.. This is the honest, evidence-based approach, but we know the disconnect that can remain for people between what the stats say (e.g. re. crime in an area) and what their own experience, or their own experience filtered via a relentless rightwing media, guides them to believe.

By contrast, he pointed out how the Right tells stories (mainly lies) with demonized lead characters (e.g. families with 50 children living in a mansion in London on benefits), designed to create feelings of horror, disgust, fear and hatred. He went on to suggest that the Left would do better to tell its own (true) stories, instead of simply parading statistics, i.e. to take a more qualitative, narrative approach to its political messages and its encounters with public and media.

Academics have been doing this for some years. Dorling’s brilliant statistical work on inequality, which has built his reputation, is undoubtedly powerful in its analysis and passionate in its concerns.[iv] But, introducing his next book, hard on the heals of Injustice in 2011, he notes:

I’ve always preferred numbers to words, but numbers do not make an argument.[v]    [Emphasis added.]

And this is exactly Owen Jone’s point. The result for Dorling is a text that is more widely accessible, not through dumbing down, but through his vivid handling of the data via discursive techniques and narrative strategies. And his passion and compassion continue to shine through: it is clear his concerns are not just academic.

Paul Mason is an economic and industrial journalist who also combines stories and analysis in his work (both written and investigative TV programmes) of corruption and the financial crisis, for example in what has been described as “a page-turning account”.[vi] Similarly, Guardian journalists Polly Toynbee and David Walker rushed out a short but vivid account of the government’s policies during its first two years,[vii] described as:

Combining meticulous research and interviews, bringing to light the experiences and attitudes of ordinary voters.[viii]
[Emphasis added.]

Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, works in the same way, regularly producing incisive, original and passionate pieces on the state of society, communities, economics, corruption, etc..[ix] Also outstanding is the work of Cambridge University economist, Ha-Joon Chang, occasional Guardian columnist. His brilliant, number 1 international best seller (2011), 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, was mentioned and recommended by a speaker from the floor during the follow-on discussion at Owen’s Rebel Rant. The speaker said he was is in the process of reading Ha-Joon Chang’s book and was obviously bowled over by both the information and arguments presented.[x]

There has been a stream of brilliant, useful books since the Tories and Lib Dems hijacked parliament and started to trash democratic process itself, and in the wake of the tsunami of major political, economic, media and sexual scandals in the UK.[xi] These recent texts variously encompass narratives, people’s stories, vital experiential data, thereby building on earlier experiential and narrative accounts.[xii]

So Owen’s emphasis on the role of stories and narrative within political discourse, within communities, as a way of renewing and refreshing our politics and social relationships, illuminates methodology on the Left as a key issue and strategy as we approach local elections and EU elections this month and a General Election in 2015. And it should be noted that, while stories involve telling and sharing, they also, importantly, entail attentive listening, not least to the stories of those who are different in some way from those doing the listening. So the ‘telling’ is not a form of domination or authoritarianism, but contributes to a conversation that enacts peer process.

Politicians could learn a thing or two from the best socially aware academics / researchers / writers / journalists with regard to both political courage and how to communicate beyond the circle of policy wonks. Knowledge production has been qualitatively changed over the years by such practitioners, including their theorization of the importance of narrative and storytelling, and their democratic and political significance.[xiii]

Fragmentation, disconnection, defeat.
Both in his presentation and in response to contributions from the floor afterwards, Owen re-iterated the importance of not allowing the Right to divide us, so that they (some combination of the BNP, UKIP, Tories, Lib Dems) slide back in for a second term. This was his third major theme, alluding to the importance of not attacking each other, not rejecting each other, not splitting up; the difference between critical engagement across our differences, that necessary, difficult conversation, and a brawl or withdrawal that disperses our political power and influence, and which gives up on solidarity, condemning us to a level of personal and social despair and depredation utterly out of place in an affluent, democratic society, with human rights and social justice as core values.

We know that many people will choose not to vote this year or next, for reasons that include evident élitism, not enough women, men-as-boys behaviour in the House, broken promises, lies, corruption, greed, etc.; and the feeling that all politicians are the same, i.e. greedy, dishonest, out of touch with ‘ordinary’ people, posh careerists who don’t care. . . . [xiv] Some of these, perhaps many, would never ever (normally) vote Tory.

Out canvassing on Saturday in Gateacre, Liverpool, we encountered people for whom a single issue, a single local cutback, for example, looked likely to keep them from voting or voting in a way that would, for example, ensure that we never again elect a member of the BNP to be our MEP in the NW. I also felt the grief and anger of individuals arising out of very specific experiences. And that’s personal.

At the post performance discussion at The Playhouse recently, after the NHS play, This May Hurt a Bit; in the discussion from the floor after Owen’s talk; on the door while canvassing on Saturday; and in the comments and verdicts recorded in the G2 survey of non voters this Saturday, certain issues stand out. There is evidence of people confusing anger and personal revenge with political strategy, either because they wish to (and imagine they can) give a particular political party ‘a bloody nose’, or because they “are not political” and do not care about the social and political consequences of not voting/how they vote.

But politics, like life, is messy. First, delusion: there is no such thing as ‘not voting’ (your absenteeism helps secure the success of a candidate on the Right); second, the abandonment of ‘romance’: the ‘protest vote’ sounds ‘cool’, but is largely a misnomer and rarely hits its intended target. Third, grief and anger generally corrode, derange, isolate and immobilize us, except where they become fuel for collective and co-ordinated action in the public domain, as with Liverpool’s Hillsborough campaign.

In a consumerist, neoliberal society, in which the Thatcherite discourse of ‘choice’ is all pervasive and the virtue, while simultaneously watchword, scam and illusion, it is hard to protect our politics from descending to the level of the supermarket shelf (or gutter). Choosing and contributing to our politics in these circumstances involves divesting ourselves of the idea that we have free ”personal choice” to vote for our ‘perfect’ candidate or Party. Facing up to ‘no choice’ as such, to withdrawing from individualist, self preening, consumerist values, in order to contribute to collective responsibility and achieve a politically strategic stance that could make a difference, is like being asked to wear or use out-of-date gear. Yes it sucks. It’s hardly an electoral sweetener.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the idea of ‘personal choice’ and shopping as the exercise of power, and as the feel good factor that takes minds of lack, dis-ease, disappointment, despair, coercion, and worse. But the alternative, of not bothering to act together this week and next year, will kill off friends and family faster than we thought possible. As two NHS medics (one young man part way into his career, the other after 30+ years in the NHS, declared last week in Manchester at a Labour Party gathering of several hundred, at which Ed Milliband and Andy Burnham spoke about the NHS and responded to questions, experiential testimony and comments: “If we don’t get this government out in 2015, there will be no NHS left.” And their evident grief was personal and political. They were also angry at the possibility that such a wonderful creation could be allowed to fail.

