I was really intrigued when I read about the Bradford feminist discussion and action group in Marion’s zine ‘Who’s That Bitch?’ earlier this year. Although the group no longer exists, Marion, Julia, Sally and Judith, all members, agreed to share with The F-Word some more information about it.
Could you give a brief introduction to the Bradford Feminist Discussion & Action Group, for someone who’s never heard of it before?
Marion: The group was an idea of Judith’s, who had been in a similar group in Germany. She wanted to discuss feminist texts in a small, friendly group, and to link discussions of patriarchy to racism and capitalism. The idea was to have a group of people who got to know each other well and therefore felt comfortable around each other, but it didn’t really work out like that, since different people had different commitments and couldn’t always make it. The actions came later, when we got so inspired after reading an extract from Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, that we decided to do something about it. (Other texts we read and discussed included Gender and Nation by Nira Yuval Davis, and The Drama of Being a Child by Alice Miller…)
When did the group start? Is it still in existence?
M: Well I don’t think it really exists anymore (except in our hearts… individually) because a lot of us left Bradford (including me) and it wasn’t really practical. But like I said, I think we are all still members in our hearts and minds! I can’t remember the exact time it started, except that it was sometime in autumn 2001, and it tailed off in spring/summer time 2002.
Where did the idea for the group come from? e.g. Are there other similar groups in existence (are there any in the UK?)? Have you been involved in anything like this before?
M: It was Judith and Julia’s idea and they took their inspiration from a group they were in in Germany although you’d have to ask them about that! I don’t know if there are any other groups like ours around in the UK but it would be good to know about (get in touch!). We all acknowledge the consciousness raising groups of the 60s, although none of us are old enough to have been around to experience them. Personally I’ve never been in a group like this before.
Who initiated the group and how did you find members?
M: Judith sent an email out to everyone she knew in the area. So most of the members were people who already knew each other (but not me, I only knew Judith and Julia, and I made a lot of friends through the group). People brought along other people that they knew. We also advertised around the University but only a few people got in touch. There were a lot of people on the mailing list who received the notes from the meetings via email, but who never attended.
Did you publicise the group in any way?
M: Yes, we put posters and flyers around the University and advertised at some events at the 1in12 Club (a local anarchist space), but we didn’t get much response. I think we could have definitely done more. I would if I was thinking of organising a group again, or restarting the old one.
How many people were in the group and what was the range of ages? Were there men as well as women in the group?
M: Yes there were three or four men (three attended regularly, one only once). Most of us though were women. I think the oldest person was 36 and the youngest 18 (me) but I could be wrong. The usual range was 20-30, so not very varied I suppose. But we did have a range of perspectives because of coming from different countries and backgrounds (German, British, Israeli/American, Swedish, Japanese…) and I think that was a strength. Also some of us were parents/guardians and some of us not, some of us gay/lesbian and some not, some of us disabled and some not… Although of course we were all similar in background in the sense that we were nearly all white… and we all already had an interest in feminism and anticapitalism, otherwise we wouldn’t be there I suppose. Plus most of us were students or ex-students.
How regularly did you meet and where (e.g. someone’s home, in the pub, etc.)?
M: At first we met every week, but then changed to every other week because it meant more people could come. We always met in somebody’s house. We started by rotating whose house it was, but then decided to keep it at the same one to make it easier – especially for Heather because when we had it at her house it meant she could come after her son was in bed (no need for a babysitter). The only time we didn’t meet in a house was when we arranged an action in the town centre.
What happened in the meetings? Were they structured in any way? e.g. did you plan topics to discuss in advance, did someone act to promote discussion?
M: Yes, we took it in turns to suggest a text to discuss for the next meeting. If it was agreed then that person would photocopy about 10 copies (this is about the biggest number who ever attended, although sometimes it was as few as three, but that didn’t matter much to me). They would leave the copies in a folder in the Fair Trade Cafe, where a lot of us would pass regularly. This didn’t always work! For example, the copies wouldn’t be there in time, or they wouldn’t be there at all… but when it did work it was great because it meant we all had time to read and digest the text before-hand, and hopefully come up with some ideas for discussion. Anyone who didn’t manage to do that (sometimes all of us) would read through the text at the beginning of the meeting and we would always wait until they’d finished (although sometimes chatter was distracting!). With one or two texts that we found difficult, we read them out loud together (in turns). This made sure everyone understood.