To return to the WOW Rebel Rant: there had been a roar of welcome at the start of the event. There was a longer and louder roar of appreciation at the end. Owen had informed and stimulated his audience, and set a serious challenge for us in the weeks and months ahead. So much is at stake. Above all, he urged us not to leave after an ‘enjoyable’ evening reflecting on the issues raised, and do nothing. He urged us to take action to rebuild our political culture, so that it doesn’t just work for the top 2%. And it was clear he thought that requires us to forge some kind of genuine, effective political alliances and togetherness, a genuine conversation, rather than indulging in the scrapping, snapping and fisticuffs in our separate corners that too many on the Left (particularly the guys?) are so used to and seem to enjoy. But in 2014, at whose expense?

val walsh / 19 05 2014

[i] See, for example: Paul Mason (2008) Live Working or Die Fighting. How the working class went global; and Richard Sennett (2013) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.
[ii] For example, see Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone; andDanny Dorling (2011) Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists.
[iii] Mary O’Hara review (2011), The Guardian.
[iv] I’m sure this particular creative facility is at least in part a function of Dorling’s dyslexia.
[v] Danny Dorling (2011) Acknowledgements. p ix. So You Think You Know About Britain?
[vi] Will Hutton in his Guardian review of Paul Mason (2010) Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed.
[vii] Polly Toynbee & David Walker (2012) Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-time.
[viii] From review in London Review of Books.
[ix] For example, a special report, Aditya Chakrabortty & Sophie Robinson-Tillett (19 05 2014) ‘The remaking of Woodberry Down’, combines the narrative testimony of individuals affected by the changes (‘regeneration’), with description and analysis, and is the result of 6 months they spent talking to people on the estate. G2, The Guardian.
[x] Ha-Joon Chang has a new book due out in 2014: Economics. A Handbook. It occurred to me after the WOW event, that probably one of the best ways of for audience members to keep track of brilliant new books useful to everyone, and especially the concerned Left, is to regularly browse the shelves and displays at our precious independent community bookshop in Liverpool’s Bold Street: news from nowhere.
[xi] Including Dan Hind (2010) The Return of the Public; Susan George (2011) Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World; Bruce Nixon (2011) A Better World is Possible. What needs to be done and how we can make it happen; Andrew Simms (2013) Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity.
[xii] Leading the way on the significance of stories as evidence and process was Ken Plummer (1997) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds; and stories focusing on sustainability issues have also been exemplary, such as Jan Martin Bang (2007) Growing Eco-Communities: Practical Ways to Create Sustainability.
[xiii] This May Hurt a Bit is a brilliant play by Stella Feehily about the crisis in the NHS, and the Out-of-Joint production is a good example of how research-based dramatization can communicate powerfully to a wide audience: providing information, raising consciousness and engendering political conversation and debate. As well as being ‘a good night out at the theatre’. See ‘This May Hurt a Bit: Post performance discussion and reflection’ in Articles & Statements section of
[xiv] See Susanna Rustin (17 05 2014) Big picture. Non-voters by Felicity McCabe. The Guardian Weekend. Full series and longer interviews in an interactive version at

‘This May Hurt a Bit.’ Post performance audience discussion and reflections.

I attended Stella Feehily’s marvellous, important play, This May Hurt a Bit, at The Playhouse, Liverpool (09 05 2014). Another outstanding Out of Joint production, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, it is a well researched, powerful script, beautifully dramatized, and staged with conviction and imagination.

The terrific cast made the most of their different characters and situations, and delivered lines that simultaneously wove multiple, complex narratives and relationships that crackled with the human and political issues raised by the current ‘reorganisation’ of the NHS, and which were of course relevant to every audience member. It was a challenging as well as very moving experience (as was noted from the floor afterwards)

The play is hopefully raising awareness of the issues arising out of the latest Tory NHS reorganisation (read Cuts, fragmentation, privatization, deterioration, damage)[i] to a wide audience across the country. One young woman said afterwards that she was one of those who always assumed the NHS would be there. Many audience members stayed behind for the post-performance discussion with the cast, which could have extended further into the night, as individuals rushed to speak, comment and share experience.

Post performance discussion.
I came away quite distressed and awoke in the very early hours the following morning with thoughts racing round my head. A sense of desperation and frustration prevailed. On the basis of my experience of the post performance discussion the previous evening, I emailed some of the following thoughts to friends / NHS activists I knew would be attending the play the next evening:

  • There is likely to be at least one person who shares their story of how the NHS ‘killed’ a loved one and/or failed to provide effectively for someone / those affected by dementia. This is of course disturbing for everyone, and hard to manage within the context of such a discussion.
  • There is also likely to be at least one person sharing their experience of changes in NHS conditions of service, working practices, as a result of burgeoning privatisation and the Cuts. After one such contribution, I asked the speaker (working in mental health practice) which union he was in, and he waived my question aside, without identifying the relevant union, remarking that they were either rubbish or irrelevant – I didn’t catch which, but I got the gist.
  • There will be those admitting (some shamefacedly) that they had not realised what was happening, what had already happened. And how were they supposed to know?[ii]
  • There will be those affirming that they definitely do not want to lose the NHS to privatisation.[iii]
  • There will be those who wish to share their vehement refusal to vote for the Labour Party.
  • There will be those who re-iterate that “all politicians are the same” and none can be trusted, etc..

The logic of the latter views is to step aside and not vote, and let through whoever/whatever. . . . I found this alarming. Their inaction will have consequences for everyone else: and most significantly, people with disabilities, chronic conditions, those on benefits, the homeless, those suffering trauma-related conditions, etc.. I understand the sense of powerlessness and defeatism, faced with a government implementing wide-ranging and destructive policies that none of us actually voted for, but I cannot accept that there is nothing we can do if we act collectively. I cannot accept defeat.

On the other hand, I was greeted with applause when I argued that the NHS was not just a service, that the issues were not just technical or organisational, but that it represents the core values of our society, in terms of what kind of society we want to be. I also found myself sitting next to a young NHS activist. We talked at some length, and she seemed really aware of the dangers.

But there was no time to say that this is not just about the NHS, but that the Tories’ (long planned) aim is to destroy / dismantle / privatise the whole of the public sector.[iv] It struck me that there will be people who do not know what the public sector is (NB its not-for-profit values, and how it was developed in the postwar years), and why it is so important (such anathema) to the Tories in their search for more and expanded markets and sources for profit for their friends and relatives. I did not manage to say why marketisation is wholly inappropriate and dangerous for the public sector; that there are areas of human activity and endeavor that should not be privatized / marketised, such as healthcare, social care, education, probation and prisons.[v]

Envisioning the future, instead of bemoaning the past.
I tried to point out the contradictions arising from comments that lump all politicians as one kind, disreputable, etc., as a reason for not voting, by asking: Did they think voting for Thatcher had made no difference?[vi] Voting for Blair? Voting for Cameron, etc., etc.? I also mentioned the BNP’s Nick Griffin’s squeaky pass as MEP for the NW 5 years ago, because some people who think of themselves as perhaps more ‘political’ than others, decided that preventing a fascist acquiring the status and money that went with the EU job, was less important than asserting some personal vendetta against a candidate/Party who realistically would have stopped him. 

So, my main disappointments and worries were the look-back-and-blame-Blair stance, because it has consequences for now and the future. I don’t disagree with that as a point of view, but find it counter productive in terms of a strategic way forward at this desperate time. It is individual, a private indulgence, rather than a politics; akin to the obsessive, personal blaming you see people stuck in in private life, as they try to ‘win’ the argument about their shared past, destroy the Other, and cleave to revenge tactics that prevent any forward movement, any letting go in favour of a more creative, productive strategy that will actually yield a decent future.

Whatever else he did, Blair poured money into the NHS (as was pointed out) and raised the quality of service provision and working conditions in line with other European countries. The amount of destruction since 2010 under this Tory government, with further plans for lethal next steps, seems more significant for all our futures, than harping on about that particular perma-tanned ego on legs.

But of course it is easier to obsessively repeat those old grudges and griefs, than to put our heads and hearts together to imagine and work (together) for something else. It’s the least skilled, lazy option, as well as the most unwise. Allowing Blair/New Labour to continue to consume our political energies, and thereby block our social and political imagination, including our ability and willingness to build effective alliances between the many constituencies disadvantaged and/or ruined by this government, is immature, unproductive, socially irresponsible, and a total gift to the real opposition: the Tories and those they will always represent [vii]

On reflection, what was disturbing on this occasion was the sense that I was witnessing a wholesale retreat from collective action: unions are rubbish or irrelevant; the Labour Party ditto; electoral process ditto. Well, let’s all just jump off the cliff now, rather than bother to try to impact and change any of these institutions. It felt like proof positive of the success of the neoliberal individualisation / fragmentation agenda. Alternatively, shopping, even if short-lived, will anaesthetize us, will suffice as a life substitute: less demanding, intellectually, emotionally and organizationally. And offering instant, uncomplicated gratification. . . . while we can afford it.

The historical rightwing scam has long been to get people to vote against their own class interests, to vote to be ruled and managed, by voting for the Right (the Masters). In the wake of the last 30+ years of neoliberalism, as more people in the UK retreat from identifying with each other socially and politically, beyond individualist, ethnic and/or nationalist identities and consumerist categories, the easier that rightwing agenda becomes. And the neoliberal discourse of ‘choice’ masks corporate coercion as it encourages social competitiveness and fragmentation, at the expense of social cohesion and political solidarity. As a society, as a people, we need to get our act together and quick.

[i] See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (2012) NHS SOS. How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It.
[ii] See Colin Leys & Stewart Player (2011) The Plot Against the NHS.
[iii] They might like to read Roger Taylor (2013) God Bless the NHS: The Truth Behind the Current Crisis.
[iv] See Oliver Letwin (1988) Privatising the World.
[v] See Michael Sandel (2012) Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
[vi] See
[vii] To draw on consumer culture for an analogy: if there is no toothpaste that suits your taste and you find them all unacceptable for some reason, what do you do? Refuse to compromise and make a purchase? Let your breath smell and your teeth rot? While feeling good about your ‘ethical’ stance and superior taste . . . .


auto/biographical narrative, critical self reflexivity & intersectionality

              Auto/biographical Narrative,

              Critical Self Reflexivity &



Who am I?
How do I identify myself?

Is this a matter of preference, ‘personal choice’?
Or is it ‘given’? Or maybe a mix?

Is your identity ‘simple’?
Or complex?

Singular, multiple, hybrid?

Fixed or fluid?

Are there aspects or features of my identity
and/or positionality that matter more than others?

To me and/or to others?

Do I control this process?
Or am I subject to it?

Does my identity fuel or determine vested interests?

Does it bring with it social, cultural, economic or political
privilege or power?

Either generally, or in specific social settings and environments?

Does it bring with it social, cultural, economic or political
disadvantage or stigma in this society?

Or in specific social, cultural, economic or political
contexts and environments?

How does your autobiographical narrative and identity as a
woman or trans feed into, determine, problematise
and/or nourish your feminism?

Is this process personal or political?

Or both?

               Who am I?

Is my answer to this question simple or complex?
An assertion

Is your answer tentative or adamant?
Celebration or defiance?

A measure of uncertainty,
bewilderment, even defeat?

A plea, cry for help or re-assurance.

Is it a ‘complete answer’ or
something in the making?

Who are you?

Signals interrogation, confrontation, challenge or friendly inquiry.
Perhaps an invitation to move closer, to share secrets.

Approach intimacy and alliance. Co-creativity.

The feminist problematic is both joyful and uncomfortable; painful and often gruelling. For as women we live at the centre of a contradictory, complex reality, and this is heightened, not simplified, by feminist consciousness and values, which draw attention to our differences, in the cause of social justice, while we also seek out common or relational ground, the possibility of mutual acceptance, reciprocity, friendship, intimacy, collaboration and alliance. Trust. Not sameness, but a degree of solidarity that amounts to social and political power.

And in societies in which gender power is organized to influence, control and dominate ‘woman’ as a signifier within a heterosexist political economy, the category ‘woman’ is the most difficult of all around which women themselves can organise as a political force. In a patriarchal society, the invitations and coercions to do otherwise, to remain compliant, are all-pervasive, insidious and well funded.

For the powers that be, it pays to keep women divided, distrustful of each other, and disorganised; to create the conditions in which we will monitor, judge and disempower each other. That birdie on the shoulder that represents a woman’s fear of heterosexual men’s disapproval or rejection; the desire for that male approval, which allows her to betray a sister.

We internalise this stuff from childhood and can spend the rest of our lives disentangling our minds and brains and hearts and bodies from all that ‘noise’. And we cannot do it alone; we need other women around us and on our wavelength – mothers, friends, daughters, colleagues, partners, lovers, co-activists, strangers (in all their variety and difference) – to create a climate of possibility (can do), and laughter to keep us going, as we devise new ways of being, living and doing. In my experience, these are women who make you think, feel, laugh and cry till you ache!

Intersectionality is an ugly word for a crucial discourse that combines empathy, social and political analysis, and personal/political commitment. An incomplete checklist embraces:

  • both self awareness and social analysis
  • cultural and political knowledge
  • power differentials and inequalities
  • structures and relations of social injustice
  • complexity / hybridity / multiplicity
  • understanding that no woman is singular – we are all multiple and hybrid
  • and born into hierarchy.

It entails lifelong learning. There is no ‘destination’, no ‘arrival’. Just a shared journey.
It means living with uncertainty, bearing it.