Then we would establish a note-taker or two to take down brief notes on what the discussion covered. We all took it in turns to do this except for those of us with problems writing eg dyslexia. Then we would go round the group in turn and each say some introduction like “i’m feeling tired tonight, but i really enjoyed the text” or “hi, i’m … and i’m nervous because i haven’t been here before”, or just whatever we wanted to say. Nobody has to (!!) say something in the rounds, but everybody has the space to say something. Then the discussion was thrown open. When we felt that the discussion had come to a good end-point (although usually there was far more to discuss! and to find out), or if it was getting too late, we would agree to disperse, but not before having a round like the one at the beginning, and arranging a time for the next meeting.
After the meeting, somebody would type up the notes and email them to the group. The discussion was still open via email.
Our action meetings were similar in structure but without the text obviously.
What kind of action has the group been involved in and how did it go?
M: We had all sorts of plans! We wanted to make a video asking people in the street what they thought about feminism, and one about George Bush’s mental health (!). But the only action that actually happened, was that we made some stickers with slogans like ‘you’re worth it as you are’, ‘drop the cosmetics and smile’, ‘this isn’t a woman, it’s a myth’ and ‘someone is trying very hard to make you feel bad about yourself’ and stuck them on magazines and billboards in the town centre, that we found to be propogating beauty myths (discreetly of course!). I felt that that went really well in that we didn’t get caught! But I don’t know how people reacted. We put an email address on every sticker, for feed-back, but nobody wrote. If just one person stopped to think though, I think we succeeded. We also made some for men’s magazines like Loaded and FHM, with applicable slogans. Sorry I can’t remember them right now! That was less successful of course because there was only one man on the action, and us women felt very selfconscious (and some of us disgusted!) picking up men’s magazines.
Would you recommend that others set up similar groups, and why?
M: Oh yeah, because it’s so inspiring and like, vindicating to talk to people about these things. People who are actually listening, for a change. In my day to day life, if I talk about feminism I feel like I’m hitting a brick wall. Of course it’s not good to isolate yourself but on the contrary I don’t think we were, I think we were breaking down barriers. Because we were all thinking these things but not communicating them. And it’s always good to exchange and verify ideas. You get so much more out of reading with different people’s perspectives to compare, and also when you can relate people’s different personal experiences. The discussions often ended up having nothing to do with the book but I think that’s good. I learned SO much more than I would’ve done had I just read them alone. I started thinking about all sorts of things I’d never thought about before. And being around other people encourages you to act on those thoughts, rather than just think them. It provided a base for thoughtful organisation and action against a patriarchal capitalist system, and I think if we had been together longer we would have done a lot more. Even without that though, a couple of us have remarked that it ‘changed our lives’.
Sally: I was a participant who hasn’t found the time to help put together the rest of this interview, but I would just like to add to Marion’s commentary that this discussion group really affirmed me in many changes I wanted to make, and made me feel like a lot of my reservations about the status quo were real…In the aftermath of the discussion group I cut off my hair for starters, also finally reported an abusive experience to the police, ended a relationship I was unhappy with : this wasn’t just academic debate to me. In fact it was a refreshing change from the superficial, treacherous reasoning of much contemporary culture, and I know other members of the group felt the same way.
Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of setting up a group? Is there anything you’ve learnt from the experience that you could pass on? e.g. With hindsight, is there anything that could have been done better, etc?
M: Well, see above. There are plenty of things. Advertise, and welcome people from a diverse spectrum (including men, unless you specifically set out not to). But I think it’s good to have a fairly closed membership after the first few weeks, so that people already know each other and feel more confident in discussion. You can do it the other way too though. Don’t have any kind of hierarchy – we did fine without one. And if one person constantly comes through as a leader, I think that should be challenged. Some people will always be more confident than others and that’s a problem. But we tried to target it in a number of ways. Basically just do what feels right and comfortable for you.
Judith: Make a clear beginning and a clear end at every meeting. Although the structure of an end and a beginning circle feels strange for people who don’t knew that method before, it is quite important for a non hierarchical structure. Also important – (and that is one of the reasons I think, why the group wasn’t continuing in the end) – is to meet continuously and that people are reliable. That means that they say reliably if they are coming to the next meeting and if not that they tell the group. That goes together with Marion’s suggestion to have a relatively closed group – so that you know who is coming.
Anything else you want to say about it:
M: I think you’ve exhausted me for now. I should mention that these are only my views and not neccessarily the rest of the group’s (most of whom are too busy to write but were excited about the interview!).