And not starting from the position of: “I know” and/or “I am right”.

val walsh/12 04 2014


[i] Part of a contribution to the panel on ‘Women, intersecting vulnerabilities and inequality’. Engaging with Gender Issues: A Knowledge Exchange with Women’s Community Groups Workshop, Day 1: 08 04 2014. Blackburne House, Liverpool. Convened & organised by Charlotte Barlow, Dept. Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology, University of Liverpool.

COMPASS-NUT Education Inquiry (18 01 2014) Conference follow-up. Extract


  • Preamble
  • My educated self
  • Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process
  • 2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities
  • Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.

It is, as several people observed later, a great pity that Tristram Hunt did not arrive in time to attend the introductory session, ‘My educated self’. He would have found out a lot that is relevant to his responsibilities as Shadow Minister for Education, and it would have better prepared him for his subsequent interview, and perhaps helped him respond more convincingly to participants’ questions, comments and concerns. As others noted afterwards: where was the evidence of his passion for education and what it can do for children and adults, and in particular for those disadvantaged by life circumstances not of their own making? He sat in the midst of several hundred attendees (practitioners all?), who all know so much, have so much experience of education in the UK (as ‘products’ and practitioners), and who care so passionately about education and its fate at this time, faced with the wrecking ball of the Tory-led government and its dire Education minister, Michael Gove. We have so much to offer a Labour government that wishes to take the side of the people and salvage something positive from the wreckage the Tories and the Lib Dems will leave in their wake. This day-long Saturday event was part of this process.

Everyone in the room on the day was in considerable part evidence of their education (because education is that powerful and enduring in its influence); and each could provide testimony on reflection, as to its value and its failures; the obstacles and the achievements; the joys and sorrows. Critical self-reflexivity is a well established process / methodology for researchers and practitioners of all kinds now, and it is in this spirit I have made my own contribution to the Inquiry, of which this is an extract, expanding on my brief contribution from the floor in the opening session on the day:

My educated self.
I have been fortunate. My education narrative is a generally happy and fruitful one. I loved school from the off and at all levels: I achieved joy in learning, sharing and helping others at infant and junior school, which further developed into a sense of adventure and intellectual challenge at my grammar school. Here there were opportunities outside the official curriculum, for example for drama, formal debating, music and art. And within the timetabled curriculum, in the later years, there were several non-subject-specific slots allotted for ‘discussion’. So communication, research and creative skills (oral, listening, writing, performing, making, doing, critical thinking and reflection, investigating) were variously fostered, and by teachers who were overwhelmingly stimulating, well organised, good humoured, supportive, and generous with their time and attention.

Learning and memorising were also important across a range of subjects, but always contextualized and relevant, rather than as rote learning as preparation for a test. Education was not just about learning stuff, but about expanding horizons as well as skills; of doors opening on the world of knowledge and culture, and the self.

Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process.
The importance of role models is often over stated, but looking back I see that my years at school provided a number of these, and I benefitted throughout from a culture of encouragement and challenge. My favourite teachers were not just intellectually stimulating, but people with personality and a sense of humour, those I could identify as human beings as well as teachers. As my son would say in 2001, just after his 17th birthday and a month at Liverpool Community College studying music, when I asked him what he thought made a good teacher (he had had brilliant teachers in infants and junior school, as well as at his comprehensive + several duds): “It’s not just that they make their subject interesting. They are interesting.”

Looking back in my twenties, I came to understand my educational experience as a creative process (aided by early American research and writing on creativity that enabled me to recognize myself within its narratives and theory, and get over the binary western split between thinking and feeling that I had been so aware of during my years at grammar school). And there were inspirational writers / theorists / activists (mainly American + Paulo Freire) who helped me forge my own philosophy of education, experiential learning and creativity, and to understand the importance of the social and political contexts of education for all ages, including what we now refer to as the social determinants of education, health and wellbeing.

As a child and young person I had witnessed and benefitted from good practice; I had noted poor or bad practice; I had subsequently reflected on both; and as a creative and politically conscious person, I sought to go further in making a difference as an educationist.

2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities.
Sitting within the embrace of the COMPASS-NUT conference opening session, ‘My educated self’, listening to the stories / evidence of others, and responding to the question posed to us: ‘What would I tell myself then about what I have learnt about education now?’, I found myself reflecting on what was missing from my own very good education, which is even more relevant in 2014 and beyond. Here is my list of priorities (unranked):

  • First and most obviously, I was taught nothing about my own history as girl and woman, in my own country / society and within the larger world. I had to start to piece this together in my twenties through reading and postgraduate study. I would now identify this as an absolute right and necessity as part of the education of all children and young people.
  • Second, I identify the importance of the history of the Labour movement and the trade unions as a right and necessity within the school curriculum for all children and young people. This too I began to piece together in my twenties, although with a Labour and trade unionist father, I was more knowledgeable about class struggle than I was about women’s historical feminist struggles.
  • Both the above open up for consideration a range of social, cultural and political issues pertinent to individual pupils and students, and societies today, contributing to the development of research skills, critical thinking, social and personal awareness, and a basis for understanding the crucial relation between the ‘personal’ and the structural, including concepts such as internalisation, mediation, subjugation, oppression, dominance, empowerment, power. These are essential for personal survival in C21, as well as a healthy, functioning democracy.
  • Third, only in retrospect can I name my worst experience at school in my teens: bullying at the hands of white working-class girls in my own year. This language was not available at the time, and though not religious, I had already internalised the moral imperative of ‘turning the other cheek’ to attack or injury, and this is what I did. I would not fight back. I endured the repeated experiences (bullying always involves repetition) silently and on my own, discussing them with no-one, including my parents. I attempted to maintain dignity and carry on, hoping it would pass. It was only years later that I could identify the name-calling and shoving as bullying. Similarly, today, girls and boys benefit from the availability of the discourses of sexual harassment and (sexual) abuse (of power), which can help them seek help, set boundaries and keep safe. Without the language we remain unable to describe or understand our lives and experience, in particular the negative or traumatic.[i]
  • Today, I hope that the culture in schools, colleges and universities is moving beyond ‘bystander’ culture (itself an important concept), and includes teachers and other staff sufficiently versed in the needs of those who are bullied, to both prevent bullying happening, to notice when it is, and to provide effective support when it does. It must be a whole school / institution commitment and ethos. These are not ‘technical’ skills, and require CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for staff, facilitated not by bureaucrats, but by activists / artists / practitioners in the equalities and child protection fields.
  • Fourth, the social and political movements of the C20 and C21 that have challenged racism, homophobia, misogyny, social class disadvantage and prejudice, for example, have changed UK society for the better in ways that are significant for how we might now identify the function and philosophy of education. To prevent the unravelling of these achievements (which seems to be the aim of the current government) requires understanding, commitment and everyday action on the part of the populace, as individuals and as constituencies. This cannot be achieved and sustained within education without staff who are fully aware of these issues, and confident in their ability to act appropriately in their roles within school, college and university. For everyone, children and adults, this process of understanding (consciousness-raising) is unavoidably a process of politicization that goes beyond subject specialism.
  • Fifth: probably the most significant and far-reaching change over the last 50+ years is that UK society has become overtly hyper-sexualised and an increasingly coercive and violent environment for women and children: gender power relations now loom as a serious pervasive problem; an obstacle to the health and wellbeing of children and young people (the most vulnerable) in particular, producing a high-risk social environment beyond school and FHE. Scantily dressed or naked girls and women, pouting or twerking to camera, are used to sell almost everything, not least sex and heterosexual norms themselves. Girls and women are routinely objectified and commodified for profit. While adverts, the media, films and videos encourage boys and men to be predatory, dominant, even violent. And now their bodies too are up for commodification. These changes distort and undermine mental health, as well as relationships, as the boundary between ‘reality’ and fantasy, private and public becomes crushed by fear-inducing ideologies glossing ‘glamour’, ‘success’ and ‘celebrity’ as the goals. Many girls bypass education for self determination, career goals and life skills, and instead aspire to be WAGS or simply ‘famous’. And it’s all about sex (appeal) and the body. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently noted: “the sexual landscape has changed and under no circumstances can it be called freedom”.[ii]
  • At the moment, young people leave school and even higher education variously unprepared, ill-equiped and disadvantaged in the face of a powerful political economy that positions them in (mainly) binary opposition to each other (as female and male, masculine and feminine), and without the knowledge, skills and confidence to cope with the consumerist, heterosexist onslaught that works to shape and determine them as avid, dependent and sexual consumers: the market the neoliberal capitalist economy requires to make its profits.
  • Sixth: In particular, the perceived problem of sex and sexual relationships, now further complicated by the digital economy and social media and expanding opportunities for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and young people, requires an educational response that goes beyond ‘sex education’. In these charged and disturbing circumstances, ‘sex education’ is not the answer (as Cosslett and others have suggested); whereas Media Studies, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies begin to look like basic educational rights and necessities, rather than subject options. But how do we staff such programmes, when these subjects have been systematically plundered, derided and closed down over the last 20+ years in our universities?[iii]

Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.
The neoliberal, consumerist attack on children and young people (and the rest of us) prioritises sex and sexual identity as all-consuming, overriding concerns, and is part of a process of depoliticisation and distraction from the real issues and enemies; part of the “there is no such thing as society” rhetoric. It is a politics, not just an economic position, and therefore requires a politically conscious response by both the body politic and our education system. To be fair and just and meaningful, education cannot be ‘neutral’ in the face of these forces and the ensuing damage to individuals and to society.[iv] We have for too long had an educational system (and a society) that has left social inequalities in place. In 2014, those inequalities, and the damage and despair that ensue, are being flaunted and re-enforced as ‘natural’, ‘right’ and ‘necessary’, by a government  bloated by privilege, indifference and a venomous sense of superiority. As one academic, who has done more than most to expose the extent, function and consequences of inequalities in societies, has observed:

“We have an educational system that is designed to polarise people, one that creates an élite who can easily come to have little respect for the   majority of the population, who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else, and defines the jobs of others as so low-skilled that it apparently justifies many living in relative poverty.”[v]

In his inaugural lecture this week, as Halford Mackinder professor of human geography at Oxford University, Dorling boldly hit the spot:

“The 1% are disproportionately made up not of people who are most able, but of those who are most greedy and least       concerned about the rights, feelings and welfare of other people.”[vi]

From my experience as a mature postgraduate Sociology student in my twenties (while working as an art teacher in two London comprehensives); later as a Women’s Studies student, and as a feminist academic with years of experience teaching Art, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and creative writing for women, I know that these are among the educational opportunities that afford development of the whole person (women, men, transgender),[vii] empowering them to better understand how, for example, they got from A to B as girls / boys and arrived at specific sexual and gender identities, as well as the pressures exerted by society, culture and power, including for example, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and social class.[viii] These academic programmes are among the ‘Studies’ that Thatcher loathed, because she knew they changed lives, put real power into the hands of ‘ordinary people’ disadvantaged and disempowered by society’s arrangements and structures.

In addition, in a democratic society that has signed up to the values and practices of human rights and social justice, children and young people need an education that provides an understanding of democracy itself, its value and distinctiveness, and what it needs for it to be sustained and maintained: i.e. an educated population, willing and able to participate.[ix]

And in a fair and just society that purports to promote an equalities culture, within which disablism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, social class prejudice and other ‘hate’ agendas are both illegal and culturally unacceptable, the education of children and young people needs to openly confront and engage with these issues, in preparation for life beyond school and FHE.

The question of ‘difference’ cannot be left to the media and other vested interests to define, control and foment.

Being a citizen in 2014 and beyond, as opposed to being defined simply as a consumer or subject, means something more complex than before. More political. Education must rise to that challenge. And this too has implications for the CPD of teachers, academics and other staff in education.

  • We must design and implement a state education clear about its core values; an education that supports democracy via human rights and social justice, mutual respect, the encouragement of creative agency, environmental awareness and understanding, and the (mental) health and wellbeing of both individuals and populations.
  • Essential to the process outlined here is the value placed on education itself within and by society and its members, including its governments, and not just a narrow definition of education for employability and the economy.
  • Education should not feel like a joyless imposition, but a creative opportunity, a springboard. For this to prevail, people must feel a sense of belonging and self worth. This is a collective achievement.[x]
  • For many working-class children and young people this is still not the case, and in some of their families and communities, education is perceived as ‘Other’, as inimical and irrelevant to their own class culture and communities.

Governments have a social responsibility towards the education of the people, rather than simply promoting the interests of the rich and powerful, attacking teachers in state schools, and deriding, determining and controlling the work of artists, researchers, academics and other professionals, such as lawyers and journalists (perceived as dangerous intellectuals). The responsibility of the latter must be to be sufficiently dangerous to the prevailing enemies of the people and our society at this time.

val walsh / 07 02 2014

[i] When, on my first visit to France at 19, staying en famille with my pen pal’s family for a life-changing 6 weeks, after writing to each other since the age of 13, towards the end of my stay her father chased me round the dining table when no-else was around, trying to grab and kiss me, again I told no-one, including my parents, until many years later I shared the memory with my adult daughter and women friends, by which time it could be told as an amusing anecdote. He was, after all, in loco parentis for those 6 weeks. How could I tell my friend (his daughter) or her mother (his wife) at the time? How could I tell my mother or father on my return? Or ever. Imagine their horror. I saw the consequences of disclosure/exposure as worse than the incident itself. I was shaken, and perhaps also knew that I might not be believed, and could even be blamed, his word against mine. It felt sordid, but is nothing compared to the experiences we now know children and young people have been subjected to by predatory older heterosexual men in what was (still is?) a climate of sexual laissez-faire.
[ii] Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (28 01 2014) Porn’s influence is real. Sex education is the answer. The Guardian.
[iii] Jake Beckett (01 02 2014) responding to Cosslett’s article (28 01 2014) in a letter to The Guardian shares his concern (as a recently retired science teacher required to teach reproduction but not sex education): “It was obvious that boys had been watching porn by the questions they asked”, and he suggests that what is needed is “an outside agency that employs teachers, actors or other suitable persons . . . to deliver theatre and talks that engage pupils and encourage discussion about a topic that is damaging their ability to judge what are normal relationships”. He notes the difficulty that many older teachers have addressing these issues.
[iv] A similar argument can be made for eco-awareness and environmental values to be embedded within the culture of schools, colleges and universities.
[v] Professor Danny Dorling (04 02 2014) Our education system is designed to polarize people, to create an élite. Guardian Education.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] And I would add Drama, Literature and making music to this list for schools.
[viii] See Mary Kennedy, Cathy Lubelska & Val Walsh (1993) Making Connections: Women’s Studies, Women’s Movements, Women’s Lives. London, Taylor & Francis; Walsh (1995) ‘Eye witnesses, not spectators / activists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’ in Katy Deepwell (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies: 51-60. Manchester, Manchester University Press; Walsh (1995) ‘Transgression and the Academy: feminists and institutionalisation’ in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds.) Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change. London, Taylor & Francis: 86-101.
[ix] Attending a Co op Education conference in Cardiff last year, I saw inspiring examples of how cooperative schools practise democracy, as well as talk about it.
[x] See Walsh (1996) ‘Terms of engagement: pedagogy as a healing politic’ in Morley & Walsh (eds.) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education. London, Taylor & Francis:187-207. See also ’What is education for?’ and ‘Differential educational achievement’ in articles & statements section of Also, in the photos section of are several photos of an NUT installation at Labour Party conference in Brighton (09 2013): an ‘apple tree’, where each apple contains a statement from a conference attendee, in response to the question: “What is education for?” Tristram Hunt should take a look at this as part of his research and preparation for his future job.


LIVERPOOL X: On the day and on reflection.

Having posted ‘Liverpool X: meditation on an invitation’ (19 11 2013, the night before the event, I turned up early the following morning at the main venue, Camp and Furnace.

The theme of the opening session was: Who are we and what makes us different? The plenary speaker was followed by a panel discussion. Contributions (questions, comments, etc.) were then invited from the floor. I thought it was important to raise the questions of the programming, participation, representation and ‘gender balance’ (as it was later referred to) as early in the day as possible. I managed to deliver extracts from the aforementioned statement, before encountering hostile audience reactions.

A woman nearby shouted, “We don’t want to hear this!” Then: “I am bored!” A man in the row behind me called out that I should give the mic to someone else. At this point, the Chair, Rob McDonald (Architect and Reader in Architecture at LJMU) felt pressured to ask me to finish quickly/immediately, which I did.

Something was achieved, in that there were subsequent references by panel members in later sessions to the issue of ‘gender balance’ on the panels and in the programming. I doubt this would have happened if I had not brought up the issue early on. For example, Bill Gleeson, the Business Editor at the Liverpool Post, speaking on the panel discussion, ‘What’s Liverpool for?’, recounted how he has attended numerous different functions and meetings over the years, and at all of these 90% of the attendees are white and male. This, he pointed out, is a problem.

Later, I had several friendly and supportive conversations with other attendees. In addition, two of the organisers (a young woman and a young man) approached me separately. They both agreed the issues I had raised were important and seemed pleased that I had spoken up.

I was told that they had tried very very hard to involve more women as speakers, and they mentioned several names as examples. These women had all declined the invitation to participate as plenary speakers. We shared our disappointment in the conversation.

I must admit, this problem had not occurred to me. I had assumed, as per usual, that too few women had been asked in the first place. They said, “there is a societal problem”. But in the light of this information, on reflection the societal problem reveals itself as more complex than at first glance.

Suitability, availability, willingness.
Women’s refusal to participate in a high profile public event is too easily seen along the familiar lines of: “women (or a n other under-represented and/or stigmatised constituency) don’t apply”. They lack the initiative / confidence / talent, etc.; i.e. classic blame the victim, so society needs look no further into the ‘problem’. As a result the ‘problem’ remains incomprehensible and intractable to those in power / in charge, and definitely the ‘fault’ of those lesser ‘refuseniks’.

I feel an echo here of the evident reluctance of BAME individuals in the City, to participate (at all or in any numbers) in events organised by whiteys, or even events organised by a member of their own community, but open to others too (such as Writing on the Wall [WOW] events). Only Slavery Museum events seem to bring them out in numbers. Part of me understands that historically rooted reluctance (but it also makes me sad). Was this, I wondered, also a clue to this Liverpool X situation?

These organisers had mentioned the problem of finding women in the city region who were “at a suitable level” for the event. This felt like another clue. I pointed out that if that is your fixed criterion, you will simply reproduce the existing problem. To break through, you have to get outside the box marked ‘at the top’, i.e. prominent public position / power / status, and agree a more qualitative basis for those invitations.

For example, artists (especially women artists still) as practitioners, are unlikely to occupy those high status, conventional power positions, and be running organisations (as opposed to projects), yet they may be among the most creative and productive members of local communities, artistic or otherwise.

This will also apply to other constituencies, such as BAME individuals. I later drew attention to the lack of BAME participants (on the panels or in the audience), as another indication of the event’s limitations, in particular when talking about ‘everybody’ and presuming to speak in terms of ‘we’.

As it happened, two women artists spoke from the floor in later sessions. I know them both and I have followed their artistic and community practices for many years. I am both friend and fan.

Nina Edge and Jean Grant both have long track records working in the city (and elsewhere) within and with communities, in addition to their gallery work. Both have the ability to communicate orally with diverse audiences; both are politically conscious human beings / citizens, equality-aware, creative initiators. It occurred to me that each could have given an original, thought-provoking, insightful and relevant panel presentation or plenary. They are experienced workshop facilitators and conference presenters beyond Liverpool, including Europe and the US.

But they are women artists, and while they show no slowdown in their creativity and commitment, they are no longer young. And Nina is (I quote her) “dark” (being of mixed heritage). In this conventional, male-dominated culture, apparently insensitive to issues raised by sexism and gender differentials, ethnicity and racism, and/or ageism, these two talented women may therefore be identified as low status, marginal. An outrage! And although they have both lived in Liverpool for many years, and brought up their offspring here, they are not ‘born and bred’ Liverpudlians, this being a significant, publicly claimed identity in the City, not least in the spheres that framed and underpinned this particular event: the arts, culture, creativity, media, politics, and business.

I thought about the women mentioned by the organisers, who had been invited and declined. All ‘originals’, having set up and developed hugely successful and original organisations, projects and businesses. Like Nina and Jean, women who are creative, community-minded, equality-aware, as well as hugely talented in their fields.

These refuseniks have, in their different ways, created new interfaces with Liverpool as a City and its communities, and they have done it in the face of and in spite dominant prejudices (racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia / lesbophobia). Their work has opened up new intellectual, psychological and cultural spaces, as well as organisational and business opportunities. Significantly, their style of working privileges team playing, collaboration, collectivity, etc..

These are women with flair, whose leadership is not just functionally significant, but fosters the talents and opportunities of others in and beyond their own immediate sphere of influence, thereby subtly helping to shift the culture of this still male-dominated city. But perhaps that’s another clue. They have been transforming now / creating the ‘not now’ (to use Roger Hill’s nice term for the future on the first panel discussion) for a good few years. And without interference from men, as any men involved are already part of the social and cultural transformation these women have helped engender / the not now.

Institutional disadvantage, overload, misogyny.
Women in general are time poor (as well as being poorer than their male counterparts, for example because we have not yet achieved ‘equal pay’ in many sectors). Women work multiple shifts (with or without offspring and/or dependents, and/or partners); routinely multi-task across the boundaries of un/paid work / voluntary work / community involvement / families / relationships / careers / campaigns, etc.. Women are much less likely than their male counterparts to have ‘staff’: wives / partners / PAs / assistants / chauffeurs, cleaning or childcare support, etc., to alleviate the multitasking complexity of leadership / co-creativity / domestic partnership / caring / parenting, etc., so obstacles to participating beyond the ‘normal workload’ go beyond time, labour and the diary. (The latter was mentioned by the organisers as an explanation for women’s non participation.)

But the problem of women’s ‘invisibility’ at the top table is not just the problem of numbers: i.e. not enough ‘senior’ / powerful women, etc. to choose from. It’s the problem of cultures: in communities, in workplaces, in organisations, businesses, trade unions, universities, in the City Council, that discourage, disempower, intimidate and undermine women.[i] The experiential reality for women can be as unrewarding, isolating and grim in the conventional workplace, as in the conventional home, if these are environments untouched by equality awareness and feminist values.

At worst, misogynist cultures destabilize and damage, so that women withdraw, pull out, run off (or hunker down, deteriorate and worse). For there is no academic or professional qualification (other than a women’s studies course) that can prepare women for these hostile environments; that can sufficiently equip the girl or woman for the sexual harassment, sustained misogyny and spite[ii] (however it gets dressed up, even in a frock).

And the 30+ years of neoliberalism have intensified this problem, by divorcing social mobility and economic advancement from feminist values; by promoting individualism and competitiveness; by objectifying bodies and commodifying sex as instrumental public performance and spectacle. All at the expense of girls’ and women’s (mental) health and well being, quite apart from our self determination, creative agency and courage.

Nancy Fraser, long term American feminist, has drawn attention to the problem of neoliberalism, not just for women, but its affects on feminist positions. She fears that

“the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-  market society. Feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms”.[iii]

And she returns her readers to the goal of severing

“the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice”. [iv]

The burgeoning across the City of Liverpool of activist groups and community actions in the face of the current ConDem government’s onslaught on the very fabric of our society, indicates a level of local awareness of Fraser’s call to action: that participatory democracy is fundamental to community, recovery and social justice.

Meanwhile, Melissa Kite, contributing editor of the Spectator, urges women MPs, faced with a working environment many describe as “unbearable”[v], not to run away from the problem, but to “man up”.[vi]  Faced with male politicians whose behaviour is described as often “childish and offensive”, she bemoans the fact that “female politicians don’t seem to know how to handle them”, implicitly blaming women for their lack of ‘expertise’ in coping with what might more accurately be described as much worse than “childish and offensive” behaviour. (See my observations above and footnote 2 below.)

Sarah Stennett, amongst other things, the boss of Turn First Artists, an organization that supports and manages artists in the music industry, is “a successful woman in a sexist business”.[vii]  Sony Records Chair, Rob Stringer, describes Turn First Artists as “the alpha-female music company”.[viii] Stennett is well aware of the difficulties the industry presents for women: “In this business, sexism is rife”.[ix]  She “adds cautiously” that it is no worse than any others.[x]  And, confirming Gleeson’s observation at Liverpool X (cited above), states:

“Once you get into the higher echelons of any business, women are absent.”[xi]

Re-watching BBC4’s Queens of Rock,[xii] the early footage of Marianne Faithfull and Dusty Springfield provides evidence of how the music industry and society treated, shaped and exploited these singers in the early stages of their careers: as girlie / ‘sexy’ / dolls, meant to epitomize full-on (heterosexual) “femininity”. And retrospectively, we (and they) have asked: At what cost? Both women came to take control of their identities, selves, careers, and as older women have created barnstorming creative legacies, shaped by their talent and knowledge as musicians, as well as their intelligence and experience as women (including grief and disarray along the way). Not to mention the stamina required for their journeys.

Beyond mono-culture: creativity, diversity, equality.
To return to the Liverpool X event: perhaps it was, rightly, identified as a men’s project, not just because of the percentage of men involved from the off, but because its familiar language, themes and pre-occupations (re. being edgy, radical, different, progressive) are those of Liverpool men involved in the arts, media, culture, politics, who count themselves as edgy, radical, different, etc..

And there may be generational factors too, as some of these men hark back to earlier, more ‘radical’, more ‘subversive’ times. So nostalgia may also have played its part in the emphasis in 2013 on “What shall we tell the world about ourselves that’s relevant and original?”[xiii] Sounds a bit parent/child to me: a plea for approval from big daddy. . . ?

But between 10 00 and c17 00, when I left, (5 hours before the last session), there was little sign of caring about the internal, more local conversation, across the city region, between different locales, communities, constituencies, interest groups: the conversations and actions that forge, bind and sustain us as a mini-society, a distinctive community that embodies a sense of belonging and relevance beyond both historical differences, divisions and power differentials, as well as the various newly established ‘Quarters’ of our increasingly tourist-oriented city centre.

Perhaps too, the conference format itself, with ‘star’ / celebrity plenary speakers and panels of ‘experts’, is the wrong shaped bottle for any new cultural and political wine? Too hierarchical, too monocultural, too conventional, and seriously undernourished by the diversity of the City itself.

Sarah Stennett (who grew up in Liverpool), stating the obvious (but no less important for that) observes, in relation to her own professional roles: “People fulfill their potential when they’re not scared and feel supported”.[xiv]  And it seems that increasingly women realize that that supportive, creative environment is to be found with (mainly) other women, for example, in feminist-inspired women’s groups, organisations, projects.

Stennett’s words leave us asking why would any woman choose to enter a working environment she knows will throw rocks in her path because she is a woman? At the same time, we do not want to vacate major fields of professional, community and artistic involvement, and leave men in control. If a woman has a choice of something better, she will surely steer clear of non-facilitative, undermining work environments, where she cannot be herself or fulfill her potential. If she does not have that choice (and most do not), then she needs around her as many supportive sisters and pro-feminist men as possible, to help her ride the storm of life, work, career, etc.. To be relevant, and part of the solution, Liverpool X needs to address some of these issues in any future events.

val walsh / 04 12 2013

[i] See ‘Sexism in activism. What’s the problem?’ (10 10 2013) and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’  (14 10 2012) In essays section,
[ii] See Louise Morley (1999) Organising Feminisms: The Micropolitics of the Academy. Basingstoke & London: Macmillan Press.
[iii] Nancy Fraser (14 10 2013) ‘How women became the architects of neoliberalism.’ The Guardian. And Fraser (2013) Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Verso Books.
[iv] Fraser (14 10 2013).
[v] Cited Melissa kite (29 11 2013) Man up, women MPs’. The Guardian.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] Caroline Sullivan (02 12 2013) ‘Interview. Sarah Stennett. It’s a very scary business for solo artists.’ The Guardian.
[viii] Ibid..
[ix] Ibid..
[x] Ibid..
[xi] Ibid..
[xii] 29 11 2013.
[xiii] See Liverpool X programme notes.
[xiv] Stennett, ibid..


LIVERPOOL X: meditation on an invitation.

The publicity for this event on 20/21 November 2013, in the form of an emailed invitation to attend is printed in a small font in pale pink and green on a solid black background. I fear for my ink cartridge, wondering how many pages of ordinary print I have just used up in printing this out. So no points for awareness regarding either these avoidable costs to individuals, or the document’s readability score for those with a visual impairment or dyslexia, for example. The art, design and marketing team seem behind the times regarding such equality / access issues, which are very much about being in touch with the real world in 2013. I guess the black background is meant to make it feel ‘edgy’. I start to read the information on the first page, and my heart begins to sink in a way that is all too familiar.

“This is an event about practical creativity, entrepreneurialism and fun. It’s   about who we are, where we are going and how we express ourselves in a way that is different, authentic and inspiring.”

I wonder who the “we” is, being used to the idea that it is important not to use a generic and unspecified “we” when speaking, but to say who “we” are/means, as opposed to presuming to speak for others without permission.

  • The “we” here seems to have someone / some constituency / some overarching entity in mind: Liverpool residents, citizens, the general population?
  • Identity is foregrounded and it feels as if it is clear and unitary, as opposed to diverse, multiple, hybrid, even uncertain.
  • Identity seems to be linked to the assumption of a journey, a trajectory, mobility, which in the context of a shrinking economy, a battered public sector, social security famine and rising levels of severe poverty and hardship, represents privilege. Mobility has always been a sign of privilege, but since the economic crash and the advent of the Con Dem government, social, spatial and geographical mobility are fast becoming luxuries, not just privilege.
  • Then there is the emphasis on the desirability of being “different, authentic, inspiring” . . . . In the economic and political context touched on above, is this a discourse of excess and/or fantasy? Or again, privilege?

The invitation promises:

“It will involve 24 hours of exhibitions, performances, debates and   master classes (sic) from those who are making and re-inventing the city’s identity.” (Emphasis added.)

  • There is clearly a perceived problem with the city’s existing identity (image?) No doubt the evidence for this will be shared, explored, analysed and evaluated.
  • How is the city defined and understood here? As buildings, as a physical place, as social and cultural spaces? As architecture? Activities? As historical narrative? As a civic entity? Or as a tourist attraction, a money-making venture (business), a consumerist paradise, especially for visitors?
  • Sounds like a ‘rebranding’ process is deemed necessary. Who decided?
  • And how do we people / citizens / residents / workers / communities / voters fit into this? Are we part of the action (for change)? As pawns or players?

This invitation conjures élites in action: those already deemed excellent / important / superior, by the organisers of Liverpool X, presumably on the basis of previous performance and achievement.

But without denying their excellence, their expertise, my caution is that this puts into their hands something beyond their individual prowess or previous remit surely:  the “making and re-inventing (of) the city’s identity”. As if it is ethically, politically and culturally a legitimate task to outsource to hired hands: professionals / consultants. And, apparently, men.

 Once I had read the first page of the initial programme, including information about the introductory speaker, Paul DuNoyer, with a male Chair; followed by the first panel discussion: ‘Who are we and what makes us different?’ (3 male speakers and a male Chair), I read on with a feeling of increasing despondency:

  • The next panel discussion, focusing on the economy in response to the question: ‘What is Liverpool for?’ is all men (5 of them), chaired by a woman.
  • Next is a panel of 5, 4 of them male, with a male Chair.
  • Phillip Blond follows as a main speaker.
  • Panel discussion of 4 men, 1 woman, chaired by a man.
  • Another main speaker, Stephen Bayley.
  • Panel discussion, 2 women, 2 men, chaired by a man.
  • Panel discussion, all male and chaired by a man.
  • Film screening of a Terence Davies film.
  • Panel discussion: Rewind. 3 men.
  • Will Alsop, the architect, is billed as the final act.

So in 2013, Liverpool offers an event with 33 male speakers and 5 women (one a Chair). I suggest that the programming itself is evidence of the problem in this city, and the issues raised by this male dominance demand examination. At a point when local community, political and academic events have started to field more diverse panels of speakers (as opposed to the unrelenting routine of public meetings fronted by an all white, older male line-up), this team, largely drawn from the cultural sector and business, show how it’s business as usual: mates and best mates.

I am speechless and disheartened. It confirms all my protests over many years at more public events than I can count, about the issue of representation, diversity and gender balance. And in this respect it fully echoes the programming of public events, whether Policy Provocations or Science and Society, organised by the University of Liverpool, as well as the Roscoe Lectures, for example, also over many years. As one friend observed gloomily on seeing the programme: it’s getting worse, not better.

The programming suggests that women have next to nothing to offer to the city’s creative identity and process, and even fewer rights within it, whether as citizens or creative agents for change. It gives the impression that our place is not just at the margins, but inside and out of sight. Without power or influence in the public domain. And the male organisers did not notice and/or mind that this was what they were putting in place. Social, political and cultural dinosaurs, what circles do they move in?

So I will take time out to attend some of the sessions tomorrow, to listen to some of the 33 men and 5 women, in order to see just how ingrained inequalities are in Liverpool, how entrenched the divisions between women and men, and how distanced the arts and business are from Liverpool’s diverse communities and people’s real lives.

val walsh / 19 11 2013